Going the extra 100 miles

Anglican International School director Phil Billing runs 100 miles for his institution.

phil billing 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
phil billing 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Running through the chiseled terrain of northern India, Phil Billing felt like he was in heaven and hell combined. "You're seeing the most beautiful landscapes in the world," he tells me in his Jerusalem office, "but you just feel terrible." Billing is the director of the Anglican International School of Jerusalem (AISJ), which is located in an old mission hospital building near Kikar Davidka. The Himalayan 100-mile Stage Race takes participants through some of the most rugged and spectacular scenery in the world. Originally from Liverpool, Billing is an international educator first, adventure runner second. He worked in such places as Kenya, northern Pakistan and Uzbekistan before arriving in Jerusalem six years ago, and is fascinated by the city and Israel as a whole. "Israel is a magical, beautiful country," he says. "It's intensely condensed; religiously, geographically, and politically, it's all pushed together in a very small space." Billing has made his geographical transitions along with his wife and four kids. "Mobility brings challenges to any family," he says. "But the opportunities are greater. All of my kids have seen poverty that I doubt many of their peers have seen." He believes this exposure has given his children greater depth. Three of his children are now pursuing international development and environmental studies in college in England. Billing is passionate about teaching and assisting in the development of children. "In every child lies the capacity to learn to engage with the world and to contribute to the world," he says. And this is something he's seen with his own eyes, all over the world. "I believe that learning does not come in a one-size-fits-all package," he continues, "but rather that children learn in different ways and have learning preferences. Teachers must constantly be learning, updating their knowledge, seeking new ways to connect with and engage students." As a member of the Jerusalem Distance Running Club, Billing saw the Stage Race as an opportunity of a lifetime, a runner's dream come true. But as director of the school, he also saw an opportunity to help raise money - by gathering sponsors - for an institution that provides education for Jerusalem's international community and its Israeli and Palestinian residents. The school's mission is to provide a modern, English-language education through a Christian voice. "Which means we're open and welcoming to all," explains Billing. "While the number of indigenous Christians in Jerusalem is falling, the number of imported Christians is growing," he says. Employees of NGOs and international businesses that are sent to Israel fall into this category. The school provides an education for their children, although not exclusively. "What's unique about AISJ is that we bring together kids from all backgrounds," says Billing. "There's Jewish kids here in class with Christians and Muslims." The school certainly serves as an educational institution in the classical sense, but is also a sort of model of coexistence. "I think our school says that there is a place where kids can meet and learn tolerance," says Billing. "It demonstrates that it is possible for different people to live and work together." As far as the Israeli school system goes, Billing is reluctant to criticize. "From the Israeli educators I know [the Israeli school system] is at a crisis level, and there seems to be a loss of morale," he says, referring to the recently ended 65-day secondary school teachers strike. Because of such turmoil, some Israelis who return from overseas or university professors, are hesitant to enroll their children in the Israeli school system, and may instead choose to place their children at AISJ. "They find our school attractive," he says. The AISJ has no official bursary fund and any financial aid comes out of the school's budget. "We haven't been able to do as much as we've wanted [to offer financial assistance to needy students]," Billing says. So when his wife signed him up for the Himalayan Stage Race over the summer as a birthday present, Billing saw a chance to improve himself and his school. He stepped up his training and began running 120 km. a week. When this became easier, he added a 4.5-kg. backpack. However, the high altitudes and rocky terrain of the Himalayas was still an extreme test. "Nothing prepared me for it," he says. "To run 100 miles is one thing, but in the high altitudes, when you've lost your stomach and your mind, that's something else entirely." The race juts through the area along the India-Nepal border, and runners compete at altitudes from 1,800 to 3,600 meters above sea level. As they trek through the dramatic backdrop, four of the five highest mountain peaks in the world become visible, including Mount Everest and Kangchenjunga. Each day sees 32 km. of running, before the runners, exhausted and dizzy from the sheer distance and lack of oxygen, stop and sleep for the night. The next morning they wake and do it all over again, as this cycle continues for five consecutive days. "It was like running through a panorama of the world's rooftop," Billing says. "And it's so fragile. At one moment you're in the middle of a beautiful vista that seems endless, but within ten minutes, clouds move in and the view changes dramatically." Out of 68 people, Phil finished 28th, clocking a time of 23 hours and 42 minutes. He also raised $3,000 for his school, and money is still flowing in as sponsors are still making good on their pledges. But most importantly, he provided his students with a great source of inspiration. "The effect on the kids has been incredible," says Billing. "They saw me training, they saw that I had a goal. And when I came back, they saw my trophy. They saw that if you dedicate yourself to something, it can happen."