Where The Mind Leads
An interview with Jez Bragg
Ultrarunner Jez Bragg talks to Jamie Bunchuk about running, the weekly training regime, what lessons were learnt on his mammoth run across New Zealand, and the art of finding your flow.
Jamie: What first got you into long distance trail running?
Jez: I first got the running whilst bug training for the London Marathon in 2002, but it was taking part in a long distance charity walk soon afterwards that really sowed the seed for trail running. I met guys who were running these off-road events of 50 or even 100 miles in quite remarkable times, and this introduced me to the somewhat underground world of ultra distance trail running. Of course that’s not really the case these days with the rapid evolvement of the sport.
I loved the idea of covering long distances off-road, on foot. I entered my first trail race in 2004 which was a 175 mile/six day stage race across the Midlands (start as you mean to go on) and I haven’t looked back since.
What do you enjoy about running, and do you find anything annoying about the sport?
I enjoy the simplicity – one foot after the other, the flexibility of being able to run wherever you are in the world, the opportunity to explore amazing places and the mental health benefits of clearing your head and having quality thinking time. I am annoyed by people who have never given running a chance, who preach about it being bad for your joints and not good for you. There’s a rant coming on, I shall restrain myself…
How does the mentality of an ultra-distance runner differ from that of, say a marathon runner?
I think runners of every different type and distance have plenty in common, but when it comes to really long journeys on foot, it becomes a lot more about the experience as opposed to the distance or time. With distances up to a marathon it’s a lot more about split times and personal bests, but with ultra-distance running there are typically lots of different factors coming into play such as terrain, topography and weather which pushes time down the priority list. My number one priority when I go out for a run is to find a nice route and to enjoy it.
What does your weekly training regime look like?
This varies depending on the time year and what I’m specifically training for. When I’m in shape and it’s all going to plan then I will aim for 100+ miles a week, typically a mixture of road and trail running. I will try to replicate the race route or whatever I’m preparing for in training. It’s not always straight forward living in Dorset – for example preparing for a mountain run in Scotland – but there are always ways and means with a little creativity.
My training plan is typically not dissimilar to a marathon runner’s with weekly sessions including intervals, tempo running, hill repeats and long runs. I train with our local road running club, Bournemouth AC, and all the local speedsters give me a good kicking in training! I will also run local road races up to 20 miles in distance to help prepare for ultras – it’s always good to focus on speed and resist the pull in the opposite direction (slowing down) from running longer distances. My recovery and long runs will typically be off-road.
So how do you find your flow when you’re running?
It doesn’t always happen unfortunately, and definitely less so now I have a few aches and pains and I’m getting on a bit! The ideal is to subconsciously drift off into a dreamy place, where thoughts and ideas come and go, and so do the miles. In doing so you can really bring out the best of yourself performance wise — ultra running is all about finding a sustainable pace and maintaining it.
How do the difficulties differ between standard ultra-marathons races and extended months-long endurance challenges such as your run across New Zealand?
The biggest difference is on the psychological side. With a single stage ultra you always know in the back of your mind that you will be ‘done’ relatively quickly, and that the finishing line is never too far away – helping draw you through those tough spells whenever they arise (and they always do). For a big multi-day adventure like Te Araroa in New Zealand, it was almost impossible to put the distance into perspective, so I had to just ignore the numbers, and take each day as it came. Thankfully there was a lot to keep my mind occupied and avoid thinking myself into an overwhelmed state – not least making sure I didn’t get lost in the bush.
Speaking of New Zealand, what would you say was the most important lesson you learned from that mammoth undertaking?
It made me realise that where the mind leads, the body follows. The success all came down to desire. I really wanted to complete that journey – I was hugely motivated by the challenge and the whole adventure. I have no doubt that my drive and determination forced my body to rise to the challenge, and in doing so made it physically possible.
You’ve done some incredible challenges over the years, ones that have pushed you not only physically but also in remote locations, away from the officialdom of regulated races. Where would you say the line falls between what’s considered sport, and what’s considered adventure?
I look at it all as an adventure, whether it’s a race or a solo challenge in the hills. Running long distances across challenging terrain never fails to deliver an adventure! I don’t tend to think about it too much, I just enjoy both and what they each have to offer.
What’s more important for you, running a set distance as fast as you’re able to, or pushing how far you can actually go (at a slower pace)?
Definitely the first of those. Within reason I think it’s always possible to go further and further (and quite fashionable, but not necessarily a sustainable trend), but true speed over long distances is harder to come by. There is something really appealing about the 100 mile distance over courses like Western States in California – perhaps it’s the combination of distance against the clock on such classic sections of trail.
Running the Te Araroa trail made me realise that where the mind leads, the body follows. The success all came down to desire. I really wanted to complete that journey – I was hugely motivated by the challenge and the whole adventure.
What is your favourite distance for a run?
20 miles on the coast path is always a weekend favourite. My typical run from the doorstep is a 10 mile circuit around the local countryside, cleverly named by wife and I as ‘the loop’.
Who are your heroes?
The old school clan of ultra runners such as Don Ritchie and Ann Trason. They raced relentlessly, and to an incredible standard, setting times and records that remain untouched today. It all seemed a lot more no-nonsense in those days – forget the hi-tech clothing and nutritional products – pure grit and determination.
What’s the hardest running challenge you’ve attempted here in the UK?
The Dragon’s Back Race certainly takes some beating – a five day race down the mountainous spine of Wales. I attempted it in June a week after my Ramsay Round record, and unfortunately I picked up a nasty stomach bug which caused D&V and forced me to stop in the middle of day 4. It’s a self navigation event which takes in takes in every summit in sight and you head south, with some rather rough terrain thrown in. I can still count my running career DNFs on one hand, so that’s some consolation, however I will have to go back when it’s next run in two year’s time to have another go and set the records straight. Not that I’ve got any hang-ups about it or anything like that…
Is there a single moment or memory you have that stands out above all others when you think about your life running?
Winning my first GB vest for the 100km road discipline was very special, but a real turning point for my running career was winning the West Highland Way Race in 2006 and setting a new course record at the time (95 miles in 15hrs 44mins. I didn’t expect it at all, and I suddenly became aware of the sort of performances I was capable of. It was then about following that performance up with a degree of ambition and setting the bar higher each time.
And finally, is there a dream run you’ve yet to attempt?
At some point I would love to have another go at a long trail such as the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails in the US. In reality it’s not something I would attempt in the short term, but never say never.
Join Jez Bragg at the North Face Night Ray Outdoor Festival on a dusk trail run along the beautiful trails of Verdon in France. For tickets and more information visit www.thenorthfacejournal.com/nightray