British ultra runner Jez Bragg has conquered New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail in record time, but admits the trail came very close to breaking him.
Bragg began running the 3054km trail from Cape Reinga in December 2012 and reached Bluff 53 days later on February 2.
He shaved 12 days off the previous record set by Australian Richard Bowles only months earlier.
And unlike Bowles, Bragg also kayaked down the Wanganui River and across Cook Strait.
He’s now on his way to Thailand to enjoy a belated honeymoon with wife Gemma whom he married only two months prior to leaving for New Zealand.
Wilderness caught up with Bragg before he left the country and the The North Face athlete admitted running Te Araroa was the most gruelling experience of his life.
In January, Wilderness reported he contracted giardia – an intestinal parasite – and was suffering from toe rot due to running for days with wet feet.
However, he’s lucky to walk away with his life.
It is only now Bragg feels comfortable revealing a brush with death he had while traversing the Richmond Range in Nelson Lakes National Park. He kept it quiet at the time to avoid worrying friends and family.
Bragg was on his way to Red Hills Hut and was washed 100m downstream when he tried to cross a swollen river.
“I shouldn’t have attempted a crossing, I should have waited it out,” Bragg said. “I made a mistake and I got washed down a very steep, very flooded fast flowing river and was bashed against the rocks.
“I stayed above the surface, but I feared getting a fractured leg.
“Somehow I managed to flick myself out and get across and was okay.
“I’ve never had a moment like that when everything flashes before your eyes. I thought my time was up.”
Out of the water, Bragg changed into dry base layers and hobbled the remaining 10km to the location where he was meeting up with his support crew.
He says despite being emotionally shaken, he was fortunate to only sustain bruising to his hips and knees and cuts to his knuckles.
Only days after, however, he contracted giardia and was knocked flat for three days.
On the fourth day, and using sticks to support him, he managed to walk four kilometres before stopping from exhaustion.
At this point he started to doubt his ability to complete the journey.
But he fought back to his previous daily average of 65km.
“I’ve never had to call upon such deep resolve and determination before in all my life,” Bragg said about his bout with giardia “So many times after that I questioned my ability and my strength to finish Te Araroa.
“I think finishing it is going to take weeks to really sink in and for me to reflect on what’s happened and what I’ve achieved.
“I’ve just been in the most intense world imaginable, just like a robot programmed to keep going and going.”
Bragg is having trouble sleeping now because his legs, no longer moving all day, are hurting. Apart from aching, vegetation cuts, scabs and sandfly bites are causing him discomfort.
He said the roughness of the terrain in New Zealand was a big surprise and demanded every ounce of perseverance.
Before starting, he thought he would run 65km in 10 hours, but found each day he was on the trail for between 12 and 20 hours.
“I had to be patient and just accept the days were going to be long, but the time on my feet took its toll mentally and physically,” he said. “My best description of Te Araroa now is it’s an adventure route, not just hiking, but all around mountain skills.
“I think it’s a perfect reflection of New Zealand: mega rivers, mega crossings, mega rough terrain.”
Bragg went into his journey wanting to test his outdoor skills – mountain safety, navigation, fuelling and nutrition – and says Te Araroa tested him to his limits.
Toughest sections: Richmond Range, Nelson Lakes National Park. Deception Valley, Arthur’s Pass National Park.
Favourite section: Queen Charlotte Track (though a bit too well formed and touristy)
Favourite hut: Highland Creek Hut, Otago
Biggest surprise: New Zealand’s wild and lush green forests – he expected them to be plantations