Last weekend over a thousand obstacle racers tested their strength, fitness and resolve at the Yorkshire Spartan Sprint, but none more so than 27 year old James Simpson.
Back in 2009 during James’s second tour of Afghanistan, he stepped onto a roadside bomb and subsequently lost both legs and damaged both arms. This weekend he defied the odds and captured the respect and admiration of the obstacle racing community, as well as the nation, by become the first British double amputee to complete an obstacle course race.
This afternoon I had the great pleasure of chatting with James to find out a little more about his experiences. I also passed on a lot of the Mudstacle community’s messages, so thanks for all of them! Here’s what the main man had to say...
Thanks so much for joining us James. It looks like you had a great time at the weekend! Going back a couple of years, it must have been an incredible challenge for you to even walk again. Had you always set your sites so much higher?
It’s kind of the weird to describe but it’s how I’ve been brought up and taught how to do things; when you succeed at something, you just find the next thing to do. So when I was on my rehabilitation, I set my goals and when I achieved those I started to think about the next thing to do. So I started to walk on my stubbies, then I worked on getting onto my full sized prosthetics and then got running. So you just go from one thing to the next and set yourself little goals.
I see that you used very short prosthetics (or “stubbies”) for Spartan Race, what were the pros and cons of using them compared to your regular running blades?
I trialled using my blades and the only benefit from the blades was speed. You’d have to be running on a track to make the most of them. As soon as you're on a trail you’ll be tripping and falling over the whole time. So we made the decision to sacrifice speed for agility. With stubbies you can stand up and lean over to touch the ground and can be like a monkey on all fours at times, scurrying around the obstacles, it’s far more agile.
It certainly doesn’t look like they’ve got the impact protection of the blades…
That’s right, the blades are really springy. They’re designed to propel you forward, there’s a lot of return on energy. But, with stubbies, they’re just like pads on the end of your legs.
I see that you spent a day with Spartan UK’s Head Coach Michael Cohen, did that help prepare you for what was in store?
I think I learnt more and got more ideas in that day with him than from months of training. We tried lots of different techniques and did things that I hadn’t even thought of.
How did you feel when you lined up on the start line?
I was prepared and felt ready. I was a bit nervous because of all of the build up that went with it. I initially wanted to do it completely off the radar, but then when it got promoted a bit it added… not a pressure… but it added a worry of it all falling apart or unravelling and going wrong. Luckily nothing like that happened.
Were there any obstacle that you were particularly worried about?
Not really because we had prepared how to tackle each obstacle. I knew that everything I couldn’t do alone, we could do as a team. So, I don’t know if you’ve seen a picture of the monkey bars but I just went over the top. Nobody said you can’t go over the top, so I just got there and did it. I couldn’t have done it normally because I can’t put the weight through my left hand.
The fire jump was a tricky one. That was the only one we didn’t plan for, we just thought we’d get there and see what we can do.
Who were the team that you had around you?
They were three of my friends from home. My friend Tom, he’s really into his fitness, then Johnny and Phil, and I’ve known them all for years. So I thought instead of doing it as a military thing it would be nice to ask a few mates from home to see if they were up for it.
Were there any parts of the course that you think you might have found easier than other people?
Going underneath the cargo nets; all I needed to do was lean forward and put my hands on the ground and I was already in a crawling position, so I could just walk through normally. I was naturally a lot lower without having to drag my knees on the floor.
Also, I think with some of the little slopes when we were doing the maze bit in the woods. Even though it was hard work going down and up, I was on all fours going up whereas other people were really having to push the weight through their quads. I was kind-of monkeying up there, which was quite cool.
Were you encouraged a lot along the way by the other runners?
A lot of people when they ran past would give you a bit of encouragement and I’d get the odd pat on the shoulder but I tried to keep out of people’s way as well because I didn’t want to slow anybody else’s time down.
When we did the first 8ft wall, all of the people waiting behind gave me a massive cheer. That was really cool. I got down the other side and I was like “Right! Next one!”, it was a good boost.
They’re big old walls, ey?
Yeh, they surprised me. We had a little technique on the 8ft walls, where two guys would go over and one guy would raise me up and I’d boost myself over and lower myself down where the other two would catch me as I dropped. It was a good technique and pretty simple. Loads of stuff that I’d done before with a military background, I just kind of adapted. I even started showing people how to do the underwalls. People would go through head first and I’d say get side-on and roll under in half the time. So other racers started doing that, which was quite cool.
We’ve had loads of Mudstacle folk giving you tons of respect and congratulations for your achievement. I thought I’d pass on one comment from Sarah Massey who seems to have summed up everyone’s feelings nicely: “Tell James he’s awesome, an inspiration and very good looking ;)”
And we had a question here from Ed Turner: “I passed you on the cargo net climb. Full respects to you James. I have one question though. How did you manoeuvre the fire obstacle?”
It was a good old dive! I was shocked when I came to it. I thought it was going to be higher but I didn’t expect it to be as long, so when I dived over it, I didn’t clear it straight away.
Tom jumped over first and waited for me to come through in case I set on fire and he could pat me down. There was a bit of a set up at that point with a lot of people taking photos and they asked Tom to move out the way of the picture, but he was like no, I’m staying here because if he comes through on fire I’m going to have to put him out!
Richard Crewe commented that you have “mental toughness that most people could only dream of”. What would you say to people who think that they themselves couldn't take on this kind of challenge?
Well, it sounds really basic but… just do it. I walked all the way around and if I can do that, other people can. You don’t have to be the super ninja, really fit, ultra athlete to do it. The Sprint is a good thing for that because you’re starting small. You can just walk through, there’s no time limit. And once you’re signed up for it, there’s no turning back then. You’ve just got to take that first step and go for it. Just do it!
Would you say that you "enjoyed" the experience?
It was brilliant! I loved it. I can’t explain what it was like to be out there doing it. I love that kind of stuff and the challenges. It was so good to be doing that kind of thing after a few years out. Everyone at Spartan is so friendly as well, the guys who run it and the guys taking part, the atmosphere is brilliant. There’s no pushiness, it’s all about overcoming the obstacles and that’s what I really liked about it.
That's what I love most about all of this too, no matter how competitive people take this, there is always that “work together” vibe that the obstacle racing community has always had.
That’s it, and you can’t get that in just normal running. When you’re doing an obstacle course like this and you’re hitting something that you can’t get over, somebody will just appear to give you a boost. That’s what I really like about it. We were helping out other people on the walls and things as well, even though we were on the long slog, everyone puts their hands in and helps.
So how long did it take in all for you to get through?
It took us four hours… it took us one hour to get through the first 3km and we thought, yep, we’ll have this done in another hour, then we hit the mud and it all changed.
I guess you were expecting 5km, right?
That was cheeky. It ended up being 7.1km after being advertised as 5km+. We thought it might be an extra 500m or 800m but not a whole other 2km!
Were you unprepared for that then?
We were prepared for a bit more, but we weren’t expecting that.
I think they’re just a little sneaky like that. Springing a bit more onto people than they expect, to push boundaries! 😀
If it’s 2km on the Sprint, what’s it going to be like on the Beast!?
It’s so great to hear that you weren’t put off though!
No, if anything it’s given me too much of a kick to do something else.
So where do you go from here?
I’ve got a lot to mull over at the moment because I know that there are Supers and Beasts coming up and there’s the Trifecta. I’ve got to weigh it up.
My biggest problem on the Sprint in Yorkshire was the mud. It was alright until we got to the really boggy mud and then it started pulling my prosthetics off. I came out of one of the big long mud crawls with my legs basically hanging off and I hadn’t prepared for that. So I spent the last kilometer limping all the way in. I couldn’t get my leg back in properly because it was filled with mud and grit. So the thing that puts me off doing the next one is the equipment. If they hadn’t come off on the Sprint I’d probably sign up for the Super tomorrow. I’ve got to think about it. Think of some kind of obstacle race socket I could make.
Before I did this I did lots of research, looking around the blogs and things, and saw people talking about the Trifecta. I think even if you just went for it once, did the Sprint, the Super and the Beast and got your Trifecta; after that you could just concentrate on doing the Sprint distances. Just to do it once so that you could say that you’ve done it. That’s what I’m toying with at the moment.
So the next big step for you is a return to education right? What have you got planned there?
Yes, I’m starting college next week. I’m going back into higher education. I left school when I was 17 and joined the army so I thought I’d go and do something completely different now. So it’s a year of college then hopefully get into university from there and get into film studies and try and make it in the media world.
Nice one, well good luck with it!
It was great speaking to James, he seems like such a great guy. I’ve got utmost respect for what he’s achieved. Having just checked out his Just Giving page here, it’s clear that his efforts have been truly recognised, as he’s reached 874% of his target. He’s still raising money for the SSAFA now, so there’s still time to chip in to his amazing cause: www.justgiving.com/James-Simpson13
I have a feeling James may well have caught the bug, it wouldn't surprise me if we see him out on course again soon… just as soon as he’s invented the first OCR specific prosthetic stubby!
Massive thanks to Epic Action Imagery for the amazing photos.