The second and fastest running of New Zealand’s Te Araroa trail was a rollercoaster journey for The North Face runner Jez Bragg, in more ways than one.
WORDS: Jez Bragg
IMAGES: courtesy The North Face
It’s easy saying you will do something, but often the reality of performing is not quite so simple, particularly when it comes to running a long, long way. Throw in an elite trail runner’s obsession with doing things as fast as humanly possible, and it gets more complicated still. But a dream is a dream, and when you have the burning passion inside, the outcome will definitely be less in doubt. That was the foundation for my Te Araroa journey, and not far off how it turned out.
My dream of running the Te Araroa ‘trail’ was born from the moment I stumbled across the website around four years ago. At the time, the mind-boggling project of piecing a continuous trail running the full length of both islands of New Zealand was still in work-in-progress, under the watchful eye of the curator, Geoff Chapple.
Believe it or not, I wasn’t specifically looking for an epic, multi-day, challenge at the time. Actually the powerful and immediate attraction simply lay in the location, New Zealand; one of the world’s most beautiful countries. And that was supported by a dream concept; end-to-end down both islands; a journey with a true purpose. Just how I like it. I was sold immediately and I wanted to go at it as soon after the December 2011 opening date as possible. So how it came about, being that way round, meant the deep desire and motivation to complete the route lay there from the start and undoubtedly had a major bearing on the eventual outcome of the expedition.
The crucial period was always going to be the first 10 days of the run. These epic long runs are all about settling into a routine, allowing your body time to (hopefully) adjust and ultimately discovering whether you are cut out for such epic multi-day stuff. Can you train up to the full demands of a run like this? Of course you can’t, it would be counter productive to do so, well certainly for anything more than a couple of days. So it’s into the unknown, trusting your skill, judgment and endurance from previous experiences and training, and seeing what happens. All part of the excitement.
My sub-50 day target was self-set and made public, but without any real knowledge of the terrain and nature of the trail. Yes, you can read previous tramper’s accounts, the guidebook and other material on the web, but that’s not from a runner’s perspective, which is very different. Runner’s have a different set of requirements. The target really based on gut-feeling and a simple calculation of the total distance (3,054km) divided by the average daily distance I thought I could maintain for the duration.
No rest days were factored in, I felt these would be counter-productive and really, if you need to take a day off a week, you’re probably not to make it to the end anyway. Rest would come in the form of water crossings, official parts of the trail, where I would kayak across. They helped break it up and I always looked forward to them, although they always created long days from the time required for changing, getting going, moving at a slower pace and then changing back to run again afterwards. But I guess they only created long days because I wanted to maintain my daily average, so entirely self-inflicted.
I was pretty uptight at the start of the run and in the final few days beforehand. I knew I was about to enter a seriously intense, at times painful, and realistically quite selfish world, which was full of unknowns. I could cope with all that, but I always conscious that my movements would directly influence the rest of the team, and that in turn would influence their expedition experience. I struggled to really be that selfish, but that’s not to say I lacked any focus. Perhaps I got the balance right – they will have to comment on that. But the upshot was I would be calling the shots for 50 odd days and ‘just running’ each day is certainly not a pressure free environment.
I’m sure most people would class my schedule as aggressive and pushing it too hard, perhaps taking some of the enjoyment away. That was probably true at times, and I was all too aware that the result would be many late night and early morning finishes which would again impact my crew the most. I know it’s part and parcel of it all, but it still played on my mind. It was such a sacrifice for them to make; no proper Christmas, no proper New Year, being away from family and friends for two full months.
Of course the conflict that exists with a record attempt like this, is that the support crew are such an essential lifeline to achieve the goal; it would be impossible to do it without them. But at the same time there is unquestionably a loss in the purity from not being completely independent, and being constantly tracked down the route. It wasn’t a negative but simply a fact of the journey, but it did always have implications. For example we would agree approximate rendezvous times, well I would usually offer them actually, and the timings would then become important targets for me to achieve. I didn’t just trundle along the trail without a care in the world, I’m admittedly too competitive for that, I was always looking for opportunities to bag more kilometres whenever the opportunity arose. With the terrain underfoot unknown, I was invariably ambitious with my time estimations, and it was probably bad idea, but I found it helped. Target times basically make me tick when I’m out in the hills, so there’s no point challenging the thought process.
One good example of my ambition was when I came out of Lake Sumner National Park after a two-day overnight stint, which took in a tough section over Harper’s Pass and down the bed of the Taramakau River. There I met my wife Gemma who had just arrived from the UK. It was late afternoon and I was tired because the section had come straight off the back of three days in the Richmond Range. Emotionally I wanted to stay, catch up and rest, but my mind was very clear that a night section was possible to get the notorious Deception River Valley out the way, which I knew would still take up a full day in daylight. A day I could gain. It’s an upstream slog with a lot of wading and boulder hopping, probably best tackled in good weather and daylight, but I was clear about what I wanted to do, and my crew backed me. It pushed me pretty hard and there were many sections of waterfalls to climb that most would class as dangerous, particularly solo and at night, but I remained calm and focused, making the crossing over Goat Pass in around eight hours. But I didn’t get back to the van until 3am and I was in desperate need of food. Again, a demanding situation for the crew.
Staying on the subject of ‘what do you think about when you run’. Well after a few days, it was a lot about food. I ate fairly normally for the first few days, and then developed this insatiable appetite for anything offering calories. I managed to resist the temptation of throttling and frying the possoms, but didn’t feel a million miles away at times!
My food intake and energy levels would heavily influence my state of mind. I became grumpy and full of self-sorrow when I got low on energy. Conversely, remarkably chipper after a plate of pasta with cheese. The simple things were all that mattered; food, sleep, keeping warm and dry. That was a nice feeling, because it brings a sense of basic human existence, highlighting all the clutter in our lives which we don’t need.
The simplicity became rather warming, to the point you start to think about changing your life in certain ways. The network of Department of Conservation mountain huts were often my overnight refuge. The standard varied a huge amount, but even a 60 year-old mouse ridden shack with canvas bunks felt warm and welcoming after 16 hours on the trail. One night when I crossed Takitimu Forest I stayed at a hut with no more overnight kit that a foil survival blanket and a cheese and ham sandwich. It was perfectly adequate – I wanted to stay fast and light and the weather was good. After a 6am to 10pm day on your feet, you don’t tend to be quite so fussy.
My journey involved so much time alone, but I was more than content. I was on a journey with a great purpose, and that was all that really mattered. Sometimes, generally in the longer wilderness areas, which I crossed with a fastpack, I would bump into fellow ‘trampers’ or Te Araroa ‘through hikers’. Sometimes I would feel apprehensive about making the contact and having a conversation, because it would invariably remind me of the scale of what I was doing.
Fellow trampers usually have the ‘where have you come from, where are you heading?’ conversation, and the response I got back was usually of shock and disbelief. Brush it off, yes. But if you’re feeling a bit tired, it’s easy to start thinking, well this is a bit daft really, isn’t it? Sources of self-doubt, or questioning the purpose, are generally not helpful. There were one or two enthusiastic and immediate pats on the back, that’s the better scenario.
The North Island went as smoothly as it possibly could do, 1,623km in 25 days, giving an average of 64km/ day. I even nailed my rather ambitious goal to include a Cook Strait crossing by kayak, but it all cranked up a notch in severity on the South Island. The Richmond Range was definitely an eye opener, with some high level alpine terrain, and the introduction of significant river risks. The rivers in New Zealand are notorious for coming up quickly when it rains, so you are constantly wondering whether there would be a swing bring in place, or worrying about ‘wait out’ scenarios if one become uncrossable.
The fatigue was also starting to really build. The longer wilderness sections requiring a fast pack setup would be slow, not just from the pack, but also much rougher terrain. The remoter it gets, the less walked it becomes, and the slower it is to traverse. With my determined mindset that translated into longer days to maintain average, and when out in the wilderness working to entirely my own schedule, I would start before first light at 5 or 6am, and continue through to gone dark at 10 or 11pm. Food would be limited; sandwiches, freeze dried meals and snacks, all had to be rationed. I didn’t want to over cater, but didn’t want to get caught short.
In reality I was red lining it as I tried to make my way through the national parks of the South Island as quickly and efficiently as possible. I didn’t relent in my drive to always push it, but I was generally holding up fine. My first major body issue came about through having constant wet feet; basically just foot rot between my toes. Incredibly painful, and then mentally tortuous when switching from dry surfaces to the first water wade of the day. The grit would get in and into my sores. Ouch.
The other pain that started to trouble my mind was from cuts and bruises over my hands and legs. The overgrown paths in the forests would constantly scratch and the rough grass ‘whipp’, making my legs feel raw. These things were definitely wearing me down, to the extent that my head would completely go during the rougher sections. Gem witnessed my frustrated outbursts, cursing the terrain, almost reaching tears quite often. I could handle the running, but the roughness was a real frustration.
When I picked up Giardia on day 37, I was already having to dig deep. It hit me hard and quickly, forcing me to rest for three days solid. My feelings remained fairly numb at the time, not even much frustration, perhaps because I felt so empty of energy, but I just remained focused on getting moving again at the earliest opportunity. That eventually came on day four, but it was a meagre 4km, and no real reassurance I would hit anything like my requirement of 50km+ per day again. Patience won in the end, but it was a gradual process to get back up to average, and it became a 5+ day loss in the end.
The whole expedition seemed to flipon its head after that. Nothing was comfortable, I had to work beyond belief for all my kilometres; I was a different person. My mental armour had definitely been battered, so moments of self-pity were far more frequent, and my emotions ran higher. I regularly found myself breaking into tears and struggling to stay in control. But at the same time I was nearing the end, and thankfully that brought a countering lift to complete the job in hand. It was fortuitous that it all happened close to the end because otherwise, I suspect it may have gone the other way.
A view of the Bluff peninsula from the top of Bald Mountain in Longwood Forest was the moment I