A rotund man in a hi-viz jacket is on the cusp of interrupting.
Desperate for some service in the shop where we are talking he clearly believes the athletic guy chatting away to me to be a member of staff. After craning in to hear the conversation he bounds away down the length of the shop booming something about ‘having this in a large’ to anyone that will listen.
The near interruption doesn’t faze Jez Bragg; I imagine it should take more than a fat guy in a motorcycle jacket to knock him off his stride. As it is he’s in the middle of a story about perhaps the sketchiest moment of his latest adventure an epic run across the two islands of New Zealand.
The final river crossing of a long three day section through the Richmond Range of mountains proved to be a crossing too far. As swollen river, with no bridge only meant one- a wade. 10k away from the warmth of the support crew in the camper van, Jez made an attempt at the crossing.
“I edged out to start with and then pulled back. I was shaking with the adrenaline going mad. I really need to get across this thing but at the same time I’m in an incredibly dangerous situation.”
It went a little bit awry,
“I went at it a second time and got swept downstream. I had two carbon poles that I was attempting to use for stability. They got smashed. I was on my back with my rucksack still on, getting tossed down the river. “
It was an awful situation and it was one of those moments that you don’t want to have, where it all flashes past you.
Eventually, after bouncing off something –he’s not sure exactly what- he landed in slack water and clambered out of the torrent- eager to get going, warm up and dry off.
Planning a 3000km run
Running the Te Araroa trail down the length of New Zealand’s two islands was something that had been in ether for nearly four years after what Jez describes as a ‘Sunday evening web surfing session’. Pootling around looking for races to enter he was drawn to New Zealand and races there.
He claims not to have been hunting for a long trail to tackle but was intrigued by the holding page for what would become the Te Araroa trail. The 3000km trail runs from top-to-tail of both of New Zealand’s islands and was created by volunteers gradually over the course of 10 years. Opening in December 2011 it fitted in well with his pans and so the wheels were set in motion for an early 2013 attempt.
More than a run
Despite all of the planning and preparation the run turned out to be much more challenging than was first thought. The entire trip was much more of an expedition than a more straightforward ultra running race, of the sort Jez is used to.
It’s way beyond a run. Just in terms of a level of difficulty.
At the time, getting down to it, things seemed gruelling but it wasn’t until afterwards that things seem to have sunk in for him. It’s almost in the telling of the tale afterwards that the enormity of it seems to have hit home a bit more.
“…taking a step back, I was running or at least on my feet for 12-18 hours per day in whatever weather. A lot of stretches would be along riverbeds, so if the river was in spate or high water, it was incredibly challenging or you would have to wait for the river to drop. All of these challenging scenarios.”
That’s not to say Jez makes himself out like some sort of ‘extreme’ athlete, there is a real sense of achievement in a job well done rather than talking up any dangerous elements of the run.
“The thing about the trail is that it was a lot less running than I expected. I was kind of calling upon my all round adventure skills as opposed to just running. It’s kind of like an adventure trail really.”
It didn’t help that he decided to throw in a kayak crossing of the notoriously dangers waters of the Cook Strait to add to proceedings. As luck would have it the crossing went well with weather and conditions shining favourably. And the 44 km crossing between the North and South island was ticked off in 9 hours.
Resting his legs probably wasn’t much of an issue considering the 25k run out on the other side of the strait to the support van.
Nevertheless, the couple of years of kayak training came in handy and the crossing turned out to be one of the favourite parts of the entire run. We suggest the end might have been quite good as well, and he agrees more for the fact that you can see the end point miles out and so the end was always close to hand.
The total time for the route was 53 days in the end, and that includes three days laid-up ill. A mammoth run in anyone’s book, but there’s always that niggling thought that all us underachievers probably have. Yeah but he’s sponsored- he gets paid to run and doesn’t have to deal with real life.
Back to the grindstone
Actually, Jez Bragg, despite being on The North Face’s global athlete team manages to hold down a full time job. And within a couple of weeks of returning from New Zealand (minus a weeks delayed honeymoon in Thailand on the way home) was back in the office.
Fitting in training for ultra distance running races around the working day, and sneaking in the occasional early finish when the weather is good, seems to be the secret. That and being self-employed.
“now I’m my own boss, which is definitely the best way.”
As with anyone back at work after a long break, Jez is already looking to the next challenge and although he hasn’t quite lined anything up yet, there are plenty of things on the hit list. Interestingly a lot of the big UK runs.
“I’d love to have a go at the Summer Pennine Way record. It’s just under 3 days.
The coast to coast, The Ramsey round appeals bit more than the Bob Graham. I’d like to continue at the Munros. There are lots of things that I’d like to do, but I’ve just got to keep chipping away.”
On top of that, he still wants to maintain his racing and is looking towards the Western States next year describing it as
“a hundred miler that I would give anything to win.
I’ve placed third at it. I’ll probably go back there next year and see what I can do there.”
We get the feeling that the Te Araroa is not the pinnacle of a running career, more a stop along the way.
“I’ve got lots of unfinished business. The list is long”