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In Afghanistan. Photo credit: James Bingham

Q & A with James Bingham

26-Apr-16

By Luke Jarmey

We love hearing tales of ultra running accomplishments, and even more so if there happens to be a bucket load of good ol’ fashion adventure thrown in for good measure. Well, James certainly ticks those boxes, but it’s also his fascinating and ‘out there’ race direction that tickles our fancy. So sit down, brew a cup of tea and we dare you not to get just that little bit inspired.

Q. So who is James Bingham?

A Tricky question! Well I guess I’m a lot of different things to different people. I’m a 40 year old father of two young kids, who has a pretty normal day job, but also organises some great races and somehow finds the time to squeeze in a few adventures of his own!

Q. I’m correct in saying your background is in mountaineering? Was that addiction to the peaks fostered in Wales? And where has it taken you?

A. Yeah I grew up on Anglesey and had Snowdonia on the doorstep. My Dad was into scrambling and we climbed Tryfan together when I was maybe six or seven. Looking back that was probably one of the most important climbs of my life and no doubt sowed the seeds of future adventures. As a young lad from North Wales I had no lofty aspirations, but my expeditions have now taken me all over the world, from the summit of Everest to the highest mountains of Afghanistan and Alaska.

Q. We’ll come back to Afghanistan later, but do elaborate a tad more on Everest. Why did you choose the North East ridge/North Col route over the South Col? And of course there are many, but tell us about some of the difficulties you faced up there?

A. There were a number of factors. Although the north side is technically more demanding, it is actually safer, with less chance of ice fall/avalanche which is a considerable risk on the south side. The recent events have reinforced these risks with terrible disasters unfolding on the mountain over the last couple of years. Money was also a consideration as the permits are less on the north side. So climbing via the north was safer, cheaper and more challenging from a climbing perspective. For me it was a no brainer. Everest expeditions tend to be long, drawn out affairs. Spending weeks and weeks at altitude can take its toll, both on your body and mind. You need to be patient, listen to your body and know when the right time to push on and most importantly turn back is. Weather and how you cope with the extreme altitude are big factors. I spent the year before training to get my fitness sorted, but that will only carry you so far. It’s a mental game as much as anything and for a lot of people that probably decides whether they reach the summit or not. 

Q. Tying it into running; on a mental or physical level, do you think your Everest experience helped your future ultra running?

A. Absolutely. Whether climbing a mountain at altitude or running an ultra, there are parallels. For me getting to know your limits and knowing when to push beyond or stop is key. This comes with experience and can be a hard decision to make. The issue you have on big mountains is altitude, which makes everything more difficult and dangerous. The reality though is if you get it wrong and serious hypoxia kicks in at 8,000m you may not come back home.

Q. On that note, how and when did the mountaineering lead onto the ultras and piles of worn out trainers?

A. I lived in London and there aren’t many mountains around. I took up running to train for these mountaineering expeditions. Then I realised something – I actually really enjoyed the running. I liked the simplicity of it, the fact that I could go for a run anywhere, anytime and with minimal kit compared to the mountaineering. It was so much easier to fit into my schedule which had become hectic with two young kids. I could even run to the nursery with a double buggy and that’s exactly what I did!

Q. Nice, tell us a bit more about the Marathon des Sables. How did you fare out in the desert? Obviously it’s very different, I mean in terms of terrain and climate it’s almost two opposite ends of the spectrum… but overall as a challenge, how did it compare to Everest?

A. It was five years ago and was my first multi day race. I was sharing a tent with a group of great guys who were much, much better and more experienced runners than me. I had no real expectations at the time other than finishing, but once I started I found that I wasn’t actually doing that badly. Those long back to back days in the mountains, well that was my sort of thing and I quite enjoyed it. You are right, totally different terrain and climate, but when you are running through the night with all your kit on your back, it’s not too different to the mountain trips. Just like Everest, the fitness and preparation will only carry you so far. The mental battles you go through running in 40C through the Sahara sands, or running through the night, well it is all the same stuff and the experiences are transferable.  

Q. Back to Afghanistan, can you give us an overview of your Wakhan 400 run?

A. The Wakhan corridor is a wonderful mountain corridor in remote north east Afghanistan which stretches all the way to the border with China. This pan handle of land, flanked by mountains on either side is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Its inhabitants are mostly nomadic people who live in yurts and are more concerned with the welfare of their families and animals than the troubles you may associate with the region. I’d crossed the base of this corridor on a climbing trip to Afghanistan’s highest peak and was tantalised by what I’d seen. It was around 200 miles to the border with China and I planned an out and back, unsupported run, covering 400 miles in 10 days. My tent mate Phil from the MdS joined me and we carried everything we needed on our backs. We started our run from the local bazaar in Ishkashim, a border town just inside Afghanistan. We camped without a tent to save weight, drank water from the rivers and often ran long into the night to make up the distances. It was a crazy trip and without doubt a great adventure.

Q. That is some running adventure, well done! The burning question though; why Afghanistan? With all the trouble there, surely there aren’t many more hazardous locations than that?

A. A good mate Quentin sent me a text a number of years ago “Fancy climbing the Hindu Kush?” I’d little knowledge of the area then and thought these mountains in Afghanistan and Pakistan would be strictly off-limits given the tenuous security. It wasn’t as simple as that and I discovered that a small number of adventurers had continued to visit the area over the years. Afghanistan is a patchwork of communities and provinces and there are areas which are far removed from the troubles. You need to do your homework, get local knowledge and take precautious. It’s not for everyone, but that is part of the appeal. When we climbed Afghanistan’s highest peak (Mt Noshaq 7492m) we had this incredible mountain all to ourselves for a number of weeks. Didn’t see another soul for the duration of the expedition and you just won’t find that isolation in many places these days. As it turned out we were the first British team to climb Noshaq since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Q. Did you ever feel threatened or in danger out there?

A. I’ve now travelled to Afghanistan four times for various trips and there are always challenges. On one trip we had a kit bag taken which contained a huge amount of equipment. The bag had gone “missing” while being transported to the Chief of the village who had offered to host us for a couple of nights. This placed the team in an awkward position and our local guide advised us to tread carefully as we risked offending the Chief’s honour. Not a good thing to do in a remote mountain village in Afghanistan! As I say, there are always challenges in Afghanistan. I am always happy to leave Kabul, which is a city under lockdown these days unfortunately. A bomb went off when we were leaving the airport last year, but we weren’t that close so we were ok, but it’s a stark reminder of the risks. We travel in small groups, have lots of contacts, wear local clothes and avoid what may be considered obvious targets. It’s never risk free but you can reduce the risks.

Q. Well you clearly handle it well as I now hear you’ve been organising a race out there! First though, tell us about how you came into Race Direction with the fabulous Ring O’ Fire Ultra? (hyperlink: )

A. Interesting you mention that, as it goes back to the MdS and the long double marathon day. I found myself running alone for some time and my mind started to wander. Then the idea of the Ring O' Fire came to me. I spent my childhood on Anglesey, my parents still live there and I knew how incredible the coastal path was around the island. In fact 90% of the coastline is now designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty and there is more than 135 miles of it! I came home and called my mate Q. He’s a good guy to talk to if you have a crazy idea and need a bit of encouragement. Anyway, we set it up together and it’s gone from strength to strength. This summer will be the fifth year and so long as the runners keep coming I promise we’ll keep the fire burning. It’s more than a race and many of our runners have come back year after year now, which means a lot. We invest a lot of our time to make it what it is and most of the support team are friends, family and former runners.

Q. Ok Marathon of Afghanistan… I take it this came to fruition from amalgamating your Wakhan 400 and Ring O’ Fire experience? But still, talk about a difficult working environment! It’s just one of those beautiful, almost crackpot ideas that somehow, someone’s managed to pull off. Really great stuff! 

A. Cheers for the nice feedback – I would say come and run, but we’ve sold out already! Honestly putting this race together has proven to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. There is no way I would have done it without building up my experience both in country with the previous trips and learning the race organisation stuff with the RoF. If we are comfortable on the security we will be back again this year. We have secured some grant funding to help runners from other provinces to join us which is great news. Last year we had the first ever Afghan women run a marathon within the country in its entire history. I hope the event will continue and have plans for the local team to take the lead as it’s their marathon.

Q. Running in Afghanistan with just Phil was one thing, but organising a race and essentially being responsible for the safety of a whole bunch of runners is quite another. How did you manage this? Did you need an armed escort at any point? And how did insurance work for it?

A. Ha ha – well if you can find a broker who will cover me for this please let me know! I needed a few things to line up for it to come together. I knew the owner of Untamed Borders, an awesome adventure travel company, who specialise in arranging trips to remote counties like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. Their experience of arranging trips to Afghanistan helped to put the travel packages together and charging internationals to come and run helps to finance the event and most importantly means local participants can run for free. We had made some good contacts in Afghanistan and this was key as you can’t just turn up and organise something like this without the support of the local communities.  Security is taken very seriously and we had a lot of support from the local police and army who secured the route and closed the roads.

Q. How did you pick the route and how did the event all go?

A. We had a number of route options planned ahead of departure. Upon arrival I investigated the feasibility of these, ensuring we could have checkpoints where we needed them and also being mindful of the most up-to-date security advice.

Q. Excellent, and are you planning on upping the participation for next year or keeping it still reasonably small and more manageable?

A. We hope that more Afghans will participate, especially women and locals from other provinces. We want the race to be as inclusive as possible and the grant funding should help us to achieve that. We will have more international runners this year, but the number will still be small. Unfortunately the situation in Afghanistan means that is wouldn’t be sensible to travel with a large group of westerners.

Q. I also hear your adding an Ultra to the mix! Tell us a bit about this?

A. That’s right. This year I hope to incorporate an ultra distance, so we’ll have a 10K, marathon and 80K ultra. I plan to run the ultra myself, so this will be almost totally unsupported run. I know the route and it really is incredible, so I’m fired up and looking forward to the challenge. It will be great to have some company so I’ll be asking the marathon runners to join me if they are up for it.

Q. Just to wrap up Afghanistan, can you give us a brief overview of your climbing exploits in the region? Noshaq and Mir Samir look like fascinating peaks.

A. Mountaineering in Afghanistan has provided me with a lifetime of memories. The trips to Noshaq and then following Eric Newby’s footsteps on Mir Samir were really incredible adventures with some of my best mates. Going on your own, planning it all yourself, taking the risk and visiting places that were off the radar and untouched, well it doesn’t get much more rewarding. As soon as we left Afghanistan we all wanted to come back again.

Q. Noshaq at 7492m has some serious elevation. It’s 1300m of altitude lower than Everest, but is the climbing perhaps more technical? Also being so much more remote, how did it compare to your Everest expedition?

A. Everest is quite busy and commercialised, although it was still a great trip and the mountain will always have an allure given it’s the highest. Noshaq is a different ball game altogether. You are unlikely to see another person. After base-camp you are on your own. There is no possibility of being rescued if something goes wrong. As a team you have to be totally reliant on each other. For me climbing Noshaq was a far more adventurous and rewarding experience and achievement.

Q. That was the final Everest comparison, I promise! But onwards to an equally inhospitable part of the globe, tell us about your past and still ongoing Bering Strait exploits and about the geographical significance of the Strait?

A. The Bering Strait is a sea strait linking the icy Arctic Ocean with the Bering Sea. The boundary between the United States and Russia extends through the strait, which is about 53 miles (85 km) wide at its narrowest point. There are two islands in its center, Little Diomede (US) and Big Diomede (Russia). I am part of a team who would like to attempt a two way crossing of the strait from Alaska to Russia using human power only.

For the last couple of winters I have been out in Alaska attempting to cross part of the strait between Little Diomede and the west coats of Alaska. This has primarily been to test kit in the strait and gain knowledge and skills ahead of the main crossing. These trips have proven to be hugely challenging and quite dangerous. The Bering Strait is without doubt one of the most difficult environments to operate in. You face moving ice, arctic weather, open water and polar bears.

Unfortunately, this year my team mate and I had to be rescued by a USA Coast Guard helicopter from the Bering Strait while attempting to cross to Little Diomede Island, a distance of about 25 miles. This link probably tells the story best.

Watch the trailer for The Deadliest Journey here.

Q. Am I right in saying you would be the first to make the two way trip under human power?

A. Yes that’s right if we ever manage to pull it off. Aside from the very poor ice and weather conditions we’ve seen over the last couple of years, the big issue is obtaining permits from the Russian authorities. We are hopeful that we will obtain these but have been trying for more than two years now without success.

Q. Great stuff, so what did you learn from that partial crossing that will help you succeed in 2017?

A. We need more time to wait for optimal ice and weather. We also need a big freeze as the last couple of years have been too warm by arctic standards and the ice isn’t forming. In short we need a big dose of good luck to have any chance of success. Such is the challenge of the Bering Strait!

Q. How cold does it get out there and what happens if someone falls through the ice? Do you have a system to deal with that, or is just a case of ‘don’t do it!’?

A. You can expect -20 or 30c plus wind-chill. Falling through the ice is almost guaranteed, so you plan for that. Typhoon kindly provided us with incredible dry suits and we wear these all the time we are moving on the ice. You break through and so long as you’ve zipped them up you should stay dry and warm. Without these suits you would be in a lot of trouble. 

Q. And finally to wrap this all up, you’re bursting at the adventure seams already, but have you got any additional challenges or expeditions planned for the future?

A. Well I’ll be back in Afghanistan later this year for the marathon and then have a climbing trip to Colombia planned in the New Year – subject to my lovely wife signing it off!

Many thanks James!

All images (c) James Bingham.

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