[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a new article series presented by iRunFar called On Adventure, a play on words from the climbing phrase “on belay.” A climbing partner will say “ready to climb” when she/he is ready to begin climbing, and the supporting partner responds with “on belay,” which means she/he has the climber on belay and is ready to play the supporting role. On Adventure will strive to support (read: document) the raddest running adventures undertaken by trail and ultrarunners.]
At about 4:00 pm on Saturday, February 2 NZST (that’s 8:00 pm on Friday, February 1 MST in the US) and in just 53 days, Jez Bragg completed his lightning-fast tramp of New Zealand’s 3,054-kilometer (just under 1,898-mile) long trail, the Te Araroa Trail.
Jez Bragg, a British ultramarathoner and a member of The North Face Global Athlete Team, brought stiff racing credentials to this adventure, including the ability to withstand the not-always-nice rigors of Mother Nature. His race resume includes a win at the 2010 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the year the race was started, stopped due to horrific weather after the leaders had already run 20 miles, and restarted as a 100k the next day, as well as a third place at the 2009 Western States 100, a year that offered an inferno of heat. And Jez has always been a bit of a wanderer, embracing multi-day running and hiking outings in his British homeland. For the last several years, he’s lived in the south of England and sea kayaked in the channel, too. This is all to say that Jez was physically and mentally primed for the primal challenge of a long-trail expedition.
The Te Araroa Trail extends from Cape Reinga, which is located at the north end of the New Zealand’s North Island, to Bluff at the south end of the South Island. The trail is relatively new, made official in December of 2011, and it’s composed of a combination of already-established trails, beaches, dirt roads, urban pathways, tarmac, a ton of marked-but-gnarly-cross-country terrain, and waterways.
As comparables for folks in North America and Europe, the Appalachian Trail rings in at 3,500 kilometers/2,175 miles in length, the Pacific Crest Trail at 4,264 kilometers/2,650 miles, and the Camino de Santiago at 791 kilometers/491 miles.
Jez’s expedition, which began on December 12, has been exclusively self-powered. “Primarily, it is a top-to-bottom traverse under human power,” explains Jez. “Yeah, I wanted to go as fast as I could, too, as it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something special.”
This means that he’s covered the trail’s distance with only his feet and, where necessitated by the trail’s passage down rivers and across lakes and oceans, kayaks. This included a 44-kilometer/27-mile, nine-hour kayak crossing of Cook Strait, the water body separating the North and South Islands that is known for its dangerous currents and unpredictable weather. No ferries, no side-stepping waterways, no nothing but him and his own legs and arms.
Like any expedition-length thru-hike, Jez spent a bit of time off the established route, mostly to meet up with his support crew in places where they couldn’t reach the trail. So passionate was Jez about keeping his expedition exclusively him-powered that he either ran or rode a mountain bike on those diversions to and from the Te Araroa Trail.
Jez’s primary crew members were his father-in-law, Mark Taylor, and good friend, Jamie Ashwell. During the last several weeks of the expedition, the team was joined by Gemma Bragg, Jez’s newlywed wife, and Mark’s wife/Gemma’s mom, Hilary Taylor. Jez, Mark, and Jamie used a moderate-sized camper van as a crew vehicle, and Gemma and Hilary brought a second camper van into the mix when they arrived. Finally, a photo and video crew of three and their two vehicles accompanied the group, adding their hands to crewing on occasion.
The following video, shot around New Year’s Day and a couple weeks into the expedition, captures its mood, explains logistics, and introduces Jez as well as crew members Mark and Jamie:
iRunFar has been following Jez’s expedition since he took his first step south from Cape Reinga, and, in the last two weeks, we’ve interviewed Jez and his crew. Please enjoy this bird’s-eye view into Jez Bragg’s Te Araroa Trail expedition. In addition, Jez kept a meticulous and visually stunning journal of his journey over on his personal blog.
Planning the Te Araroa Trail Expedition
When Gemma and I speak, she says that it’s a sunny, warm morning on the South Island of New Zealand. Jez has just up and left the camper van for his day afield. He has about nine or 10 days to his finish line, and Gemma’s been a part of the crew for roughly the same amount of time. I ask, now that she’s so deeply embedded in the experience, if she can remember when Jez first mentioned the expedition.
“I remember it well. We were just in the kitchen making dinner. As he often does, he pops these things into the conversation like they’re normal. He said he was going to apply [to The North Face] for [support for] this expedition.” She laughs gently, then continues, “That’s his way of doing things. Like he was planting a seed. This makes me love him so!”
When I relay to Jez her story about that night, he can’t recall it. Of course, he and I are speaking on the penultimate day of his Te Araroa Trail trip, and he’s standing on an open mountaintop called Bald Hill, and he’s caught first sight of his finishing point at Bluff. It’s possible that he’s distracted.
“When I learned about this trail, Te Araroa, about three years ago, it was not yet complete. I started following the trail’s development news,” begins Jez when I ask him about how this dream turned into reality. “In autumn 2011, they announced it would be opening in December. That coincided with the cycle for The North Face expedition funding. I thought, Alright, I’m going to apply for funding. That happened in December 2011. And here I am a little more than a year later with this incredible adventure. I’m a very lucky person.”
Mark also recalls those planning days during our phone conversation. “When he said he was primed to do this trip, I was first amazed and impressed. I was then overcome with the desire to help him. I thought, Wow, that’s just me. I’m really into running and cycling and kayaking. Jez and I have been on adventures together; well, he at half his speed to be with me. I was thinking, I can do that. I can be his crew. I dropped him an email straight away and said I wanted to help.”
“When Mark put himself forward, I got excited and shook his hand off. He’s a retired doctor, a very competent kayaker, and the most determined person imaginable. So that was the first piece of the puzzle,” explains Jez about how logistics fell into place. “Then I asked my best man from my wedding and an old school friend, [Jamie,] if he fancied coming to New Zealand to look after me for a couple months.”
Jamie’s got a slightly different version of that story, which he tells with a laugh: “I’d just sold my business, a steel company, and had some time off. Jez asked me if I wanted to use some of it to crew him. He made it seem like loads of people would want this job, made me say yes right then or lose my chance. He knew I would never say no.”
And, about crew member and wife, Gemma, Jez gushes. “She’s incredibly supportive, to think we’ve only been married four months. She’s just there by my side. I draw a lot of strength from her. 2012 was a disappointing year for my racing and health. I was dealing with a bowel disease, gluten-intolerance issues, and an Achilles problem. This translated into poor race performances.” He goes quiet, as if it takes him a while to remember. Here he is, near the end of his big adventure, where he’s been carried by an almost entirely healthy body. “Yeah, I didn’t have much confidence when I started this. Gem’s given me that.”
I ask Mark about the highest highs of the Te Araroa Trail expedition, if he yet has the perspective to summarize some of them, if it’s even possible to filter through 3,054 New Zealand-style kilometers worth of adventure.
“I am overwhelmed by the number of highs,” Mark says immediately. “Foremost, though, is Jez’s ability to recover, to handle the expedition’s pure volume. He has his times where he gets down if he’s had a rough day, or he’s just exhausted. We sort of cajole him through those moments. But the rest of the time his power of recovery, mental and physical, is incredible. Like when he gets back at 3:00 am from a run. In a few hours of sleep and after a fry breakfast, he’s off again.”
Mark pauses, and I can hear the noises of the crew’s camp life in the background. When he speaks next, his voice conveys a proudness so profound that his word choice doesn’t really matter now. I get it: this is a proud papa-in-law. “Being Jez’s partner on most of the water crossings. To do a bit of running and some cycling next to him. He’s my son-in-law, so I knew him before. I let my daughter marry him. But now I know him so much more. He’s a good man.”
Gemma’s answer to the same question is an explosion of thought. Fast and furious, she says, “We rode in a helicopter to crew Jez on this remote mountain crossing. How amazing it was to look down on him as he ran on a ridgeline! Getting to run with him. Cooking up food for him. Watching my husband do something big.” Gemma continues, “It’s silly, maybe. Maybe not, I even love doing his washing.”
Jez says that he’s kept the expedition as comfortable as possible by doing it British-style. “I’ve taken quite a British approach. I have my fried breakfast in the morning. I drink my tea. Everyone asks, ‘What sports and recovery drinks are you taking?’ None, I drink chocolate milk and eat potato chips and chocolate. I eat really substantial meals. Solid, hardy food has worked.”
Another clear high for Jez was navigating under his own power the powerful waters of Cook Strait, which he did with Mark and an expert New Zealand kayaker and guide, Tim Taylor. “Adrenaline carried me across. I didn’t have any moments where I was like, ‘Holy shit, I’m 20k from land both ways and I’m in one of the world’s most dangerous stretches of water.’ I just focused on paddling against the crazy currents. I mean, I’m a runner with a scrawny upper body!”
There are more, many more, great moments.
“Sometimes I just sit down on a rock for five minutes to take in the remarkable wilderness of New Zealand. There have been so many days that I haven’t seen anyone. I find that beyond belief. Some of these trails I reckon only see a pair of feet maybe once a week.”
“It’s pretty special, where I’m talking with you right now, on Bald Mountain. Seeing the south coast and Bluff for the first time.”
It’s as if asking Jez about his favorite parts of the last 50-some-odd days has created a movie reel of them playing in his head. I can tell, his mind is racing with memories.
“The best moment? I’ve got it now. It was at the end of the North Island and just before I arrived in Wellington. It was sunset, running along a ridgeline before I dropped back down to the camper van. I saw the South Island for the first time, Cook Strait the first time; it was the next day that I was to be paddling across there. It epitomized my journey. It felt like New Zealand through and through.”
While Jez and his crew have found a plethora of great days and moments, everyone agrees on the grandest challenge: the terrain. The terrain, the terrain, the terrain! Probably if Jez were writing the previous sentence, he’d add a couple expletives.
“Five days ago, Jez asked my dad and I to come into the mountains, to meet up with him on a remote section,” explains Gemma. “I think he was lonely, tired. He said he wanted to see some familiar faces. The terrain was just awful. The grass was up to my shoulders. And there were these prickly bushes. The climbs and descents, just straight up and down the mountains. The whole thing was unrunable, really.”
On the terrain, Jamie says, “The landscape is, on so many levels, ridiculous. The beauty. The difficulty. It’s like running in a jungle half the time.”
“The conditions underfoot are so tough. Much of the time there’s no actual path. He’s going across virgin country.” Mark expounds, “We expected he’d be running eight or nine hours a day. Instead, he’s had lots of very late finishes so that he can cover his desired distance each day. 10:00 pm, 1:00 am, 3:00 am.”
Jez cannot agree more, “The point I really want to get across is just how rough the route is. It’s much more a route than a trail. In so many sections, you’re just following poles across rough ground; it’s impossible to run.”
There were also a couple very bad days in paradise during Jez’s time on the South Island: Giardia. He thinks he got it from drinking unfiltered, unpurified water somewhere out there. It ravaged him with intestinal distress and lethargy.
Remembers Jez, “I got weaker by the day. And then after a very late finish one night, 2:00 or 3:00 am, I had a fever. I was in trouble. I was laid up horizontal in the back of the van for three days.” Mark says he administered several different antibiotics, until his body started responding positively to one of them.
“It was difficult watching the clock tick by.” Jez originally wanted to complete the Te Araroa Trail in under 50 days, and this setback would undoubtedly push his finishing time over the 50-day mark. But Jez wouldn’t think of quitting, “I knew this [expedition] was still on. I’d had such a good run and good fortune. What a waste if I pulled the plug.” After three days of rest, two short days on the trail, and a 40k day during which he felt like himself again, the game was back on.
When I think about crews for long-distance adventures like this, I imagine a ship at sea and the possibility of mutiny. You know the story, where a crew doesn’t get behind the mission of the captain, so they overthrow him or her and navigate the ship off into the sunset on their own. This has happened on running expeditions, too; remember Running the Sahara? With all due respect to the guys who ran a long way, talk about misaligned runners and crews!
For something like the Te Araroa Trail expedition to fly, Jez and each member of his crew needed to be devoted to the singular goal of getting Jez to New Zealand’s Bluff. I can say without hesitation: Jez’s crew would go to moon for him.
Gemma’s devotion is deep, so deep it makes my heart soar for the love that she and Jez so clearly share. “He’s my soul mate. I completely believe in what he’s doing. When you love someone, you’d do anything for them. When he gets up at 5:00 am, I don’t find it hard getting up. I don’t even question it.”
“Jez is married to my Gemma now. He’s family. To be able to do this for him is an amazing experience. I believe passionately in what he’s doing,” offers Mark during our interview with not a lick of prompting. “I’m absolutely committed to the project and to him.”
Even if the crew is 100% committed to their cause, and even if it is Jez who is toiling on foot all day and sometimes all night, the crew is never, ever at rest. According to Mark, each day ends with the crew asking Jez what time he’ll get up in the morning. Most days, he says he’ll arise at 5:00 am or 5:30.
“And so we wake up then. We make tea; we’re British, right? Jamie is the cook – nobody should trust me to do the cooking!” exclaims Mark. “Everything is done based on how Jez is feeling. Jamie cooks Jez whatever he wants. Jez will then tell us where and when he wants us to crew him. If he’s in the lowlands, we meet him every 10k or so.”
On the morning I interviewed Mark, Jez had already developed the crew plan. “Today, for instance, we’ll be meeting him in about 11.5k where the trail is near the road. We’ll have numerous stops like this throughout the day. Each time he turns up at the van, we have everything ready for him, a fridge full of cold drinks and lots of snacks for him to eat. He just grabs what he wants, inhales it, and then in 10 or 15 minutes, he’s off again.”
Mark continues, “Tonight, he’ll go into the mountains. So, after about 35k today, we’ll help him get his overnight kit together, sandwiches, satellite phone, sleeping bag, a camera, maybe. And then he’ll head off, and give us a satellite phone call when he stops for the night at a hut.”
There is no rest for the crew when Jez is in the bush for the night, “Tonight, we’ll catch up on washing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve washed Jez’s underpants.” I laugh so hard and long that Mark has to stop talking to let me get it all out. It occurs to me that Jez and Mark have an uncommon father-in-law/son-in-law relationship. I tell him as much and then it’s his turn for a long laugh. He continues, “We go to a campground so we can empty the camper van’s toilet, fill its water, and clean it. We straighten up the camper van so that Jez can feel comfortable when he comes out of the hills.”
Even though photographs show that Jez’s face and body are changing – he’s clearly lost some weight – Gemma says that Jez is eating a lot and often. “I’ve been cake baking. He loves fresh, homemade cakes. I make cakes and muffins that he can take in his bag. His favorite, chocolate and banana, is good running fuel. Mom and I make huge meals that are home cooked, like lasagna and chicken casserole.”
“Of course this is difficult. Just as Jez has had rough patches, so have we,” says Jamie as he describes what it’s like to be Jez’s crew. I understand that what he’s describing, though, is a labor of love. Jez and Jamie have known each other since they were both preteens, and, together, they’ve been through – especially after this – it all.
“The best moment was when the film crew caught Jez stripping down for a shower. Jez realized he had an unintentional audience, and he made the best of it,” reveals Jamie through laughter. “He was wearing this floppy knit hat, holding up only an Union Jack towel in front of his naked body, and it was long into the expedition so he was really skinny. I laughed so hard.”
“It’s hard to put into words the amount of effort and determination my crew has put in.” The pace of Jez’s words throughout our interview have been fast and direct – he’s a man still on a mission – but, now, they come slowly, carefully. “They have had incredible emotional determination to get me through, my mood swings, my changes of mind. I tell them, ‘I’m just going to do another 10k before we stop tonight,’ all sorts of things. They’ve remained positive, patient, and effective, the perfect combination. This strong team effort has been so special.”
As Gemma and I talk, I realize that she sees herself as part of her husband’s crew to bear witness to the whole kit and caboodle, the highs, the lows, the changing of her husband, him living out a dream. “This kind of experience…” she says, then trails off. “Unless you’re here…” Again, silence.
“You just have to be here to believe this is all happening like it is. You know, I’m not on the trail with him all the time, so I don’t know everything. But I can feel his struggle and drive in my heart. This is changing him. He looks different, like you said. I think older. But he looks gorgeous. He still looks lovely to me. More of the change is happening on the inside. This experience is making stronger all of the qualities he already has.”
“Probably the first thing I’ll do is get very, very emotional,” says Jez when I ask him what he thinks will happen when he reaches the little nub of headland that is Bluff, the southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island and the south end of the Te Araroa Trail. “Then drink champagne and enjoy the moment with my crew. I’ll probably go have a very big feed-up and drink lots of cider after that.” Jez is in the mood for a little celebration.
“And next, we’re going on vacation!” explains Gemma. “I’ve managed to get us a week on an island. We’ve never done anything like this before. It has amazing snorkeling; you can go on boat trips. We’ll have a week just relaxing and getting Jez’s strength back up. It will be nice to have that time together, just the two of us.”
She continues, “You know, we’ve been married just a little while. When we get back to England, we’re going to buy our first home together. Oh, and I’ve got to feed him, too.”
But, really. What exactly do you do after you’ve covered the north-south length of New Zealand on foot? When you’ve got a shorts tan that’ll take months to recede, even in the British winter? When you’ve grown a bushy mountain-man beard but you’re headed back to civilization? When you don’t have to get up tomorrow morning and run a long way? When you end an adventure as a different version of yourself?
For Jez, the Te Araroa Trail expedition is about more than just running (and hiking, kayaking, and, sometimes, clawing and crawling) a long way. This expedition has served as a window into who he is and what he desires in life. “It’s really simple. It’s made me more open with my emotions – Gem says she’s noticed this – but in a strange kind of way I also feel hardened and strong. I’ve spent 50 days thinking about the people, the relationships, and the life experiences that are the most important to me.”
Update (February 25, 2013)
A second video on Jez’s expedition has just been released. It’s just beautiful. Please enjoy but beware of the intensity of inspiration you will afterwards feel:
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Feel free to leave your props for Jez in the comments below. Let’s just say that he deserves them.
- Have you hiked, fastpacked, or run a long trail? If so, tell us about your adventures!
- Most people take time away for a weekend or a week’s adventure, but several months? If you had the time, body, and the resources to do something like Jez’s undertaking, would you?
[Editor’s Note: Ryan Lindemulder, iRunFar’s spring intern, assisted in the research for this story.]