Interview: Ultra runner Jez Bragg

British ultra runner Jez Bragg talks ultra running and what it feels like to be the fastest man to complete New Zealand's 1,898 mile North-to-South Trail.



by Annie Rice

Why did you embark on the challenge?

I’d followed the trail for years and always wanted to go to New Zealand so when the trail was opening that was it, I had to do it, no question. I was so motivated, totally wanted it and was totally excited by it that my head was incredibly strong. The thing I didn’t know was whether my body would be able to take the punishment.

Was it more of a mental or physical challenge?

Mental was the key thing; my mind carried my body. It was saying you don’t have a choice; any niggles need to be repaired and you need to recover each day. After just over a week I was into this routine and my body recovered incredibly well. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, just five or six hours a night, I don’t think I had enough time to recover so it was a huge mental aspect.

What were the highlights?

The biggest highlight was finishing the North Island. I was on the approach to Wellington, it was the end of the day and there was an incredible sunset and I got my first glimpse of the South island. I had finished the first half of the journey and I could see the South Island with snow-capped mountains and the Cook Straight stretching out in front of me that I was due to do the kayak the next day. I had that all coming; it was quite emotional really.

What was your emotional state through the journey?

I had a few seriously emotional moments, whether it was from the top of a mountain, or watching a beautiful sunrise. You sit there and think about what you’ve done and what you’ve got ahead of you and your friends and family, but you’re all on your own. You go through low spells when you’re in the middle of nowhere in a remote forest, you’re low on energy and when you can't get your head around finishing the day. It’s as with any run really, you start out and your body is like 'I don’t really want to run' and then you warm up: it’s exactly the same just on a different scale.

What were the low points?

I had to have enforced days off due to an illness. I picked up Giardia (an infection in the digestive system caused by tiny parasites). I got in in the early hours after a long stretch in the wilderness feeling completely wiped out and when I got up the next day I realised it was more than just exhaustion. I was struck down by it for three full days. It’s a slow burner so I probably caught it about two weeks before. You lose all your strength, which impacted my mental state. I had about 800K to go, I couldn’t get my head around even a few kilometers, let alone 60 or 70 a day which I needed to stay on track.

What would an average day consist of?

I was running was around 13-14 hours each day, but it varied between 12 and 18. I’d run from 6:30 – 7 in the morning through to 8pm, and my latest finish was about 4am the next day. Each day was sectioned based on where I could next meet my support crew. I had this cycle which involved running for a long time, getting back, washing, eating, writing my blog, looking at the next day's running, the maps, guide books, GPS etc, and then six hours' sleep. No time for stretching or anything like that.

What did you eat to fuel you every day?

I ate real food, just good wholesome meals because I realised 50 days of gels would be pretty minging. I had this appetite beyond belief. I’d have cereal, then bacon and eggs and toast for breakfast, then pasta for lunch and a meat and two veg-like meal in the evening, then just snacks in between. I think this is the best fuel really, no sports products or protein shakes. If I’m doing an ultra race I’ll take sports gels but on something like this you don’t want the sugar spikes. If I was self sufficient for a few days I’d take rehydrated meals, there’s a New Zealand company called Backcountry Cuisine which make really good ones. Things like lamb casserole, even dehydrated ice cream, full breakfasts! Food was all I thought about.

Did you get lonely?

I wouldn’t say lonely because if you do something like that you have to be happy with your own company and being on your own in the middle of nowhere. I think there were times when I was in the middle of a big section and feeling a bit low because of low energy or the weather or whatever and you start to feel sorry for yourself and you want to be at home by the fire with company, but that was only part of it. It’s like that on a long run. My wife came out for a couple of weeks at the end and she ran with me a bit, which was really important for both of us for her to see what it was all about it. This was a really big moment in my life and if she couldn’t share that with me for the rest of our lives together then there would be something missing. She had more faith in me than anyone else.

Did you ever get lost?

I wouldn’t say I was lost but the place that was hardest to navigate was the forests. In New Zealand there are stretches of forest which might be 200K long, and you’ll be in there for two days, just boxed in. It reminds me of the phrase 'bush-whacked' that comes from Australia. It's where you’re in the forest and you get disorientated and just lose the plot a bit. The forests really do send you mad. They were the most beautiful woodlands I’ve ever seen: beech trees that are hundreds of years old, a carpet of rich green moss underfoot, just so beautiful and so characterful. The sort of stuff you see on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, it doesn’t look real.

What training did you do in the months beforehand?

I was doing lots of long slow stuff, then doing back-to-back days, so maybe a 50 miler and then a 35 miler, but you almost train yourself into it. The training is the first 7-10 days of the expedition. If you did 150 miles a week for ten weeks building up to it, like an elite marathon runner would, you’d be too beaten up by the time you got to the start line. And you need to have your winter coat on, you don’t want to be just complete skin and bones because you’re fat burning for 50 days as well.

Tell us about the kayak crossing of the Cook Straight

It was a bit of a crazy plan, because the chances of me succeeding were incredibly slim. To have the right conditions to even attempt it were less than 10%. I was incredibly fortunate to have this weather window to coincide with finishing the North Island. We were in the kayaks for about nine hours. My kayak was leaking as well - they were hired boats and we hadn’t actually tried them out, so every half an hour we had to ladle it out, which was uncomfortable. I knew it was audacious to attempt it but I'd have been disappointed if I didn't do it. I wanted to kayak to where the trail officially started, which is Captain Cooks monument. It was an extra 10K but when you get there and see Ships Cove, turquoise water and white sand it's a very special place. It was worth the extra 10K.

Were there any scary moments?

There were a huge number of river crossings that were incredibly dangerous. If it’s a wet period the rivers come up really quickly and you can get swept away, which I did once. I made a bad judgement and the river was dropping very quickly and moving rapidly. It was at the end of a three-day section, I was 10K from my crew and my bed and dinner and I shouldn’t have attempted it as it could have cost me a lot. It just took my feet away from me and I had a huge rucksack on, I was getting tossed between the boulders and there was a massive danger of getting trapped. I was worried about my legs more than anything else, moving at such a speed because you’ve got no hope of slowing down. But I managed to flip myself onto a rock and clamber out.

Did you have communication with support team?

I had a tracking device with a red button on it, which if pressed, would call a helicopter! I had a camper van support set up with James and Mark. Mark is my father in law and is a retired doctor, and James is a very old school friend. I couldn’t have gone at the record or done what I did without those guys.

How did you find running in the dark?

I like running in the dark, I train in the dark and I’ve got one of these head torches, Petzl Nao, it’s an awesome bit of kit.

Did you have any falls on the trails?

I was always falling over, I got covered in bumps, scrapes and cuts and bruises. With something like that I think you just need good fortune. There’s a saying -  think it’s an SAS thing and it’s a bit macho - 'fortune favours the brave'. You’ve got to kind of redline it a bit to get that back and I certainly did that.

Do you have any tips on essential kit for trail running?

Having the right kit and equipment is essential. I'd spent a lot of time practising and learning my equipment so even though you’re in a wilderness area, you’re always going to be safe and prepared. Essentials would be a full body waterproof cover, long-sleeved base layer, survival blanket, water-proof matches, GPS tracking device, emergency food and a method of water sterilisation.

What is your diet like when you’re training?

I eat healthily. Homemade soups and casseroles and things like that. I’m really into smoothies as well. I’m not into sports performance products unless I’m in a race or doing a hardcore training session. I don’t believe in them. If you want to really get into it, mashed sweet potato is a really good fuel, take it out and package it up. Rice pudding is great too, it has a bit of sugar, fat and protein and carbs. Real food: it works; it’s more natural.

See a photo gallery of Jez's journey through New Zealand.


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