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Running 3,054km Across New Zealand

In 2013 British ultra-runner Jez Bragg displayed superhuman stamina to complete an epic 53-day, 3,054km run across New Zealand. But he credits his record-breaking success to developing the mental resilience and psychological skills needed to crush pain and doubt

Your body can only take you so far. But your mind can take you further than you ever thought possible. Explorers, adventurers and extreme athletes know that cultivating mental skills is as crucial as sculpting physical fitness. Knowing how to control your emotions, boost your motivation, endure hard times, and rewire your mind for positive thinking is what will help you to power through to the finish when everyone else is ready to quit.

That’s the lesson learned by ultra-runner Jez Bragg during a lifetime of extraordinary outdoor adventures. When Bragg ran the London Marathon for charity in 2002, shortly after leaving university, it was supposed to be a one-off challenge. But the experience triggered in him an intense desire to see if his mind could push his body harder, longer and further. Two years later he entered his first ultra-marathon. By 2009 he was finishing third in the prestigious Western States 100 – a 161km run through California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. In 2010 he won the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a brutal 166km mountain race with 9,600m of vertical ascent. Then in 2013 he embarked on a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime personal challenge: to run 3,054km across the entire length of New Zealand – the equivalent of running from Rome to Baghdad, or from Moscow to Barcelona.

The Dorset runner’s journey along New Zealand’s Te Araroa (Long Pathway) trail – from Cape Reinga at the head of the North Island, across trails, beaches, volcanoes, mountains, lakes and forests, to Bluff at the toe of the South Island – was conquered in a new record time of 53 days. On most mornings his aching muscles and joints begged him to quit, but his mental strength enabled him to push on to the end. And the psychological strategies honed during his life-changing New Zealand odyssey continue to steel him for extreme races and new challenges today.

Your mind can take you further than you ever thought possible

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Q: What inspired you to run the length of New Zealand?
A:
‘Ever since I first laid my eyes on the Te Araroa Trail website and saw the concept I was totally sold. Running from the end to end of a country stuck in my mind. And the journey was just incredible. I averaged 60km a day and aimed for 8-10 hours each day, but sometimes the terrain was so rough I ended up doing 18 hours. There were special moments every day. I remember catching the sunset on the summit when I had almost finished the North Island and I could see Wellington on a ridge, and the South Island across the Cook Strait.’

Q: Where there any tough moments that tested your motivation?
A:
‘When I contracted giardia (from contaminated drinking water) it flipped the expedition on its head. I had days when I felt awful. And you really need a strong inner drive on those tough days. But the mental strength you get from completing something amazing in a special place drives you on further than should be possible. Willpower is a formidable force and can get you through incredible situations.’

Q: What psychological tools and techniques do you use to break down the distances and fatigue during multi-day running challenges?
A:
‘In New Zealand I had 53 long days, sometimes running through the night, just living in this bubble. But I wasn’t thinking about the end or the distances involved or I would have panicked. I just took it step by step. On long runs I get little voices in the back of my head and I use different techniques to counter them. Distraction is a good one, just from taking in the beautiful environment. You only need that distraction for a short time to snap you out of a moment of negativity.

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‘You can also respond by thinking about the processes involved. I have had some pretty extreme goals in races and challenges, but the steps you need to get there are small. They involve breaking down the route, and thinking about how you reach that goal through ensuring your nutrition is sound, or your kit and equipment is correct and checked, and your navigation is good.’

Q: How do you overcome the physical pain?
A:
‘If you are in pain you just have to admit that and move on. Just mentally acknowledging the pain can help. You think: you've had your say, now I am having mine. We are getting this done.’

Q: What about the extreme overnight races, like the 166km Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc?
A:
‘In the early stages it is just about keeping calm to prevent yourself getting carried away so you don’t spend too much energy. Going through the night from 1am to 4am, before there is any sense of the new day, is always hardest. There are voices saying: “What the hell are you doing?” You need some positive self-talk to get through that. But when you get a new daybreak and you are running around Western Europe’s highest mountain, you want to smash every last ounce of energy out of your body. Towards the latter stages your head is going again because you are deeply fatigued but you have to fight those voices and get through it.’

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Q: Do the mental skills you have learned from running influence your daily life too?
A:
‘We all feel a bit chaotic at times and a lot of people can relate to this today, with social media, and phone calls. But the appeal in what I do is from being able to enjoy where you are in that particular moment and environment. Just running in a natural environment, with no distractions, with this single focus of a personal adventure on two feet, will do that pretty well for you. It’s a really pure feeling.’

‘In a strange way, going through the extremes of pushing yourself physically, experiencing fatigue and sleep deprivation and all the unknowns, somehow helps to create the ultimate unwind. You learn something about yourself. It gives you a sense of calm, focus and confidence we sometimes lack.’

Jez Bragg is sponsored by The North Face. Follow his adventures at https://www.instagram.com/jezbragg/

Photos: Damiano Levati / The North Face

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