Lost and Found
Words Shan Routledge
Some may think it’s mad to embark on a journey from the northernmost Hindu temple, Shankaracharya, in the Himalayan foothills of Kashmir, all the way down to the southernmost Kanyakumari Temple at the tip of India.
“There’s no place in the world that has spirituality so deeply entrenched in every form of culture as India,” says Grier. Surely there’s no other explanation for why a human being would push his body to such limits, in a faraway country—battling politics, Delhi belly and harsh terrain.
But Grier sets the record straight and explains the challenges and rewards of this 93-day journey and what he and his team found after nearly 4 000 kilometres.
This was not your first expedition. How did it all start?
No, it’s my sixth! It all started way back when I began looking for certain things in my personal life and trying to find out more about myself and the effect I was having on people. As a South African, I just stood back, reflected and thought: “I’m gonna shut up. I’m not gonna moan and complain, I’m gonna put up my hand and I’m going to do something.” It’s not a question of saying and moaning; it’s a question of showing and doing.
I use adventure expeditions as a tool. People are suffering from donor fatigue: Everyone is knocking on doors and wanting this and that, but this is a way of engaging the broader public. Through doing this event, one captures the imagination of the people.
Tell us a bit about the charities you work with, and how running across India helps them.
I work with Cipla’s Miles for Smiles: We do the miles to create the smiles. Through these trips, we create awareness, which leads to fund raising. Through all these journeys we have done, and other adventurers who have also joined Miles for Smiles, we have helped facilitate close on 2 000 surgeries.
What inspired the trip to India?
I think, from a Westerner’s perspective, we always go to a place like India to search for that deep entrenched spirituality, the ancient wisdom, and just to see how people who have nothing cope and how they accept what they have in life. With such a mass of people, they somehow deal with it. The different religions—Muslim, Hindi, Christian—all live in harmony and have this respect for one other. I think I was searching for that as well, that harmony.
I love running; it is a form of mental calmness and meditation. From a physiological point of view, you get into a zone where the body just floats and it is perfecting the mind and body working in unison. To be calm mentally and physically and achieving that calm motion, just coming in sync and carrying on for however long you are challenged to. It is its own sort of harmony.
How did you choose your route?
On these journeys, you know where you are going to start and you know where you want to finish. On previous journeys, I have tried to plan what happens in the middle—but you can’t. You have control over the first step and the last step, but everything in between takes its own course and depends on conditions of weather, it depends on route, mountain ranges, lakes and rivers. With all these obstacles, you just have to track the shortest possible way through them. It’s nice because you don’t know what tomorrow holds.
The crew members who have been with me through most of these journeys understand how I work and are constantly tracking and re-tracking. When we map a day, there are different things we look at: water, terrain, altitude—which we try and sync with roads. We have to try to bounce off water, go to villages for supplies, but also find the most direct route because on foot you have no obstacles—you can run it, climb it or swim it. Sometimes, getting the car around the country is the hardest part and I won’t see it for a week or two weeks at a time!
Ninety-three days is a long time—where do you find provisions and equipment?
We arrive in a country and we buy whatever we need, from cooking and camping equipment, food and the vehicle. We stock up the car when possible and live like locals.
In my rucksack I never carry food, maybe just a tin of sardines. The longest I have been without food is three days, and I just push on. You are running about 50km a day and you just carry on, a bite of banana here and there. There was a stage when Nick [Heygate] and I had one tin of sardines between us per day for a week, and the one tin gave me food poisoning! It becomes as much a mental game as a physical one when you have to go without food for so long.
India has by far been my greatest mental challenge. I wanted to give up three times; I ended up in hospital after my bladder ruptured, then it happened again—and I just wanted to give up. There were so many things that went wrong, that I really didn’t think I was going to finish this expedition. But luckily, the crew got me through it.
What is the biggest challenge on a trip like this?
Sickness. We worked out that we functioned at no more than 60-65% of our total potential throughout the trip. We had this handicap where 35% of our ability was taken out because of illness. There wasn’t one day that one of us wasn’t sick and vomiting or suffering from a tummy bug; not one day that someone in the crew wasn’t sick. And it came in cycles; we would laugh, but then a few days later it would be someone else and you weren’t laughing anymore. Even Nick, who claimed he was from Durban [and immune to tummy bugs], eventually fell prey!
But no matter what, you have to keep moving; you cannot stop because then you lose that mental strength. Even if it’s just 3km down the road, you have to keep moving and keep positive because, as soon as you give in, it’s a massive chink in your armour, in your mental game.
What was it about this trip that made it different from your previous journeys?
Seeing the demise of humanity around me and seeing how people cope and come to terms with it, no matter what it is. It had an adverse effect on me, seeing people who were dealing with their difficulties. I felt that, mentally, I wasn’t able to cope with what was going on around me. The combination of this and illness gave rise to a mental fight within myself—until I met people along the way who said certain things to me and gave me back that mental strength and a new self-belief.
I had just come out of hospital and could hardly move, when a guy said to me: “You are suffering.” I started crying and broke down right in front of this old Hindu priest, and he said: “My friend, if you have reason for why you are suffering and what you are going through, then you are no longer suffering because you have reason.” And I remembered the cause and why I was there, and that I chose to be there. That was the difference out in India: There was mental fodder to feed me.
What logistics are involved in going around a country while running 45km a day?
You live, touch, eat, feel, smell the culture every day. You are immersed in the culture and the country. We sleep in the villages, in shacks, in tents along the road. We live like locals, we eat their food, and we learn all the tricks. That is the only way you survive on the road like this, and are able to move those distances like we do—you become a local.
What were the spiritual aspects of this trip?
There is no place in the world that has spirituality so deeply entrenched in every form of culture as India, so it touches you all the time. Every day and every hour you pass a mosque or a shrine. There are more than 1 000 gods, and every day you pass people carrying a little tree-god or rock-god; little groups of people and migrations of spirituality. And the cows! All dressed up. It’s all around you, and you can’t help but be spirituality affected by it all.
You lost 23 kilos! How do you prepare your body for that?
You can’t prepare yourself; you are basically eating your own muscles.
What was your favourite part of India?
I don’t think I really have a favourite part because it is so different. You have Kashmir with the mountains, the snow and the rivers that are a crystal-clear glacial blue; into Rajasthan with the desert and its beautifully dressed people and the forts and castles—so stark and contrasting; then you have Maharashtra and the mountains; and then Goa and the ocean opens up next to you. So it was an amazing, rewarding journey in that sense. I love the ocean and I love the mountains, but Rajasthan probably stuck with me the most, as it is in beautiful disrepair.
You had quite a few run-ins with local authorities—how did you handle those?
We were picked up eight times by the local authorities—on the first night and it just became worse. We were accused of everything from robbing an accident scene to gunrunning. The locals would report us and say they saw us stealing stuff or selling guns, because they would get rewards for tipping off the police. But you just have to deal with it.
One time the team told the authorities I was a famous South African cricketer and that I was running to join up with the Indian Premier League. The next day we were invited to a cricket tournament and I had to hand out the prizes at the end of the day! Andy [Stuart] and I even had to make a speech: He pulled out a speech about Gandhi and Madiba. From villain to hero we went!
In your book India: Lost and Found, you write about a lady you met on the street, an “untouchable”. How did she affect you and your journey?
She summed up so much about life for me. She was from a lower seventh caste and I wanted to give her money. She said she didn’t want money or anything—she just wanted my hand. So I gave her my hand and she pulled it against her chest and looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “At the end of the day, all I want is love, appreciation and acceptance.” These were all the things she had been denied as part of the seventh caste. That’s what I left India with: this thought that all we need in life is love, acceptance and appreciation. As low down and humble as she was, she gave me the deepest insights. That’s India. It’s the people—the incredible, loving, wise old people—who have such ancient wisdom.
Back to the beginning
Grier is now training to run North Korea, South Korea and the Great Wall of China in reverse—ending where he started 10 years ago.
More miles for more smiles
Another The Intrepid Explorer contributor, Chris Bertish, is the newest Miles for Smiles ambassador. “I am honoured to represent such a worthy cause… I like to try and inspire people into believing in what’s possible, no matter the adversity or struggle, or obstacles you are up against. If you truly believe it and have the courage to try, anything is possible,” he said as he geared up on 6 January to break the 24-hour stand-up paddleboard world record by attempting to paddle 170km in one day from Cape Point to between Saldanha and Paternoster on the Cape West Coast, in association with Miles for Smiles. (Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t play along and the record attempt had to be postponed.)
Source: The Intrepid Explorer