As the UK’s leading ultra runner, Dorset-raised Bragg has achieved some remarkable firsts. In 2010, he won the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, an unforgiving 166km race across France, Italy and Switzerland. Last year, he set a record when he ran the length of New Zealand in 53 days.
What constitutes “ultra running”?
The first official “ultra” category is 50km. After that, it’s 100km and then the 24- and 48-hour races, which are judged on how much distance you can cover over that time. It’s growing fast, I’d say it’s where triathlon was about 15 years ago. A marathon used to be the ultimate challenge but people are realising that you can go that bit further.
During a run, do you ever think: this is a bit boring?
No! You’re navigating constantly and there are plenty of things to think about: the environment around you, the wildlife, the weather. I love covering long distances under my own steam: it opens up amazing landscapes that very few others get to enjoy.
What’s the furthest you’ve ever gone in one go?
The Grand Union Canal, Birmingham to London: it’s 145 miles.
Do you have a running playlist?
Yes, everything from classic house – Paul van Dyk still gets me going – to The Killers.
What’s in your running backpack?
Snacks, water, my iPhone, GPS, a map, waterproofs, beanie, Buff and gloves.
You ran the length of New Zealand in 53 days. How many miles did you cover each day?
On average about 40. But I did some super-long days. When the terrain was nasty, I was down to 15 miles or so.
Were you running alone?
My father-in-law drove the support van and ran the odd 10km with me, but 98 per cent of it was solo. There were sections of up to 200km across the [national] parks where there were no roads and I had to run with a sleeping bag and tent. Then I was completely alone. Some of New Zealand is seriously remote: if you get into trouble there, the only way out is by helicopter.
Was injury a major concern in such an inhospitable environment?
I was carrying an emergency GPS . If the shit hits the fan, you hit a big red button and they come and pick you up.
Were there any moments when you feared for your life?
Only one. The biggest danger was rivers: they criss-cross the trails in New Zealand and rise very quickly when it rains. In one of the national parks, I tried to wade across a river I shouldn’t have, and got swept away. I was being tossed, completely out of control, with a huge backpack on. I was terrified it would get snagged and my head would be pulled under. That was definitely the scariest moment of the trip.
Do you ever get lost?
I quite often lose trails – in New Zealand, it happened a few times. A lot of the forests are really dense and look exactly the same for miles. If you’re running through that all day, you can become disoriented.
What do you dislike about running?
The amount of washing involved! My wife and I both run and the washing machine is going constantly.
Where’s the most beautiful place you’ve run?
The Scottish Highlands are very, very special. You get a proper sense of wilderness up there: no sign of human habitation at all. Just stunning scenery. It’s the ultimate escapism.
How many pairs of trainers do you get through a year?
About a pair a month. But sometimes you get really attached to them and don’t want to chuck them out – if you’ve worn them in a race you’ve won. There are trainers everywhere at home. We have to do an annual clear-out.
What are the most common mistakes made by inexperienced runners?
Too many people don’t have their running gait analysed. It’s so important to get footwear that suits your running style, and so easy to do so in sports shops. When you see people jogging in totally unsupported footwear, you cringe a bit: they’re asking for injury. People get set in their ways when it comes to routes, too; then they wonder why they lose interest.
What’s the single best fuel for running?
Bananas. If it’s really hot, water melon. And peanut butter and jam wraps. You need to have proper food, too: you can’t run 100 miles on just sugar or gels.
Is the runner’s high more intense after an ultra marathon?
Yes. The endorphins get going and it completely clears your head. After a long race you get a big high for a day or two before reality kicks in.
Is there a limit to the distance the human body can run?
The mind can carry you a long way but obviously at some point you’ll start to break down physically, even with the right snacks and aid stations. It comes down to each individual as to what point that starts happening. For me, it’s not about how far you can go: I’m kind of obsessed by how quickly I can run 100 miles. I’ve got it down to under 16 hours.
How do you keep going?
You go through cycles of highs and lows on any run, be it 10km or an ultra marathon. You’ll have 20 minutes or so of feeling crap, but you’ve just got to remember you’re going to come out on the other side and have a good spell again. You learn to distract yourself from how your body’s feeling by enjoying the environment. A lot of ultra runners talk about the “flow” – that rhythm where you just switch off and let the miles tick by. You’ve just got to find that elusive gear. And when you’re running off-road it’s easier to do that, because it’s more of a journey.
Who’s the greatest runner ever?
Mo Farah. It’s his ability to be the best at so many different disciplines. To go from 10km to 5km to 1,500 metres and excel at them all is just incredible. And now he’s going to have a crack at the marathon, too! I honestly can’t think of anybody else that can surpass his incredible versatility at the very top level.
Jez Bragg is a member of the North Face Global Athlete Team. Read about his NZ run at thenorthfacejournal.com
Photography: Damiano Levati