How tech helped Jez Bragg complete 53 day ultra-run across New Zealand

For most people, a 10km run is an ample jaunt underfoot. Not so for Jez Bragg, the ultra-runner who this year completed the 3,054km Te Araroa trail from tip to toe of both New Zealand islands in a mere 53 days.

We meet Bragg almost by chance at the back of a coach travelling along the Costa Brava, Spain. It's a matter of months since he's completed his exhaustive run, but he's in high spirits and we're keen to talk about how technology helped act as the backbone to an otherwise entirely human endeavour.

There's a memorable scene in the 1994 classic flick Forrest Gump where the lead, played by Tom Hanks, proclaims: "That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there I thought maybe I'd run to the end of town... I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figure, since I'd got this far, I might as well turn around and just keep on going."

For Bragg, it's just the opposite. Meticulous planning, a funding by The North Face, a two-man support team, photographers following his journey, stacks of gear and a smattering of tech for safety, connectivity and - not to be overlooked - the social engagement side of things.

Photo: Damiano Levati / The North Face

Social Enterprise

"My tech set-up was my Spot [satellite messenger] tethered to my iPhone. I'd use my iPhone for social media - there was pretty good 3G over there actually. I could send pictures and tweets out from the forest," he told us.

"I was constantly tweeting messages out. It was just nice and comforting to pick up messages coming in as well. I was pushing the story out [and] people were feeding back and going, 'I'm getting quite inspired by this'."

The trail required an average of around 60km on foot each day, though some days would be far longer depending on the terrain and pre-planning. Bragg also kayaked the Cook Strait between the two islands - a 24km-minimum open-water expedition that's not for the faint hearted. But then if you're going to run over 3,000km on foot then, heck, what's a little water?

"I was on my feet for between 10 and 18 hours [a day] and think I did one 20-hour day," he said. "It just depended on the sections. I wouldn't want to stop at 4[pm] and be done with it. I'd then set off into the next section."

Photo: Damiano Levati / The North Face

But it wasn't all plain sailing. The landscape is varied and vast: from tarmac-covered cities where pace was easier to set, to the highs and lows of rocky terrain, and the confusing repetition of the muddied forests. Bragg's tech set-up was always there, bubbling away in the background for when it was needed. The Garmin Oregon, Bragg's weapon of choice when it comes to navigation, is a well-known dedicated waterproof GPS device.

"How rough the terrain was was just ridiculous. You just want to concentrate on the running and you don't really want the navigation to be too much of a factor," Bragg explained.

"There are too many limitations with a smartphone. I have like the whole of the UK on 1:50,000 on my iPhone and I do use that for navigation but, you know, the iPhone's battery is… well, it's terrible really."

Bushwhacked

"The other big challenge was in the forest," he continued. "Actually staying and heading in the right direction - and this might sound ridiculous - but you're in the forest for a whole day and it's just a really intense environment because it all looks the same. So you'll be going down the trail and there might be a tree down, and you'll have to navigate around the tree and then you're trying to pick up these arrows [orange markers which point out the route] with no distinct trail on the ground. So you get disorientated and, well, you know the phrase is 'getting bushwhacked' - the Australian phrase - and it's literally just going a little bit dotty in a forest where you end up going the wrong way. And that happened twice in the forest. I just ended up going down the trail the wrong way.

"I was using the Oregon to zoom right in and you get this crazy criss-cross pattern and from that you could work out where you'd come in [to the forest] and so it helped me out of strife in that situation.

Photo: Damiano Levati / The North Face

"Navigation for something like that when it's so demanding is just of such high importance. You need a dedicated device for it when you know how frequently the batteries are going to go [on a smartphone] and you're just using it for that one purpose. And the waterproofing - it [the Oregon] is in a waterproof unit as well, all self contained."

We wonder if such an epic undertaking could have been tackled without today's technological advances.

"You could do it all by map and compass, and I am capable of doing that," he explained, "but it's just the time it takes and I don't really want to be drifting off course at all. And when you're out doing long routes you do go wrong at times. I can count on one hand the number of times I went wrong, which is nothing over the course of 53 days really."

Tech Support

Bragg's own blog writing and social media presence were an integral part of his social existence during the trip, as his often solitary days and occasional solo camps in between meeting his campervan team at pre-determined locations left him out on his own. At least in the physical sense, as the iPhone-tethered Spot was always sending out a trackable signal.

Photo: Damiano Levati / The North Face

"They [the support team] could get on to the Spot site using an iPad to see where I was - for when I'd be popping out of the next point where they were meant to meet me. The Spot was running the whole time I was running, only it didn't work that well when it was in dense woodland," he said.

"The second purpose of the Spot device: it's got a red button which you can press if the shit hits the fan and you need to call a chopper in. The Spot's a good bit of kit. It's not that expensive. You do have to register for it, but it's an internationally recognised SOS device.

"Oh, and I had a satphone too. We always had it and I was always like, 'I'm not carrying that', because it's so big. It's about two and a half times longer than an iPhone 4, the same width and it wasn't ridiculously heavy but you had to fold out the aerial and all that."

Tech was also core to recording the whole journey, not only from Bragg's own writings, but visually by his accompanying photographers.

"They covered very comprehensively because they're making a festival film about the expedition," he explained. "They had DSLRs doing both filming and for stills. It was great because they were capturing those moments and it's mind-blowing stuff really. I think they had got through 2 or 3 terabytes of data.

Photo: Damiano Levati / The North Face

"They even had one of those helicopter drones with a camera set up on it and one day they had a full-on helicopter. They got some incredible footage that will go into the film and from a fairly lightweight set-up. It's interesting just seeing how they did it."

The Human Spirit

Tech aside, Bragg's tale is really about the journey; the human spirit and the natural landscape - the pictures throughout this article, shot by Damiano Levati for The North Face, are snapshots of the incredible places that Bragg ran through.

"We ultra-runners are kind of like where Triathlon was maybe 10-15 years ago. It genuinely is building a profile which is quite significant and there's a lot more awareness of it. But actually it's less about that… it's more about the experience, the route that you're taking on," the runner told us.

"You just feel so raw. It was particularly towards the end - the last day I was running around this final section of beach, where it was pretty easy running as well - I was plugged into some tunes on the iPhone, listening to some old skool party tunes from when I was a kid. I was just crying basically. It was happiness and elation."

Photo: Damiano Levati / The North Face

And what's next from UK's face of ultra-running?

"I'm a focused guy when I put my mind to it and when I want to do something. Everyone was always asking, 'How did you maintain that blog?'. That's what I wanted to do; that's what I set out to do.

"The next thing, once I ease back on work a little bit, I'm gonna write a book."

Plenty to keep eyes peeled for then - from blogging to documentary film all wrapped up with a good serving of inspiration. We might not be running from one side of any country to the other any time soon but, who knows, maybe the Isle of Wight is next in our more primitive sights.

Visit Jez Bragg's blog here to recount his expedition.



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