James Simpson made history by becoming the first double amputee to complete an obstacle course from hell. As he gears up for an even more gruelling event he talks to Sarah Freeman.
Some people are born to do extraordinary things, others have extraordinary situations thrust upon them.
James Simpson definitely belongs to the latter camp. It may explain why when he finally crossed the finishing line of Ripon’s Spartan Race, his first thought wasn’t that he’d made history as the first double amputee to complete the challenge, it was that he needed to get back home to Leeds to sort out the barbecue he’d promised friends and family.
The gruelling event, which most complete in around 60 minutes, had taken him four hours, but as he lit the charcoal the extent of his achievement did begin to sink in. In the back of his mind he suspected that once the images of him walking across fire, scaling 30ft high cargo nets and crawling through muddy ditches went public, normal life would probably be suspended for a while.
He was right.
In an effort to escape media attention, James headed off to Center Parcs with his girlfriend Josie Hills, but even there he couldn’t avoid being noticed.
“I guess when you look like me, you do stand out,” says the 27-year-old Lance Bombardier, who lost both his legs while serving in Afghanistan. “When I decided to take part in the Spartan Race I wanted to keep a low profile, I guess I just wanted to make sure I could do it. As I was going around I saw the photographers and I knew that my cover was probably blown.
“I was certain when a guy came up to me at Center Parcs and said, ‘Congratulations, I’ve just seen your picture in the paper’.”
While the attention might have sat uncomfortably on the shoulders of this ordinary Leeds lad, he probably best get used it. Last weekend he took part in another Spartan Race – this time a 12k course in Tamworth – and in November he plans to cap what has been a pretty incredible few months by completing the 20k event, known with good reason as The Beast.
“I’ve just ordered some head torches for me and the team as that’s going to be a long one.
“I’m reckoning on being out there for 12 hours. I’m hoping that they are going to let me start a bit earlier so I have a chance of finishing before midnight. But the one thing I do know is that I’ll get through it.”
While the need to focus on goals has been key to James’ recovery, the truth is he has always been doggedly single-minded. Even as a small boy growing up in Guiseley, just a few miles from where he now lives, he was determined to realise his dream of joining the Army.
“I was one of those kids who was always running around pretending I had a gun. I was never happy indoors and some of my best days as a kid were when I camped out in woods at Esholt. I never used to tell my parents but it was pretty obvious when I got back home covered in mud and stinking of smoke from the fire we’d made. None of my family were in the Armed Forces, but it was something I wanted to do right from being very little.”
In 2004 James achieved his ambition when at the age of 17 he walked through the doors of the infantry training centre at Catterick Garrison. The instructors took no prisoners, but James flourished in the disciplined regime and began counting down the days to active service.
“I loved it it. It felt right. The following summer I was sent out to Bosnia as part of the peacekeeping force. That was a strange place for a teenager from Leeds to find himself in. There were entire villages where there were no men, they’d all been killed in the civil war. By the time we got there it was like an entire generation had been airbrushed out of history.”
Two years after he first put on the uniform, James was chosen to serve in a sniper platoon and, after a tour of Iraq, by October 2007 he was on his way to Afghanistan. By then, Nato had assumed responsibility for security across the whole of country, but the task facing British soldiers was immense.
“Iraq definitely made me feel like a proper soldier and that first time I went to Afghanistan it really felt like we were making a difference. However, the second time we went out there things had changed. The Taliban had discovered improvised explosive devices and that was a whole different game.
“They were clever, they would shoot quite randomly at what they saw as the enemy patrols. They had no real intention of killing us with bullets, what they really wanted was to force us to seek cover behind a nearby wall. That’s where they had planted the IEDs.
“I remember not long after we had landed I was back at the camp watching another patrol walk back in. The soldier at the back trod on an IED. I remember thinking then, ‘right, so it’s going to be that kind of tour, is it?’
It would later turn out that the soldier caught in the explosion lived just a few miles away from James in Pudsey. He lost his leg in the incident and not only have the two become friends but so have their mums.
“The day I was injured started as normal. We were on routine patrols and drove to this little village just over a mile from where we were based. They were building a new mosque there and we just started chatting to the villagers. A lot of the Afghan people who had been displaced by the war were setting up new communities close to Army bases as it gave them some protection. This was one of them. It was in the middle of the desert, but it all felt very relaxed.
“It was about 11am when we came under fire. We knew they wanted us to run for cover, but we carried on walking. Unfortunately not very far on I triggered an IED. Six guys had walked over that same spot and missed it. Sadly I didn’t.”
It was then, James’ Army training kicked in. Knowing he was in the middle of a dust cloud he shouted as loud as he could to help his fellow soldiers locate him. Pretty quickly he also knew that his injuries were serious.
“You’re on automatic pilot. I remember quite clearly checking my limbs. My left arm was ok, the right arm not so good and my legs, well my legs were in a bad state. You do feel completely detached, but it is true what they say the adrenalin does kick in, so much so that the only real pain I felt was the sand in my wounds.”
It took just 25 minutes for the medical helicopter to arrive and by that time the men James had served alongside had already applied emergency tourniquets to stem the flow of blood.
“These are 18-year-old guys who every day are saving lives. It sounds a bit dark, but I remember thinking that I was in good hands because that tour they’d had an awful lot of practice of patching people up.”
Fully alert as he was stretchered into the helicopter, the last thing James remembers is that journey to Camp Bastion where he was induced into a coma and flown back to England. At Selly Oak Hospital, which until it closed last year was home to the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, James was one of dozens of injured soldiers and as he began to slowly recover from his injuries, his thoughts turned back to Army life.
“I like to do things my way, I guess I’m quite stubborn, but from the day I opened my eyes again I was always focused on getting better. I wanted to stay in the Army.There were dark days and days when I just wanted to crawl into my bed and go to sleep, but there were a couple of guys in the rehab centre who I knew. They’d been injured on our first tour and they were a bit further along the lines than me. On an evening they’d come to my bedside and say, ‘right James we’re off to the cinema’. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. That’s sometimes what I needed. I come from the kind of family where we just get on with things. My dad’s a retired police officer, my step-dad was a fireman, so we were all aware that bad things can sometimes happen. You have to take it on the chin, but even so you occasionally need a push in the right direction.”
Eventually discharged from the rehabilitation centre, James headed back to Catterick fully intent on picking up his Army career where he had left off.
“They were great, they’d sorted me out a job, adapted a room, but it wasn’t the same. I joined up because I wanted to be out there being a soldier, I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk. I am so grateful for the help they gave me and I’m glad that in the end I left on my own terms. I did four tours in five years, that’s more than a lot of soldiers achieve.”
While James was determined to remain upbeat, leaving the close-knit regiment did leave a gap in his life. It’s one he has filled with regular hikes on Ilkley Moor, playing wheelchair rugby league for the Rhinos and signing up for the Spartan events, through which he has raised almost £5,000 for the National Armed Forces Charity SSAFA.
“I keep finding out I can do stuff. At first I was a bit reluctant to use what I call my stubbies. They’re short prosthetic legs and they made me feel quite self-conscious, but I’ve got over that now. Some allow themselves to be defined by their injuries, but I never wanted that.”
For now he’s concentrating on training for The Beast , but he also has his eye on the bigger picture. He’s just started an access course at Leeds City College and hopes to do a degree in film-making. It’s always been on of his passions. The shelves of his home are lined with films like Rambo, Black Hawk Down and Die Hard, there’s a stack of Empire magazines in one corner and the small conservatory, what James calls his chill out room, is dominated by a cardboard cutout of one of Doctor Who’s weeping angels.
“If I hadn’t got injured I would have definitely stayed in the Army until I was in my 30s and who knows what I would have done then. It really feels like this is an opportunity I wouldn’t otherwise had.”
He’s also cooking up a scheme which will likely put his efforts in the Spartan race in the shade. He’s keeping tight lipped on the details, but all he will say is that it will be spectacular.
“It was something I did just before I got injured and I just want to have another go. I don’t want to tell anyone in case I jinx it, but it’s going to be good.”
James will take part in Spartan Beast event in London on November 9. To make a donation go to www.justgiving.com/James-Simpson13.