We caught up with Jamie Bunchuck on his return from the Betpak-Dala to get a personal insight to his incredible task:
Jason: Firstly, can you give us a brief explanation about your crossing of the Betpak-Dala?
Jamie: Sure, not a problem. The Betpak-Dala is a place in Kazakhstan that when literally translated means the Unlucky Steppe. It’s an area of land almost as big of Scotland that is entirely uninhabited, with very few people entering it. To the best of my knowledge and research it had never been crossed from its eastern edge to its westerly border with the Sarysu River. I set out to make that first crossing and at the same time to try and run as much of the route as I could. I think the only true way to experience what a place is really like is to actually be there on the ground, on foot.
Jason: What was required of you for training, and what exercises/routines were used to get you in the physical and mental state to run such a brutal task?
Jamie: I trained a fair bit, but not excessively so. The basic principle I operated under was to run two days in a row and then have one off. During the week my average run was usually around seven or eight miles. On the weekend I would do one long run; these began at 20 miles but went up to the mid-thirties for the last few months. The longest I completed was 56 miles from where I live in London to Brighton solo and through the summer heat, which wasn’t all that pleasant!
For my mental state, I’ve already spent quite a bit of time out on expedition in Middle Asia so I kind of knew what I was going to face, which was a complete and utter lack of any form of stimulation, as the ground is completely flat and largely featureless. I think the best training regime I got into for this mental side of the run was actually doing my training runs, which I always did solo and without any music. I think being able to keep your own company for long stretches at a time is a very useful attribute for any type of remote solo running or expeditions. Admittedly all that time alone has addled my head a touch, and the busy stimulation of London life now filters into my brain rather slower than many people care to wait!
Jason: Was there at any point you felt like giving up? What kept you going?
Jamie: I had a shocking day on my fifth back to back marathon. The wind was blasting in my face the whole way and the cloudless sky meant the strong desert sun kept shining into my eyes the whole way. By the last hour my whole body was wracked with shivers, and I had to keep on suppressing the need to vomit, and to stop. The only thing that kept me going was my watch; I’d set it in my head that I had to see out the hour, and I wasn’t going to quit until that minute hand had ticked over to 6pm.
Jason: What encounters did you face on your journey?
Jamie: None with people, but a lot of what they’d left behind. After the Second World War the Betpak-Dala became used quite extensively by the Soviet Army and during my run I passed one of their now abandoned (hopefully non-nuclear) secret military testing facilities. There were nose-cones from abandoned surface to surface rockets everywhere and one building of three metres thick reinforced firebrick had been completely blown apart from the inside out. Whatever they had been testing, it was VERY powerful.