Ryan Sandes: The Adventurer

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Adventurer

Ultra trail runner, Ryan Sandes, shares the incredible story of his record-breaking adventure across the Greater Himalaya Trail

' I treat races as adventures rather than fitness tests.'

Ultra trail runner, Ryan Sandes, was the first person to win all four races in the 4 Desert Series and in 2013 became the first person to ever win an ultra trail race on all seven continents. At the beginning of 2018 Ryan and his friend and fellow adventurer, Ryno Griesel, set a new trail running record on a section of the Great Himalayan Trail through Nepal. This is his story...

Adventure is what drew me to trail running. I’ve always loved venturing into the unknown, so I treat races as adventures rather than fitness tests. The Greater Himalaya Trail (GHT) was the ultimate adventure I hoped to do one day. An epic mountain trail spanning the Himlayan mountain range, it would be the toughest challenge I had ever taken on. My buddy and fellow trail runner Ryno Griesel wanted to do it too, so we talked about it and decided to make it happen. Nine months later we were tackling the GHT together.

Running with someone else there’s the realisation you aren’t just looking after yourself; you have to also look after your partner, and you don’t want to let them down and vice versa. That was a concern. When you run on your own it’s much lonelier, but having two people doubles the risk of injury.

Growing up in Cape Town we didn’t have access to big mountains, so we were outside of our comfort zones in the Himalayas. I was intimidated by the high altitude. Another concern was whether I would be able to go the distance. And finally, being away from my family for so long was quite a daunting process, especially having a young son.

'I did a lot of gym and strength work to help maintain peak performance over the course of days, not hours.'

Physical Preparation

A lot of people ask how I prepared to run the GHT. The truth is I started preparing the day I started running. My whole life was a gradual build-up. Accumulating mileage on my legs over the years and completing other long projects all helped. As for the actual physical training for this, I did a lot of gym and strength work to help maintain peak performance over the course of days, not hours. 

Running the GHT was going to take a lot of time – 24 days or more – so I focused on strength training to try and bulletproof myself to handle the continuous pounding over that period of time. I had some altitude training, plus we headed out to the Himalayas a bit earlier to acclimatise, both of which definitely helped.

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'I started to second guess myself, wondering why I had decided to do this selfish and pointless thing. That was literally the first hour of the attempt.'

A Shaky Start

When we actually got started there were a few scary moments, but one incident really stands out. It had been a really late winter that year in the Himalayas, but we were fixed into our dates so had to start. On top of that there was a big snowfall the night before we were due to set off, so when we hiked out at 4am the next morning up what was already a very sketchy pass with ice shelves and a steep camber we really struggled.

We didn’t have crampons or ice axes because we didn’t realise to what extent the effect of the late winter would have. We’d spent six days hiking in so there was no option to head back and fetch some extra gear. Totally out of my comfort zone, those first couple of hours at the start of the project were super nerve-wracking. I can clamber around rocks no problem, but it was icy and snowing. Sliding around, I found myself panicking.

The evening before, while it was still light, we had trekked down to the town of Hilsa where we were going to start. We could see the massive drop-offs on the pass. If you fell you were looking at a 2000-3000m drop. The pass was super sketchy with the trail winding round a snowy, icy edge with zero room for error. Remembering that, I started getting flashbacks of my son and my wife and my family. I started to second guess myself, wondering why I had decided to do this selfish and pointless thing. That was literally the first hour of the attempt.

It was so scary because you just know that it’s touch and go; one mistake and it’s game over! At the time you’re mostly just in the moment, but looking back at those situations now makes me realise that it could have ended very differently and I simply wouldn’t be here writing this today.

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'We were in the middle of nowhere running for our lives when I tripped and fell.'

Another near death experience

Right toward the end of the attempt, we were going through a village at around 2.00am when we were ambushed by four or five men on scooters. We thought we had gotten away, but they had turned off their scooters to try and catch us on foot. We were hiding in the bushes and thought everything was fine so started tracking back up to the mountain trail when these guys jumped out and started chasing us. I literally thought that this was it. We were in the middle of nowhere running for our lives when I tripped and fell.

I remember thinking, ‘this is it’ but I managed to forward roll, land on my feet and keep running. Fortunately, we joined onto a mountain pass that was like a main road and managed to run all down to the safety of a military outpost. I get the feeling that it would have been game over if those guys had caught us.

'Getting enough calories was a constant challenge.'

Nutrition strategy

Survival wasn't just about avoiding deadly drops and angry men. Getting enough calories was a constant challenge. We had organised drop bags of food for five points along the trail, but we were mostly reliant on whatever we could get from the local villages, which consisted of a lot of rice. If the area was frequented by more tourists we might get lucky and find a bit more on offer such as dahl.

On the second half of the route – once we'd dropped down a bit in altitude – we got our hands on treats such as chocolates and cookies. In hindsight, if we could do things differently, I would definitely have stuck more to the rice as I ate way too many chocolates and sugary stuff. It was fine for a little while but my gut and stomach really started to feel it by the third and fourth week, which took its toll. In fact, my stomach was a mess after the attempt and I’ve actually had to change my diet quite a bit since, cutting out dairy, gluten, red meat, nuts etc. This proves too much sugar can do lasting damage, especially if you’re hammering your system for an extended period of time.

'One night we even slept in a monastery with a monk. If he hadn’t opened up his doors for us we might not be here today.'

The importance of sleep

Sleep was also a big priority. Initially, we were aiming to sleep in the villages where we could or wherever we could find shelter for about four hours at night. Toward the end, especially the second half of the attempt, we were just sleeping wherever we were for just one or two hours a time. The aim was to just keep moving. We would sleep on the trail or find a small village and sleep wherever we could find such as cowsheds and even toilets!

In our pre-attempt preparation we did some map work and plotted places where we could sleep but when you’re there and, on the move, everything just changes and sometimes in the remote areas where we thought there would be villages actually there just weren’t any so sometimes, we just had to keep moving. One night we even slept in a monastery with a monk. If he hadn’t opened up his doors for us we might not be here today.

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'All adventures seem super easy when you’re at home plotting a route on a map, but they’re way more hardcore when you actually do them.'

Crossing the line       

In the end, we managed to achieve the fastest known time, covering a total of 1,504 km in 24 days 4 hours and 24 minutes. It was a life-changing experience for me; the ultimate adventure. It was much harder than I expected both physically and mentally, especially factoring in all the setbacks that we had, it was quite gnarly. I’m always one for saying 'just take it one step or one day at a time'. But in reality, to keep doing that out there over a long period of time, was mentally very tough.

All adventures seem super easy when you’re at home plotting a route on a map, but they’re way more hardcore when you actually do them. That’s the beauty of adventure!

Follow Ryan on Insta and check out his website to learn more about his amazing adventures.

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