Jez Bragg: Blazing a lonely trail with purity the prize
The ultra-runner will run 40 miles a day in traversing New Zealand and all for the love of it, he tells Matt Butler
Why would Jez Bragg choose to travel halfway around the world to run – yes, run – from the top to the bottom of New Zealand for no prize, accolade or trophy?
He will begin the 1,863-mile Te Araroa ("The Long Pathway") trail today and he aims to get to the bottom of the country in around 50 days' time. In between, he will run up to 40 miles per day along deserted sandy beaches, through muddy rainforests and over arid alpine ranges. Additionally there is an 80-mile canoe trip down the Whanganui river midway through the North Island and, if weather conditions are agreeable, another paddle across the treacherous, chilly 17-mile Cook Strait.
So why? For a start, Bragg, 31, is an ultra-runner. He loves nothing better than traversing a mountain range through the night or plotting a punishing course across some windswept moors or a coastal path. To Bragg, 26.2 miles is merely a decent start.
He is also very good at what he does; in 2010 he won the prestigious Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 101-mile race around Europe's tallest mountain which attracts 2,500 entrants yearly. The previous year he claimed a podium finish at the Western States Endurance Run, which is the most famous 100-mile race in the United States and attracts the cream of the ultra-running world.
But unlike Bragg's previous escapades, his run in New Zealand will not pit him against any other athletes. The only thing he will be racing is time. And it is for this reason he wants to do it: as he puts it, "for the purity of the sport".
"Wanting to run the Te Araroa came about from my love of off-road trail running," he said. "In training for the big trail races, I noticed that the parts where I had the most fun was when I was on long runs in remote places; I really enjoyed losing myself in the runs where the journey was more the point than the destination. This seemed like a true journey, the pinnacle of what I can do."
But in case Bragg's explanation conjures up images of a wandering hippy at one with nature, think again. Beneath the surface of the chilled-out endurance runner beats the steely heart of an athlete. He will not be the first to run the Te Araroa trail, which opened just over a year ago – an Australian, Richard Bowles, is currently running it and aiming for 60 days – but Bragg wants to be the fastest.
"Ultra-runners are pretty chilled out in the main," Bragg said. "Before races we chat and there are no big egos. But once a race starts, the angry man inside me comes out, to stoke the fire. You have to have that ruthlessness or there is not much point in starting any race. It would be nice to put down a marker and have the fastest time for the trail."
His sponsors, The North Face, are funding the trip. The outdoor clothing company invites its endurance runners every year to submit ideas for expeditions and earlier in 2012 Bragg's plan was accepted. While Bragg, a Brit who lives in Dorset and trains along the Jurassic Coast, concedes ultra-running will never have the mass appeal road marathons enjoy, he has noticed a huge upsurge in participants since he started 10 years ago.
While most ultra-marathon races offer little more than a hot drink and a T-shirt or oversized belt buckle, some have recently started offering prize money. The big purses are in the US, where there are three 50- or 100-mile races which offer $10,000 (£6,200) to the winner.
So how big will it get? Will it go the way of endurance cycling and get all the money and unwanted drug-cheat baggage that has harmed the sport? "It's never going to get like the big road races, because the distance and terrain are limiters in themselves," says Bragg.
"But if more people discover that trail running is fun, that can only be good. I can't see it going the way of cycling, to be honest. It would be desperately sad if it did. But I like it how it is, where people race for the love of the sport."
And you can't get a much deeper love for a sport than taking off halfway round the world to run from one end of a far-flung country to another. Just because it is there. And that is why he'll do it.
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