RYAN SANDES – Drakensberg Traverse Interview #DrakTraverse


Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel embarked on the ultimate Drakensberg adventure – the Drakensberg Grand Traverse.

Spanning parts of the Free State and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces of South Africa, as well as the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, the unmarked route has broken many an adventurer.     Griesel and Cobus van Zyl set the previous Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT) record, of 60 hours 29 mins.

©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA

©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA


Fighting the elements and the terrain, Sandes and Griesel brokee the existing record by an incredible 18 hours to complete the traverse in 41 hours and 49 minutes on 25 March 2014. (Intro by Kelly Burke fluxcom.co.za)

I had the opportunity to catch up with Ryan just hours after his finish to discuss the epic adventure and ground breaking run.

Images ©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA


IC I bet you are a little tired?


RS Just a little Ian, I’m deprived of sleep but I have been catching up. I ‘m really pleased with how the DrakTraverse went. It was an awesome experience and adventure.


IC This attempt has been followed worldwide, 2-years in the planning, can you give us an insight into what this has meant. In particular Ryno, he held the previous record.


RS The Drakensberg Mountains (Dragon Mountains) they are the biggest mountain range in South Africa. They are iconic for any mountain sport. The thing with them is that they are extremely remote and very difficult to get too. The Drakensberg Traverse is a journey from one side to the other.  Starting in the north, we finish in the south. Along the way you have six peaks to traverse and several checkpoints. You have to self-navigate and be self-sufficient. There are no proper trails, so basically you have to make your own route. The terrain is brutal. We did plenty of recces over the final 6-months to decide on the best route and that takes a great deal of effort. Ryno has grown up in these mountains and he knows them really well. For me it was important that I came and understood the mountains and the terrain. I wanted to spend as much time as possible here to figure out what the terrain is about. It was an emotional experience to cross the finish line; it has been a dream for both of us. To see it all come together is great.


IC The previous record of 60:29:30 as you said was the first time anyone had approached this with a ‘faster’ approach and of course Ryno was involved in this. Ryno and Cobus put the record at a new benchmark; however you guys have smashed that! You ran instead of hiking, you had minimal sleep, you travelled very light, the record now stands at 41:29, is that a solid record or do you think ‘we’ could go quicker?


©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA

©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA

RS I’m sure it would be possible to go a couple of hours quicker, however, everything would need to align. We did the best that we could and we had brilliant weather conditions. We were very lucky. I’m not going to look back and say we could have done this, or could have done that. We are both really happy. So many factors come into play with a record like this, you can get really fast runners that on paper should do really well but with this course so many factors come into play, luck being part of it! I’m amazed at how un-runnable the route is. Certain sections you can run quite quickly but mostly the terrain is brutal and unforgiving. I looked at this as an adventure as much as anything, it’s nice to have the time but the journey was the most important thing. The concept of starting in one place and finishing in another place and completing the traverse is what matters.


IC Some of the photographs (Kelvin Trautman) that have been publicized are stunning; they really show the terrain and the beauty. I also know The African Attachment were filming, when can we see some footage of the journey?


RS We will have some footage available early next week I think? Everyone will work hard to get this done ASAP. I think the actual video of the whole project will be coming out in 6-weeks or so.

Video Here


IC That’s cool, boy, they have a few long days and nights ahead.


RS For sure!


©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA

©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA

IC An early image showed you going down the chain ladders traversing a sheer rock face. The terrain is crazy as you have said, how beat up are you both?


RS We did the chain ladders at night. I don’t enjoy heights so I was please to do them in the dark. On the recces we did them in the day and I ‘froze-up’ a little. The terrain is tough but I don’t feel too bad. My feet are pretty battered and they are sore but generally all is good. I have a few hotspots, my toes are swollen, my ankles are sore but that is all down to the unforgiving nature of the terrain. You are constantly running on sharp rocks or boulder hopping. The camber is difficult and that is continually hard. I think we both came out pretty well when all is considered. I would always prefer physically tired over mentally tired. The sleep deprivation was very tough. I struggled both mornings with a lack of sleep and I had the sleep monsters.


IC Ryno has a strong adventure racing background so he is used to 6+ days on the edge. Did he push you?


RS I think we complimented each other very well. I was nervous beforehand that Ryno wouldn’t let me sleep but we both decided on a power nap of 30-mins at the same time. But I couldn’t sleep. I was cold. I tossed and turned. We had no sleeping bags because we wanted to travel so light… that frustrated me. Later we managed sleep after 2-hours more running. Just 10-mins. It’s so cold that you can’t sleep any longer. A powernap is quite incredible. It was a new experience but that is what I wanted… I wanted a new challenge, something that would push me mentally and physically. I got what I asked for! Funny, during the night I could hear helicopters and I could see reflections in the water but it was just my imagination.


©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA

©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA

IC The high point was 3482m at Thabana Ntlenyana, was this also the toughest part of the course?


RS For me it wasn’t the toughest part for me. We had many peaks to climb; some of the harder sections are in the final section. Smaller peaks but you are going up and down. The second last climb is just a vertical rock face that lasts 800m or so, it was fine in training but extremely tough during the event after 190 km. In general I really enjoyed the course and the severity. I tried to take in as much as I could. We were so lucky with weather, no rain at all! I’m at the finish now in a hotel and thunderstorm is raging…


IC Without a doubt, on that terrain in those conditions, rain alone could cause serious problems. You both traveled extremely light. You both had just Salomon S-Lab vests. Can you give us an insight into what you did carry?


RS For sure, the idea for us was about going fast and light. We wore shorts, t-shirt and visor. Obviously shoes and socks and we carried 2-jackets each. I find that 2-jackets are warmer when it gets really cold. My hands can get cold so I had 2-sets of gloves, a thin pair and a waterproof pair. We had a space blanket (bivvy style) between us… a large one that we could both get inside and keep warm if required. I am sure Transgrancanaria guys will be happy about that…!


IC You had to get that one in?




RS I also had a first aid kit, sun cream but mostly we had food. It probably accounted for 80%. We had to be fully self-supported so we carried everything and took water from streams. I had some bars, chomps, a few gels, peanuts and some Red Bull shots. I think I took too much sweet stuff; I couldn’t face it in the latter stages.


IC That is often the case in longer events; the longer the event and the more you crave savory food. Did you purify the water?


©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA

©kelvintrautman ©redbullZA

RS We just drank from the streams. We chose flowing water. We were really high up so it’s fresh. You can get cattle so I suppose it was a calculated risk. If it’s flowing you are usually ok.


IC 204km in a time of 41hrs 49mins; is it the hardest thing you have ever done?


RS Mentally it was tough. Pushing through the sleep monsters I found difficult. Personally it is one of the biggest things I have ever done. I am surprised how good I feel less than 24-hours later… I don’t think it has kicked in yet. I am not sure the traverse and our achievement has kicked in. It was really challenging at times but it was so new for me that I just continually enjoyed it. I embraced every moment; it was a great 2-days in the mountains.


IC You tweaked your ankle in the first 2-hours. After your injury issues from 2013, how much did this stress you?


RS Yes that was the most worrying moment. Ironically, I fell in the first hour and gashed my hand and then 2-hours later I did my ankle. It was a worrying time and it played on my mind. I became nervous. That is the main thing about that terrain and particularly at night; if anything goes wrong you can be in serious problems. I ran scared for a couple of hours but I settled. My ankle feels good today so that is reassuring. I need a few days with my feet up and then hopefully back to training.


IC I’m impressed that you want to start training again so quickly! This event was about 2 of you. How important was it having Ryno along; he has a great knowledge and experience of this region?


RS For sure, Ryno was instrumental in this journey. I couldn’t have done this without him. His knowledge of the mountains and the effort he has put in is extremely special. To share the Traverse with him has been incredible. Ryno has been over this route for 7-8 years. He has done the Traverse 3 or 4 times now. He has even tried it in winter with half the course covered in snow. We formed a special bond. I am really grateful. We fulfilled a dream.


IC Recovery is paramount but in 30-days or so you will be lining up at UTMF in Japan.


RS Jeez, it’s that soon…




IC I was thinking exactly the same Ryan; it’s not far away. You’ve had a great start to 2014 with Transgrancanaria and now the DrakTraverse, is UTMF a good idea coming so soon?


RS I don’t think it’s a bad idea. I need to listen to my body, recover and then slowly come back. I am not going to get any fitter. It’s just about getting fresh and recovered. I will have some fatigue in my legs but I will be okay I think, I will hold back. I did the same after Transgrancanaria, I only had 3-weeks between that race and the Traverse. That worked well but I listened, the second recovery week I felt flat so I had more rest. I am really looking forward to Japan and the opportunity to run Mt Fuji is great. Then I will think about Western States.


IC Western States is the next big thing. You are going to want to improve on 2nd but you will be a marked man!


RS Yes for sure but WSER is a stacked race. Anyone in the top-20 can win. It’s an iconic race and a great vibe.


IC Great… feet up and start the recovery. Really appreciate you finding the time to speak so soon after the event. Many congratulations to you, Ryno and all the team.


RS Anytime, thank you so much for all the support and for everything that you do for the sport.





Ryan Sandes HERE

Ryno Griesel HERE

Red Bull HERE

Salomon HERE


©Video content,  The African Attachment HERE

©Photography, Kelvin Trautman HERE



6 thoughts on “RYAN SANDES – Drakensberg Traverse Interview #DrakTraverse

  1. Ian fast work getting the interview, I have a couple questions through

    1) why was this run reported as a record-breaking attempt?
    2) why all the media frenzy for a very strong, but far from unbelievable mountain performance?

    The run reportedly ‘broke the record by some 18.5 hours’ however Ryno the previous holder explained he had walked/power hiked the last time.

    Why are we comparing running records to previous walking times? It’s comparing apples to oranges no?

    They didn’t break the running record,they set the running record. Big difference.
    It stands to reason that if Ryno or any very fit mountain runner was to run the traverse they’d do so quicker than a fit athlete could walk it.

    I think it’ll be interesting when the record is challenged by other runners in years to come, then we can talk of records, as we will be comparing runners to runners.

    2) 129miles 29,000ft in 41.5 hrs

    This was a very strong run, no doubt.

    But to the outside world, including most trail runners, even Ultramarathon trail runners it’d seem incredibly slow, unless you understood they were running on wild terrain not trails.

    True mountain running, the way British athletes have always ran in the mountains – as fast as possible up, across and down mountains, ignoring the trails where necessary, after all trails aren’t built for runners.

    Trails are designed for average fitness walkers/hikers to be able to zig zag up a steep hill and thus lessen the severity of the slope, not to help you go the most natural/fastest line either up nor down the hill.

    To see the difference in mentality of trail runners and mountain runners you’d only have to recall the controversy surrounding Killian’s Teton record where he ran straight down the hill, jumping over the switch backs rather than slowing down to run the wrong direction, the route a hiker would take at leisure!

    I only bring up British mountain running, as in terms of epic, off road, off trail runs such as this the Uk is much further ahead. It seems most Ultramarathon running ‘in the wild’ in the USA, Europe and SA is performed on man built trails not rough, tough underfoot mountain terrain, such as that in the Drak traverse.

    Here are a couple links to help non British runners understand the UK mountain running culture/scene.

    They are taken from the irunfar archives, first article explains the history of mountain running in the UK

    The second article, was written by myself and describes what a Mountain Marathon event is.

    The Drak traverse, was completed mountain marathon style, as in they were self sufficient in the hills, carrying food in their backpacks. Although from the sounds of it, no camping gear, no stove, not much but a jacket and energy gels/bars.



    To put the Drak traverse into perspective here’s where British mountain running levels were more than a third of a century ago, in 1979 two British fell runners, both working full time jobs and training in their spare time, with no cash sponsors to help were running at twice the pace of this record.

    Drak traverse: 129 miles 8 summits, 29,000ft ascent/descent 41.5hrs
    Double bob graham round: 144 miles 84 summits, 55,000ft ascent/descent 46.5hrs

    The link here shows details of this run: http://steviebstuff.blogspot.com.au/2007/08/double-bob-graham.html

    The guys ran on very similar terrain, 15 miles further, but almost twice as severe terrain/twice the ascent and descent only 5hr s behind.

    Like I said the Drak traverse sounds like a very solid performance, and they’ve set the record for the run, but it’s almost half the intensity of where British mountain athletes were over 35 years ago.

    There is almost zero financial backing for British ultra runners. The amount Red bull threw at this one event alone dwarfs any financial backing a UK runner can hope to gain from sponsors n a whole year.

    I’m very confident that many of the runners in the UK mountain running scene would break This record today.

    If they had Red Bull backing/serious sponsors and were able to quit their jobs and train full time, as Sandes does they would destroy this record comfortably.

    I’m not trying to sound controversial, or derogatory but just arguing that we should keep it factual.

    The amount of press frenzy surrounding this run just seems crazy, but that’s the power of the Red Bull pr machine, I understand that.

    But the reporting should remain factual regardless of the professional photographers, hype, helicopter film crews and pr buzz…

    1) There was no record broken, only a record set.

    2) This should be shown in context of previous running feats not shown as some pinnacle of mountain running:

    This style of, off-trail truly wild running has a huge heritage in the UK and athletes in Britain are in another league in this terrain

    • Kevin, I have to disagree. It’s about FKT, be that walking, hiking and/ or running. It’s about moving as fast and as efficiently as possible over the terrain. The AT in the US has had many attempts by runners, David Horton, Karl Meltzer and so on, however, the current fastest time is by Jennifer Phar Davies (a fast packer) who covered the terrain faster than anyone without running! Speedgoat is going back this year and he will run/ hike, so it will be interesting.
      As for the Drakensberg, one thing that is apparent is that the trail (or lack of) is very un-runnable anyway. Ryan and Ryno applied a very different approach this time and it resulted in the FKT – walking or running makes no difference – it’s an FKT!
      To say British runners would beat this record is conjecture and comparing it with a double Bob Graham is pointless, they are two very individual routes and courses. Both unique, both offering a challenge. Having been over much of the Bob Graham route and having been to the Drakensberg (once) and seen the images, they are just not the same. To say the Bob Graham is a much better performance; who knows? Maybe it is. For sure it’s incredible but Ryan and Ryno didn’t do the double Bob Graham, they did the DrakTraverse and they smashed the old record.
      I do agree that the UK has a great heritage and on occasion, we have been in another league on this terrain, however to say that ‘we would be’ implies that this new FKT is just waiting to be broken… I’m looking forward to someone attempting it.
      ‘This should be shown in context of previous running feats not shown as some pinnacle of mountain running: This style of, off-trail truly wild running has a huge heritage in the UK and athletes in Britain are in another league in this terrain’
      WHY? As stated, it’s impossible to compare courses, performance and other terrain. It’s an FKT on a course with a previous time that was beaten. It’s a fact!
      Your post and comments are all very interesting and factual but they seem to be more about saying; what if?
      Finally I agree, ‘I think it’ll be interesting when the record is challenged by other runners in years to come, then we can talk of records, as we will be comparing runners to runners’ That I agree with however at this stage, it has nothing to do with the Bob Graham, any FKT anywhere else in the world or runners from any other part of the world.
      For me, it’s about Ryan and Ryno beating a previous best time for the Drakensberg Traverse and setting a ‘new’ FKT.
      I know you won’t agree but hey ho, that’s what makes our sport fun.

      • Cheers for the quick response Ian. Obviously I don’t agree but as you say that makes things interesting and there’s nothing wrong with people having differing viewpoints when looking at the same event.

        I have only seen the images of the Drak but it looked fairly similar to the Lakes, in general however I will take your experience on board as you have been there first hand.

        If the terrain is massively different (other than being half as steep as the lakes) then I guess you can’t really compare the events – In which case I may have been incorrect to do so.

        However when someone walks any distance, over any terrain, then that same person goes back and says this time I’m running, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that they’re faster the second time round, unless off course they were of a speed walking background or a weak runner.

        All the best, Kevin.

      • I agree with the latter. No question. However, having spoken to Ryan at depth, before the attempt and after, one thing was apparent; many had considered covering that terrain ‘faster’ (running) almost impossible. It was Ryno’s experience, 6-months of recce and I guess a little Red Bull finance that made it all happen. For me though, it’s an FKT and it is now a new benchmark for others to attempt.
        Look at the Matterhorn, going up and down used take over a day (maybe-2) now Kilian can do it in under 3-hours. That’s just progression.
        Enjoy the debate and your knowledge 😉

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