Dating back to more than a century ago, the island nation of England has been home, or starting point, to an incredible number of great explorers and adventurers who were drawn to the planet’s most sparsely inhabited regions. Following in the footsteps of this storied tradition of brave British souls venturing into the vast unknown is Jamie Bunchuk, an equestrian Long Rider who is also editor of the visually dazzling adventure-travel magazine and website Sidetracked. Last year, Bunchuk, along with photographer Matt Traver, crossed a desolate 750-mile swath of Kazakhstan with ailing horses. Bunchuk then topped off that trek spending one month living and working with Kirghiz hunters in South East Tajikistan, and that was soon followed by a 100-mile, multi-day, camel-supported run across the Red Sands Desert in Uzbekistan.
Last September, Bunchuk returned to an even more remote and formidable region of Kazakhstan called the Betpak-Dala, which translated literally means the “Steppe of Misfortune.” His goal was to cross the desert-like Steppe (about the size of Scotland) on foot by running nine consecutive marathons. The trip was supported, so all Jamie had to do was run 26.2 miles each day. In theory, this seemed doable if not super challenging in terms of physical difficulty. In real life, however, Jamie quickly realized that the multiday run pushed his body to the extreme boundaries of pain and discomfort. Planet Wild recently spoke with Jamie, who is also member of Team RailRiders, about how he survived running across the Steppe of Misfortune.
Question: Please describe that first 100-mile run after the earlier horseback crossing? What possessed or motivated you to go the distance?
Jamie Bunchuk: After my 63-day horse ride in Kazakhstan over the summer of 2013, I traveled further across Central Asia on a number of expeditionary projects, eventually arriving in Uzbekistan. Myself and my friend Matt didn’t have much time or money left, so we decided that the last journey we’d do would be for me to run 100 miles throughout the Kzyulkum Desert over seven days, supported by two camels. I guess the motivation was just to see the desert in the coolest way we thought possible given the short time period that we had left to us.
JB: The shoes I had for that particular trip were basically gym shoes you use at school. They cost me $5 from a market in Khorog in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. To go with them, I made a pair of sand gaiters from an old shirt that I found in a corridor in a Dushanbe high-rise, sown up with dental floss. Needless to say, they didn’t work out for the best!
Q: How were the running conditions?
JB: The conditions were incredibly sandy and hard going, but the worse aspect was that we’d been on starvation rations for the best part of five months proceeding that run, and hence I wasn’t exactly in a fit and healthy state when I started it.
Q: What about support?
JB: I had Matt, who was making a short film about the project. I also had two camels and one camel herder to carry all our stuff. We made for a bizarre little troupe.
Q: How did the shoes end up faring?
JB: They completely fell apart.
Q: Then a year later, you ran seven back-to-back marathons in an uninhabited desert region Kazakhstan called the “Steppe of Misfortune?’ Why the nickname?
JB: The name in Kazakh is called the Betpak-Dala, which literally means the unlucky steppe, or the swampy steppe (after the winter snow) depending on the translation. This was a much more difficult run than my previous one. I managed to cover just under 200 miles across eights days, running over seven back-to -back marathons in the process.
Q: How did you physically prepare for the run?
JB: Training was always a bit of a tricky one as I never felt I could devote as much time to it as I probably should. In the end I settled on a two-days on, one day off approach to training. During the week I’d do my regular seven-mile circuit. On the weekend I’d do one long run, starting off with a few twenty milers, then a few marathons. Eventually I peaked with a run from London to Brighton, about 56 miles, which I did in about 12 hours. I didn’t do much else besides that.
Q: Is your athletic background running?
JB: Not even slightly! My background was always rock climbing. For years, I held the specific aim of trying to lose weight in my legs so that I’d be lighter and my arms could pull me better up the rock face. So getting into running was a relatively new thing for me.
Q: Describe your support crew.
JB: I was supported by two ethnic Russians and they were great. They’d never heard of anyone attempting a crossing of the Betpak-Dala before, and took to the whole expedition with a real interest and curiosity, which cheered me up no end when I was down. They travelled in a massive off-road vehicle with all the food, water and fuel. The whole expedition itself was actually backed and part-funded by the French underwear company HOM, who were also brilliant.
Q: What about your apparel and shoes?
JB: I had my trusty RailRiders top and trousers for when I wasn’t running. My actual running clothes were all HOM – which faired brilliantly – especially their underwear, as was to be expected. I ran in a pair of Norman Walsh PB Ultras, a British company that make excellent trail running shoes. They certainly held up better than the Tajik shoes
JB: The first day was pretty good. It took a little while to get used to the vehicle ollowing behind me, and this sped my pace up unnaturally as I worried about them being bored sitting in the truck. But on the whole, the first day was great and I covered around 30 miles. I was pretty blasted by the end though.
Q: How about Day Two?
JB: Day Two was harder, and it felt unnatural trying to get my body going again in the morning after the big run the day before. Once I’d got one hour in however, things settled down into a routine of sorts. I blocked out the day into four-hour sections. The first hour would seem to fly by, but then next two would drag. If I could get past them, then I was on the home straight for a rest after the fourth hour. After that, I’d start the countdown all over again; that was how I kept going.
Q: Did your body begin to break down after a few days?
JB: Day four and five were very tough for me. The wind shifted from the behind me to my front, and the sky cleared of clouds, so the sun was always shining into my face as I ran westward. My feet swelled up and I had to take the laces out of my shoes completely at one point. I hadn’t thought it would be that sandy either, and had neglected to bring gaiters. The dust from the tracks soon got into my calf compression sleeves and I got some bad irritation and friction rubs. Every time I finished for the day I would be racked with violent shivering, no matter how many layers I had on, and I’d also had a few nasty nosebleeds too, In all, I was quite a wreck!
Q: How did you push yourself forward and fight off the temptation to quit?
JB: I focused on my watch and on breaking down the run into the four-hour time segments I mentioned before. But my main tool for getting through the day was distraction. It sounds ridiculously pretentious now, but at the time I actually recited a few of Shakespeare’s soliloquies to pass the days; I found the meaning of the words would change drastically with alterations in intonation and I spent hours just playing, speaking the same sentences over and over again in different ways. I’d gone quite mad by this point! Nevertheless the trick proved successful at distracting me from the monotony of everything around and the pain in my feet!
Q: What were the running conditions like?
JB: Pretty good. Incredibly, monotonously, flat with a decent track underfoot. It was a little bit dusty in places but never excessively so.
Q: How much running vs.walking did you do ever day?
JB: I would walk for ten minutes at the start of every day and ten minutes at the end of each day to warm up and cool down. Other than that, every step I took forward was at a run, although of course the pace could vary quite drastically!
Q: Did you come across other locals in this desolate area?
JB: Nope, not a soul.
Q: What was the last day like?
JB: The last day was somewhat of a stressful anticlimax. I’d been planning on running for a further two days but on the eighth day all of a sudden one of the drivers turned round and told me that actually we’d burnt much more fuel than they’d been expecting and that we now only had 300 kilometers’ worth of gasoline to get us the 260 kilometers needed to get to the next settlement and petrol station. So I had to cut the journey short and hop into the truck as we tried to gun it out of the Steppe. We hit a section of awful sand dunes; that shook the car apart and broke all the suspension along the front wheels. It took us seven hours to travel just 15 miles in the end. Finally, after what felt like an eternity of driving, we reached the Saryu River and the end of the Betpak-Dala.
Q: When you got back to England, were you able to carry on as normal, or was your body still too beat up?
JB:I was largely able to carry on as normal. But it’s still of a mental head game I play going running now, and I can’t cover anywhere near the same amount of distance as I was doing pre and during the run. It might be because dark and rainy winter has truly set in here in England now, but I find it hard to summon the motivation I once had. Still, I know it’ll come back at some point and I guess when that happens I’ll be ready for another trip.