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Jez Bragg at the 2013 UTMB in Chamonix.

Jez and the Dragon

19-Mar-15

Last updated: 06-Nov-18

By Ian Corless

Jez Bragg is one of the UK’ s most respected ultra runners. A long time member of The North Face team, he shot to ultra fame in 2010 when he won the ‘re-started’ UTMB, the iconic 100-mile circular mountain route that starts and finishes in Chamonix.

Not one to do the predictable, Jez has often been toeing the line at UK races such as the Fellsman and then racing the world’s best at Western States.

In November 2012, Jez announced a project… to run the length of New Zealand. A project called The Long Pathway (Te Araroa trail), this epic journey would see the Brit run 3000km+ from the tip of the North Island and finish all the way at the tip of the Southern Island. Jez’s story was followed and chronicled in-depth here.

As one can imagine, a journey of this length, not only in terms of time and distance but all the elements that go into an expedition like this takes its toll. Imagine it, running for 53-days, 9-hours and 1-minute.
Jez was well aware that 2013 would be wiped out due to the impact of this epic journey. However, post New Zealand, Jez has once again returned to Western States, UTMB and now with the 2015 season ahead, he talks about how he has had to ‘spice up’ his training. Te Araroa made Jez a great one paced runner, a pace that allowed him to run for 53 consecutive days! But to race you need gears and a change of pace. However, long days of running have inspired him and in 2015, Jez is looking to tame the Dragon

Speaking from the ‘exotic south coast’ (Jez’s words) of the UK. I caught up with Jez as he prepares for another year. But 2015 will be different!

IC: Hey, many people plan on retiring in on the south coast and you have done it early.

JB: Yeah. Joking apart I love it down here, it’s great. It’s all good, really.

IC: Well you have those nice coastal paths that you can go training on, they might not get very high but there are plenty of ups and downs.

JB: There’s plenty going on down here for sure, enough to keep me out of mischief. The coast path is epic. It’s the Jurassic coastline, which is a world heritage site less than 10-miles from where we live and like you say, the accumulative elevation is pretty decent and it does sort you out; it is good terrain for training. But on the other side as well I’ve been doing a lot of faster running and road running over the winter, as there is quite a competitive road/club scene down here, which has been really good for me as well. I’ve been running a lot with the running club, we have a lot of really fast marathon guys and there’s a lot of fast lap running which has given me the opportunity to work on my leg speed. So that has been my focus over the winter. We have got a lot of everything, there’s plenty going on.

IC: You’ve got Steve way down there as well so he must be good for getting you along quickly.

JB: For sure yeah, in our club at the moment we have got perhaps five or six 2:30 marathon guys. Quite often we will go out on a Sunday morning over the coast on long runs together and they get pretty brutal, supposedly you’re going for a relatively easy Sunday morning run but actually it ends up like last man standing, the pace ends up getting quicker and quicker. You end up finishing the last mile at like 5 30, 5 40 pace, it’s great.

IC: That sounds a little like when I used to do chain gang on the bike, they all started off with leisurely riding and bit-by-bit the speed would pick up and as you say on the bike in the final 10 miles it would be chin on the handle bars and trying to drop everybody else. Those types of unstructured training sessions where you actually don’t really know what’s going to happen not only make you dig deeper but really progress you on.

JB: Everyone is competitive as they are hitting high standards and so inevitably the pace does progress and move on and you can pass the time more easily because you’re in a group. When you're training on your own you can’t seem to find that extra 10% of intensity which makes a massive difference, so it’s been a new thing for me the last year or two. Prior to that I was running completely on my own, its opened up a lot of different ideas and opportunities and I think its going to make a difference in the long run to help fight the potential slow down post New Zealand as I’m sort of getting on a bit in my old age. So it’s been a focus for me.

IC: You mention New Zealand and of course we spoke to you in depth about New Zealand and the impact that has. I know in the year that you finished you very much left yourself unstructured and let yourself come back in a natural way. Last year you were at Western States and you turned up at the line at a few other races. Are you still feeling the impact from the NZ expedition? Or are you finally getting it out of your system and that’s why you have the speed to basically work both ends of the scale, which is obviously what you weren’t doing in New Zealand.

JB: I don’t feel as though I have the impact of NZ in my legs, biomechanically or in terms of leg speed. The problem I’ve had since New Zealand has been general health and it was all a very blurred picture really. I had this bug late on in the expedition and it nearly stopped things in its tracks and that carried over when I got back. I have a long-term stomach condition, which I have had longer than I’ve been running and it’s what got me into fitness to start with. I had a bad spell with that prior to New Zealand as well. It’s really turned the corner over the past 12-months and I’ve started some new medication. It has recently become available on the NHS and it’s been a real game changer. I’ve been able to absorb the nutrition I need and my health has got better so I’m in much better health generally. I’m able to push myself harder in training and I am able to put in a consistent 100-mile week, so yeah I’m definitely on the bounce now, recently I’ve run 20 miles in under 2 hours for the first time ever and I have hit PB’s so I’m confident that I can still run fast.

IC: One thing that we have always said is that ultra-runners just don’t go out anymore and ‘just run!’ Speed needs to be incorporated. You are bringing that speed element in there and do you think that if you want to be competitive in ultra-running these days you have to start doing speed work?

JB: Definitely, you’ve got to come at it from that direction. If you look at a lot of the top guys, the structure to their weekly training is much more similar to a marathon training plan than what you would expect from an ultra-runner. I think to hit the high points in races you’ve got to be doing a lot of interval training for leg speed. I think that is a priority over spending time on elevation in the hills and mountains. We have been seeing a lot of guys who are really fast marathon guys translating that into really fast ultra-running so yeah I think this is really interesting to see the shift happening. I ended up in the sport just through long distance walking, enjoying time on my feet and long days out, I don’t think I could just carry on doing that and maintain a descent competitive standard in the sport. It brings excitement and interest as well; it’s very interesting to see how it’s all changed.

IC: What about the differences between taking on Western States and UTMB? They both require a different approach, the speed and fast running is directly relatable to Western States as it’s a running race, but with UTMB there’s a fair amount of hiking and climbing, how would you alter training to accommodate either or both races?

JB: UTMB is a different beast because you do have to spend long days in the hills and the mountains going up and down and getting the strength into your legs and you need to be able to withstand 9-10,000 metre climbs. Western States is an out-and-out running race. You are running 95% of it really and at a fast pace, so I would spend a lot less time climbing and descending but just trying to train on fast runnable trails really. Focus on acclimatisation as opposed to climbing. I focused on that up to June trying to get strength in my legs by running up the mountains. In reality they are a difficult pair of races to run in one summer because you only have 8-weeks between them.

IC: You were just telling me that this year is going to be a little bit different that you are going to stay on home ground and race in the UK! One of those races is The Berghaus Dragons Back Race™. It’s infamous! It started years ago and there was only one addition and then Shane Ohly at Ourea Events, brought it back a couple of years ago. The race will now alternate every other year. What has attracted you to the race apart from it being a bit brutal and crazy?

JB: Even though it was only run once back in the 90’s it has kind of developed this cult status and Jet Petroleum sponsored the race; it had a high profile. It’s such an iconic route; all the way down the mountains of Wales basically. They obviously re kindled the race for 2012, 20-years later after it was first run and the film of the race was a great illustration of the difficulty of the race; people trying to cover some wild Welsh terrain over a course of 5-days. I watched the film a couple of years ago at one of the film festivals and it just drew me in. I know Wales pretty well and my multi-day experience from New Zealand made me want to give it a go.

IC: It’s a completely different beast isn’t it, if we think about your successes at UTMB or Western States this is not even remotely comparable: 300 km, 5-days, 17,000 metres of ascent and you need to navigate! You get a map and your compass out each day and you have to work out how you get from A to B in the fastest way possible. I know you have a love for maps and I know you love going out and having adventurous days in the mountains. So is this race made for you?

JB: Yeah definitely, it kind of draws upon my all around hill skills really. My ability to look after myself in tricky weather situations, navigate my way between checkpoint stations and just generally manage myself and be safe. Whilst it is a race there’s a kind of survival element, there’s definitely a lot of appeal in all that. I think that UK ultra-running traditionally drew upon all those skills with mountain marathons and similar events. It’s nice to go back and do a big event based on those elements and test myself in different ways. It brings excitement and gets my adrenaline going.

IC: Well you only need to look at the past event, there are some amazing ridge lines that you are going to be be going over. It includes all of the Welsh 3,000’s; of course we don’t exactly know what the route is yet. Day-1 will be 52k, day-2 53 k with 4,000 metres, day-3 64 k, day-4 66k 3,000 metres and the last day 64 k with 2,000 metres. How in your mind do you prepare for something like this? Unlike your New Zealand adventure you had to look at the big picture; which was surviving day-after-day and covering distance.

JB: It always becomes a bit more tactical and sometimes you kind of see guys charging off the blocks to give themselves a small lead, which they can potentially hold on to. I will probably just set about it in my relatively calm manner and just take one day at a time. I wouldn’t say it would play to my strengths to go out of the blocks fast on day-1 as you just end up taking a stupid route and you just waste time that way. It’s going to be interesting to see how everyone plays it on day-1!

IC: Well you have always been the runner who comes from behind and picks people off getting yourself into a good position. So you need to control your effort between the days, will you be keeping that in mind?

JB: Yeah for sure, you’ve got to have faith in your own ability; I would like to run strong in the latter stages of the race. I’ve got some adventures on the agenda so I will need to get my head into the DBR. The other danger is training to hard too early; it’s still a reasonable way off into the ultra-season.

IC: You mentioned you have been doing 100-mile training weeks and I guess that a race like DBR, which is 5-days long, is almost like a training week… Does it give you a different mind-set?

JB: You have got to enjoy the whole experience and the fact that you are with a great group of people. I have fond memories of racing and the very first ultra I did back in 2004. I’m still best of friends with the guys I met then, I very much expect to enjoy the whole experience with the crew and fellow competitors and looking at it as a week-long adventure than it being a race. Having said that, I don’t do anything half-heartedly. I think it’s dangerous being too competitive as you will launch yourself into it too hard and potentially not come out the other side. The dropout rate at the 2012 DBR was significant and it will happen again. So it’s essential to treat the course with a lot of respect. 

IC: I think one of the main reasons for the last edition having a high dropout rate was day-1. In retrospect I think Shane has possibly looked and thought day-1 was brutal. It will be interesting to see the tweaks and changes for this next addition, if any? New Zealand has obviously changed your mind-set and therefore is the Dragons Back Race and races like it more of an attraction to you now?

JB: Yeah the adventure aspect is what got me into it to start with and the most competitive races around such as UTMB. I’m probably not done with those types of races but I feel I need to go back to the style of running that I enjoy the most, which is the adventure type. It’s just a very different style of running on the British mountains; the trails are rougher.

IC: From a The North Face perspective, being your sponsor, they are grounded in the expedition element so I guess that is a good fit for you?

JB: There’s a lot of interest there in me doing that type of event and the people who do those races. It’s a little less mainstream and different and it brings interesting stories. I really enjoy doing these adventures and blogging about them whether it’s for people in the ultra-running or outdoors community. I hope they get inspiration from it? The North Face is really supportive of this.

IC: We will be catching up with you before the Dragons Back Race as it approaches. What else do you have planned?

JB: The Fellsman, then I’ve got a long distance hill challenge for the end of May, then the Dragons Back Race and a fast-pack over the summer. A different schedule to previous years to spice things up a bit… I am really looking forward to it!

IC: Sounds really good. And looking long-term will we see you back at the UTMB or Western States or Transgrancanaria, which must be an appeal for you?

JB: Yeah I’d like to run UTMF in Japan and Transgrancanaria would be awesome. I’d like to have a crack at a fast 100k too If I can get my speed back? One year at a time I guess. I’ll get this year over with then ill see.

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