When, after 12 years working in rates sales for Barclays investment bank, Simon James lost his job in April last year, his first thought – rather obviously – was to look for a new one. After a couple of unsuccessful interviews in a very tough market, his next move was less predictable – a year-long tour of the world, scaling mountains through a combination of climbing and extreme endurance running.
The vast majority of these extreme ultra-marathons across the Alps in Europe, the US and later the Himalayas were done alone, others were back-to-back: “Funnily enough, I had a hard time convincing my friends with families to upsticks and spend ten days at a time running through the wild,” he tells us.
To back track a little, James tells us that in 2006 after years working in a sedentary job on an investment banking trading floor he was, as his colleagues were only too happy to point out, a little on the podgy side – or around three stone overweight. He was also, like so many in the City these days, stressed out and suffered occasionally from depression.
Running wasn’t an obvious route out of either problem – James had previously never run more than five miles, and then it was before he left his family home in the Welsh valleys where he often ran from his farm to meet friends for nights out due to a lack of public transport and an unwillingness of his parents to provide a taxi service. However, unwittingly, after a drunken bet with a client, he signed up to his first ultra-marathon – a 54-mile race across West Highland Way in Scotland.
“It was pretty horrendous – I’d done no training and very little running before. After an hour and half I had a migraine, which had never happened to me before,” he says. He finished it in 13 hours, though.
It also provided the impetus for him to try to get fit, with the now comparatively modest aim of completing the London Marathon a year later. He finished it in 2 hours 57 minutes – his natural running ability came from “good genes” passed down from his cross-country enthusiast dad, he says – but has since drilled down his PB to 2 hours 37 minutes.
These days marathons are small fry, though. James has undertaken mainstream ultra-marathons like the 155-mile Marathon Des Sable and finished towards the front of the pack in UK events like the 87-mile Ridgeway. More often than not, as a self-described ‘mountain goat’, he’s out scrambling for days by himself on trails usually reserved for trekkers and mountaineers.
Currently, James is back in a rates sales role in the City, working for a French investment bank, which he says allows him to finish at 5pm and is very flexible with his holiday arrangements. Here’s the thing - despite acknowledging that endurance and adventure running used to be a niche interest, he’s now banking on its appeal becoming more mainstream, particularly among those working in financial services.
At the beginning of this year, he launched Run the Wild, which offers ‘adventure’ running events for people of all abilities. The guided events start at eight miles a day, over the course of a weekend or longer, but can be marathon distance each day for the more enthusiastic. They’re also aimed at those with a bit of spending power – often combining running with stays at high-end hotels and meals at top restaurants, even encouraging the occasional beer in the evenings. These are social events, not races, insists James.
As we’ve pointed out previously, bankers are increasingly keen on ultra-marathons, with City-types typically comprising around 30% of runners in major events across the world. The craze has “exploded” in the past couple of years, believes James.
“Ten years’ ago, you’d get 30 people running ultra-marathons, most would be over 50 and predominantly women, these days they’re sold out with 500 people running them,” he says. “Investment bankers, particularly those on the trading floors, want to be challenged. They have the mental challenge at work, but no physical challenge and their lives are so risk-free that they want to feel they’re having an adventure somewhere.”
What you have in investment banking are people willing to burn the candle at both ends – work incredibly hard, but train for endurance events so they often become “uber-athletes”, suggests James. It helps, he says, that those in the industry are seeking greater work-life balance and are turning to events that befit their competitive personalities in greater numbers. Together with a need to escape the stress of the office and a general increase in interest in these events across society, a perfect storm of eager City types are already signing up to his events, he insists.
James is looking to quit the City to focus on Run the Wild full-time, but says his financial skills have come in handy so far. “It takes years for new businesses to turn a profit, but we’ve already broken even. There are lot of people out there who want to combine running with socialising.”