Jez Bragg Interview

The following interview appeared in Issue 10 of Ultra Tales.

Ultra Tales reader Jonathan Mackintosh interviews Jez Bragg.

There can be few ultramarathoners who have not heard of The North Face athlete Jez Bragg. Jez’s long list of achievements include winning the 2010 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, wins and course records at events such as the Fellsman, Highland Fling, and West Highland Way Race, to name but a few, and a 3rd place at the 2009 Western States race amidst a strong international field of runners. Most recently, Jez completed the 3054km Te Araroa trail, having run and kayaked the length of New Zealand, from the tip of the North Island, to the tip of the South Island, in a time of 53 days, 9 hours and 1 minute.

Do you consider your completion of the Te Araroa trail to be your biggest achievement to date, or is there another running achievement that you rank above this accomplishment?

Jez: I think it has to be, but all these long runs present their challenges in different ways, and are hard to compare. Yes, the distance is epic, but the pace is a lot slower. In New Zealand the problem wasn’t so much the distance, but the unpredictable terrain and constant unknowns from one section to the next. Te Araroa drew upon every conceivable skill I possess, both as a runner and an adventurer.

Ultra Tales reader Dan Park asks “During the 3054km what was the highest and lowest moment (excluding the finish)”

Jez: The high point was undoubtedly paddling into Ship Cove in the Queen Charlotte Sound; the start of the trail on the South Island – having successfully completed a crossing of the Cook Strait immediately after finishing the North Island run. There was a huge dose of luck involved in having a weather window at the right time. But then part of me also thinks you create your own luck.

The low point was being stopped in my tracks for three days near Lake Emily on the South Island due to food poisoning. I lay in bed in the camper van for three days watching the clock tick by and wondering if I would ever regain the necessary strength to continue. The real frustration was that in hindsight I would easily have broken my 50 day target for the expedition had I not been forced to stop and then rebuild daily distance gradually.

Running up to 60 miles a day, was it a welcome relief when it came to the kayaking elements?

Jez: Definitely; there never really seemed to be enough kayaking for my liking. The kayak crossings were rather sporadic with the majority on the North Island; really just a means of crossing the natural water breaks in the trail, but they were official parts of the route. Spending a day and half paddling 120km down the Whanganui River was epic, as was the 9 hour crossing of the Cook Strait. Having said that, running all day comes a lot more naturally to me than paddling all day, so comparing the two I found the running much easier.

Did you ever doubt yourself and, if so, how did you overcome it?

Jez: No, I didn’t ever question my ability to complete the run. I did however feel anxious and nervous about it, both before and during, really because of all the unknowns involved. I think that’s natural and healthy; the body’s way of staving off any complacency. It would be easy to get the two feelings mixed up. I wanted to complete the Te Araroa journey so, so much, and to have that mental drive was essential to the expedition’s success. Where the mind leads the body follows.

Would you ever consider running the Te Araroa trail again in a bid to beat your time?

Jez: No way. The exploration aspect is where the mental drive comes from with something like this, and that has gone now I have successfully completed the journey. If I ever decided to run another long trail then it would have to be a completely different one to ensure that combination of excitement, interest and unknown were there to provide the mental drive required.

Did you learn anything about yourself on your journey?

Jez: Oh where to start. It would be impossible to put into words everything I learned about myself through the whole experience. On the physical side, I learned how resilient and responsive the human body can be when it is asked to do something so extreme. The mental side is harder to explain. As a whole the trail strengthened me as a person and my ability to push through the ‘lows’ that come and go so frequently on a journey like this.

The ability to walk/hike fast is an invaluable skill for an ultra runner. Do you have any training tips specific to this skill and can you give any idea of the breakdown between running and fast hiking on your Te Araroa expedition?

Jez: Practice, practice, practice. Lots and lots. Fast walking is a skill in itself; the trick is to be efficient in tackling whatever’s in front of you. The mistake people often make when transitioning from say marathon running to ultra running is trying to run every step of the way. Walk breaks become important, particularly if the hills are steep and frequent. When you head out the door the best approach is to focus on ‘time on your feet’ rather than pace, speed or distance.

I would say the split between running and walking on Te Araroa was around 60/40.

What kind of calorie intake did you have for the duration of the challenge?

Jez: Three substantial meals a day, plus snacks every couple of hours. I was eating a lot of very fatty foods in response to cravings from my body. I guess that’s natural and to be expected, given what was being asked of it. My strategy was to eat normal, wholesome, food rather than special energy products such as sports drinks and gels. It wasn’t particularly scientific, but it seemed to work anyway. It was a thoroughly ‘British’ approach; good, wholesome, food!

After 53 days of running such long distances, did you find it difficult to adjust to normal life?

Jez: The problem wasn’t so much adjusting to daily life, but physically repairing my body. I think the run itself took a certain amount out of me, but then the illness took it to a whole new level. You know the feeling you get when trying to return to work after a bad D&V bug? Empty, tired, energy less etc. It was like that but ten times worse, and then I had the added complication of trying to run all day again. The physical repair process took over six months – to get my speed back to a comparable level to before the expedition. I’m still working on it, but it’s definitely there or thereabouts now.

When it comes to racing, your preferred race strategy appears to be one of ‘settling in’ before then progressing through the ranks and you appear quite happy to start off further back in the pack. What are the perceived benefits of such a strategy?

Jez: From my experience the best way to find the ‘magic’ ultra running gears is to be patient, and start steadily. Even pacing, or ideally running negative splits, is the ideal approach to achieve this. By ‘magic’ gears I mean when you settle into a strong pace that feels effortless and like you can go on forever. It does happen; it is possible. That’s how the really special ultra running performances are achieved. The bottom line is that it’s very individual and it’s a case of finding out what works best for you.

This approach appeared to work well for you at UTMB this year. Have there been any times when it has backfired spectacularly?

Jez: I didn’t really have much choice about my approach to UTMB this year because I was still on the mend after the expedition. I was reasonably fit, but really not at full fitness. But I knew my mental strength from the expedition would be an asset over the full course of the race, and it was a case of being patient and maintaining a consistent pace.

I can’t think of a single instance of it back-firing as such, because it’s not like I set off at a really slow pace, giving myself too much to do. I don’t ever finish a race with anything left in the tank.

What’s your all-time favourite item of kit?

Jez: I have a Hammerhead rucksack by The North Face which is around 12 years old now, but is still going strong despite taking a regular pounding. I am sure it still has plenty of years left in it; I certainly have no plans to part with it!

What piece of kit is working well for you currently?

Jez: I’m a big fan of the Feather Lite Storm Blocker waterproof jacket and trousers by The North Face. They are incredibly lightweight but still offer a superb level of protection with fully taped seams, hood, visor etc. In New Zealand I was keen to stay fast and light but still needed to carry waterproofs in my day pack in case the weather turned, so the minimal weight was a huge advantage.

One of the perks of being a The North Face athlete must be your involvement in the development of new kit. Is there anything exciting that you have been involved in testing recently that you can share with us?

Jez: The North Face FL Race Vest is the running pack I wore in New Zealand and is due in the shops in a couple of months time. The pack was developed in conjunction with the athlete team over a period of a year or so and really is a great solution to the classic comfort issue of running with a pack. I’ve been using a prototype for the last year or two which has now covered around 4,000miles and is still going strong. The design is very much about you ‘wearing’ the pack, as opposed to it being strapped to you, making it incredibly comfortable.

Where is the most amazing place that you have run?

Jez: New Zealand was spectacular and so unbelievably wild. But my favourite place of all remains the Scottish Highlands. I grab every opportunity I can to get up to Scotland and I love nothing more than getting out and bagging some Munros on a clear day. I am trying to work my way round all the Munros but still have over half left to go. It’s likely to be a long term project.

The North Face website (http://uk.thenorthface.com/blog/eu/en/jez-bragg) lists your best ever run as the 2006 West Highland Way Race. “I have run much faster and stronger since, but for pure enjoyment it tops them all.” Is this still the case and why did you find this particular race so enjoyable?

Jez: My record breaking run of 2006 was completely unplanned so that’s the reason it felt so special at the time. My preparation was fairly poor, and I just set off with the goal of completing the route/ race, rather than make a record attempt. My only time goal was to reach Tyndrum by 9.30am (8.5hours), which I did almost to the minute, and then I just pushed on from there. With no pressure going into the race, and the excitement of running the full route for the first time, I was excited and motivated, and the run just felt natural and unforced. A very nice feeling!

Do you have any plans to return to the West Highland Way race in the near future to try and reclaim the course record?

Jez: Yes, definitely, one year. Unfortunately the race clashes with Western States, and I still have unfinished business at Western States, so that remains my priority. I believe sub-15hours is possible on the course, particularly with little improvements to the trail here and there, so I would like to have another crack at some point.

Have you ever considered permanently relocating so that you are closer to a preferred running destination?

Jez: We’ve definitely considered it, but for various reasons decided it wouldn’t be the best move for us. The excitement enjoyed from making trips to our favourite places would go if we lived there permanently, and wherever you live, it’s always nice to explore new and different areas. We’re based on the south coast in Dorset where there are plenty of great hills and some beautiful undulating countryside to explore right on our doorstep. There is also a really competitive local road running scene which is great for working on speed and leg turnover, attributes that are easy to lose sight of as an ultra runner.

There’s a 24 hour event, the Glenmore 24, that is run on a 4 mile loop in the forests of Glenmore, just outside of Aviemore. Would you consider running a trail race that uses a loop or is your preference for A to B style events?

Jez: I do much prefer single loop or point-to-point races where there’s a journey with a ‘purpose’ to enjoy, but I will definitely run a 24 hour race some day which I suspect will be on a short loop. When I do so I would prefer a fast and flat course because the appeal for me is seeing how far I can physically run in 24 hours with the terrain completely neutral i.e. flat. I’m still trying to get my head round the concept of a 24 hour race, but I’m getting there.

Your last minute decision to run the rescheduled 2010 UTMB race, including cadging a lift from iRunFar’s Bryon Powell having missed the athlete’s bus, is well documented. You went on to win the race on a course that was shortened due to atrocious weather conditions. At the end of the day, you won the race that was run. Does the negative attitude of some people towards your win ever get to you?

Jez: Not at all. It’s true there wasn’t a full field out and the course was shortened, but you can only beat the runners who are on the start line on any given day, and that’s what I did. I personally don’t count it as a ‘full’ UTMB victory because of the compromised course, but it was still a nice win to take.

In footage of you just after winning UTMB you look emotional and deeply contemplative. Can you recall what was going through your mind?

Jez: It had been a very difficult year after I suffered a nasty stress fracture of my calcaneus (heal bone) in early spring, and it was my first come back race after the injury. I feared the injury would have a significant impact on my career, and mentally was hard to get over through worrying about re-occurrence. The overriding feeling was relief and surprise because it’s a scenario I really didn’t expect to happen.

You placed well (11th) at the 2013 UTMB. Were you happy with the result given the problems experienced with UTMBs in the past couple of years?

Jez: It was never going to be easy returning to competitive racing after what I put myself through in New Zealand. The mental and physical recovery process was extremely tough, and whilst I trained hard for UTMB over the summer, I didn’t feel like I achieved a full level of fitness because of the ongoing long-term recovery process from the expedition. My previous couple of UTMB attempts have been unfortunate, and I know I can run the full course well, so I was pleased to get a solid, if unspectacular, run in on the full course. There’s more still to come at UTMB, for sure…

If there was one race that you could go back and run again, which one would it be and why? What would you do differently?

Jez: Western States 2011 when I came 4th. I was leading the race at mile 60 and running alongside Killian who went on to win, and the elusive race win really was on a plate, but unusually I didn’t have a strong finish that year. The heat catches you up very quickly at States, and my pace for the last 20 miles was atrocious. It was a golden opportunity to win the race, I just hope another similar opportunity presents itself this year.

Ultra Tales reader Dan Park asks “What would you consider the most essential elements to your training and what does an average week of running look like?”

Jez: Consistency is key – getting the mileage and sessions in week on week. Easy days will be two runs of say 7 and 10 miles. I will try and fit two specific sessions in; one interval session (marathon based) and a tempo run of 10 miles or so. I will try to fit in a medium run of day 20 miles mid week, and a longer one at the weekends of say 30 or 35 miles. I try to hit around 110miles a week when I’m building towards a race.

You’ve experienced intestinal issues in the past when racing. What kind of diet do you now follow and has this remedied the problem?

Jez: I suffer from a lifelong stomach illness that I have to manage. Ironically it was the reason I first started running, through my determination to not let it impact my life, and to give my body the best possibly chance of staying healthy. Over the past year or so I’ve switched to a gluten free diet which seems to help in keeping it settled and in check. The bonus is that it’s a positive step to make from a performance nutrition of view anyway. Many top athletes follow a gluten free diet and there are many known benefits.

Silence Vs. Music Vs. Podcasts – what’s your preference when out running? What songs and podcasts, if any, do you listen to while training?

Jez: Silence usually, particularly if I’m running somewhere new and interesting. I also like to listen to and enjoy my surroundings which is all part of the experience when running off road. But perhaps if I’m out on my usual training routes from home and there isn’t quite so much interest in the route then I will listen to my iPod on shuffle, or maybe a podcast.

Do you have a particular ‘go to’ motivational tune for training?

Jez: Not really. I don’t tend to have a problem with motivation, and if I’m running hard then I won’t bother with music because there’s too much going on!

You’ve claimed in the past that your navigation skills are pretty good. Have they ever let you down and, if so, what’s the worst situation you’ve ever found yourself in in terms of being lost?

Jez: Amazingly I only had one navigation nightmare in New Zealand when I ended up getting ‘bush whacked’ in a dense forest – effectively getting disorientated – and I ended up heading back down the trail the wrong way! The density of the forests over there makes it easy to do, particularly when you spend days on end moving through the same forest and it all looks the same. The meandering trail would often be blocked by fallen trees, and such diversions make it easy to lose the markers, then you spot one, but perhaps going the wrong way, but it all looks the same…

But across more normal terrain I’m generally pretty good. Everyone makes mistakes, for me it usually just comes through a lack of concentration. What really helps is that I love maps, and I love plotting new routes to explore new areas. In my mind the best thing about what I do is the opportunity to cover big distances to explore new places, on foot, within minimal intrusion, and the amazing sense of experience it brings.

Have you ever lost your running mojo and, if so, how did you regain it?

Jez: Not yet. I love it. I’ve had my fair share injuries over the past couple of years, and I think it’s easy to get dis-heartened during those periods, particularly when the injuries become protracted and it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But injuries and setbacks usually fuel the hunger more, and I come back even more determined and motivated than ever.

Do you have one special running moment that stands out in your mind?

Jez: My dad was unfortunately only around for the first part of my running career, and I really wish he had been able to witness more of my successes. However he was there for the finish of my first win in 2004 at the Marathon of Britain (175miles/ 6 days), and I treasure that memory dearly.

Of all the runs you have completed, which one means the most to you?

Jez: That’s tough. For sheer level of difficulty it has to be Te Araroa, with the Cook Strait included. The idea of including the Cook Strait crossing in the Te Araroa route was so far fetched that I found it hard to bring myself to explain the idea to people beforehand.

Do you have a ‘go to’ place when times are tough, a point of reference in your life that makes you think ‘I can do this’

Jez: I have plenty since Te Araroa! There were sections immediately after my illness which I still don’t know how I summoned the energy to complete. The sense of ‘emptiness’ was unreal, and the only thing that really carried me through was the fact I done most of the hard work already, and the platform was too good to throw away. I had to finish.

Ultra Tales reader John Goodson asks “What keeps you going when you hit your lowest point and brings you back to carry on?”

Jez: It’s very simple; mental hunger. If you want something enough – whether it’s a race victory, a summit or the end point of a long distance trail – the mind will drag the body through.

Do you ever get emotional when running?

Jez: I do, yes. Running is a time to reflect and contemplate, and those acts invariably bring emotions with them. Also, I always think that long distance running strips you down to reveal your core emotions, so that’s another reason they come out.

What drives you?

Jez: I’m driven to be the best I possibly can be at whatever I do, and I feel fortunate to have found something I’m good at, and in applying that philosophy I can be successful at races and long distance challenges.

What do you think about the current state of ultramarathon running in the UK.

Jez: We’re doing well. There are a lot of top British ultra distance runners competing and being successful at the highest level around the world, so it’s an exciting time to be part of the sport. The sport definitely has profile now and is attracting more and more runners, which is great for future development. It would be great to see the international (representative) ultra running scene develop further so there is greater incentive for the top runners to compete in the championship events.

Given the speed events are now selling out, are you concerned that ultramarathon running in the UK may become too popular?

Jez: The sport is developing at an incredibly fast pace but I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. Trail races will always be constrained by the numbers the trails can sensibly withstand, and race organizers don’t seem to be pushing numbers too hard. They set a cap and stick to it. I guess the number of races will continue to grow to meet demand. There are some strong values amongst races, competitors and the community as a whole, and all we want is for those to be firmly retained. Despite the growth in the sport, there is no change in the type of person who tends to take on the challenge of ultra running; people who thrive in adversity, live life to the full and are full of positivity. I have made so many great friends through the sport and it definitely has a special feel to it.

Can you ever see yourself as a Race Director?

Jez: I’d love to setup a race one day and I have every intention of doing so. I’d love to give something meaningful back to the sport. My wife and I have talked about it already but we’ve decided we’ve got enough on our plate for now whilst we’re still competing. But watch this space!

Was there an interview, article or moment that made you sit back and think, ‘wow, I’ve made it’?

Jez: It’s definitely not about ‘making it’ and being completely honest that thought hasn’t ever crossed my mind. I appreciate and accept that being successful brings attention and I’m totally comfortable with that, but I still see myself as a pretty average guy who just works hard in training to be successful in races. I see myself as lucky to have found a sport which I’m good at, and rewards those who put the effort in.

Who inspires you?

Jez: Those who train the hardest to achieve ultimate success. The Brownlee brothers, Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe etc. The majority of the population have no idea the dedication involved in achieving what they have.

Best running advice you ever received?

Jez: Run with your heart.

And the worst?

Jez: Go out hard and try to hold on. In my opinion it’s a really bad idea in ultras. Of course it’s very different in shorter races.

Are there any races still on your bucket list?

Jez: Spartathlon, UTMF, Marathon des Sables, Hardrock. And plenty more.

What’s the most challenging terrain that you have encountered while running?

Jez: Some of the rough sections of Te Araroa were just ridiculous. Tussocks three feet high, cactus plants with spikes as sharp as a knife, and generally very precipitous train conditions out in the remote areas.

Ultra Tales reader Chris Edmonds asks “How come I never see him running around the Purbecks?”

Jez: Not out early enough? :o) I’m over there very regularly.

Do you have, and are you able to share, any plans for 2014 and beyond?

Jez: My 2014 race calendar is based around the Ultra Trail World Tour: Hong Kong 100, Transgrancanaria, The Fellsman, Western States 100, UTMB. I’ll also run the local road races in Dorset as part of the league.

Paul Ali, Ultra Tales editor asks “It appears you took part in the GUCR in 2005. Any plans to take part in some of the classic British Ultra’s or the new wave of 100 milers in the UK in the near future?”

Jez: I would love to run more UK races, but I also want to be competing against some of the best runners in the world on the international circuit, so the latter remains my focus. I do still throw in the odd UK race – The Fellsman is still on of my favourites and always works well in preparation for Western States. I would love to have a proper crack at the Lakeland 100 but the timing is never great.

Any more multi-day long distance runs/Fastest Known Times planned?

Jez: I do, but plans are under wraps for the moment. I would love to run another ‘long trail’ like Te Araroa, but it will have to wait a good few years because I am now prioritizing getting back into racing. I would also love to have a crack at some of the UK long distance challenges. It’s hard to know what to focus on really, but racing internationally has to be a focus while I still have the ‘speed’.

Big race or solo run – Which do you prefer?

Jez: Solo run.

There has been a spate of autobiographies and films by, and including, ultra runners recently. Can we expect a book and/or film from yourself at any point in the near future?

Jez: I promised I would write a book about Te Araroa, and then I started getting very busy with work, and before you know a full year has passed. I will put pen to paper at some point, but it may be more of a career overview rather than specific to the expedition. We’ll have to see. There is a film in the pipeline about Te Araroa – due to be released middle of 2014. Watch this space.

Do you have any advice for those just starting out in ultra marathon running and also any advice for those looking to improve?

Jez:

  • Focus on time on your feet rather than distance, speed or splits.
  • Think carefully about your nutrition because if you don’t get it right, you won’t be running much further.
  • Enjoy the journey – plan an interesting route.

What does the support of The North face mean to you?

Jez: The North Face has whole heartedly supported my ultra running career for around five years now, creating the opportunities to compete at the best races around the world, for which I am extremely grateful. To be working with such a leading, forward thinking, brand is a great honour, and provides even more motivation to get out there and compete strongly. I have also met a loads of great friends through both the company and the athlete team, so has been a real life changer in many respects.

Jez Bragg’s Career Highlights

2013

  • Completed Te Araroa Trail in 53 days, 9 hours and 1 minute
  • 11th The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

2012

  • 16th Western States 100, Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA
  • 7th The North Face 100 Australia

2011

  • 2nd The Highland Fling Ultramarathon, Scotland
  • 1st The Fellsman (Course Record – 10h 06m)
  • 4th Western States 100, Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA
  • 7th The North Face Endurance Challenge Final, San Francisco

2010

  • 1st The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc
  • 6th The North Face Endurance Challenge Final, San Francisco

2009

  • 1st The Highland Fling Ultramarathon, Scotland (Course record – 7h 19m)
  • 1st UK 100km Championships, Galway, Ireland (Personal best – 6hrs 58m)
  • 1st Commonwealth 100km Championships, Lake District, UK
  • 1st The Fellsman, Yorkshire Dales, UK
  • 3rd Western States 100, Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA
  • 3rd The Lakeland 100, Lake District, UK

2008

  • 1st Connemara Ultramarathon, Ireland
  • 1st Devil O’ The Highlands Ultramarathon, Scotland (Course record – 5h 22m)
  • 1st The Highland Fling Ultramarathon, Scotland (Course record – 7h 24m)

2007

  • 1st The Highland Fling Ultramarathon, Scotland (Course record – 7h 26m)
  • 1st UK 100km Championships, Edinburgh, Scotland
  • 18th World 100km Championships, Netherlands

2006

  • 1st The West Highland Way Race, Scotland (Course record – 15h 44mins)
  • 1st High Peak 40/ UK Trail Championships
  • 1st  The Long Mynd 50, Shropshire
  • 1st  Round Rotherham 50, Yorkshire

References