Words by Hannah Tapping
Jodie Gauld takes everything in her stride, including joining a select team of ultra-runners to venture to one of the last truly wild landscapes on earth.
I hear from a friend of a mad adventure that’s going down. Three young runners, including one from Cornwall, plan to run across Tajikistan from the border of Afghanistan to the border of China, covering 400km in just 7 days – that’s about a marathon a day. All while being filmed to record the endeavour. I’m told it all started as a drunken bet between two friends – Jody Bragger, the organiser, the driving force, who’s no stranger to a 50k and Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Ghiglione, the fun-loving playful puppy of the group who can turn out a sub-five minute mile but has never run an ultra. They need a third runner and it’s Jodie Gauld who gets the call. Aged just 28, she’s a quietly competitive and self-driven ultra-runner from Cornwall. Although no stranger to running long distances or world travel, the trip will be the farthest and highest she’ll have ever run.
Fast-forward a year and it’s lockdown number one. I find myself sitting in my camper watching the first cut of the subsequent film, Running The Roof, on aforementioned friend’s trusty old laptop. The trip was a success and the film has been entered into some of the world’s most prestigious adventure film festivals. I feel very privileged to be watching the first cut, which I am doing in advance of interviewing its female protagonist Jodie.
“I’ve always been a runner,” says Jodie. “I grew up on the family small holding in St Austell and as kids we were forever outside running around. PE was my favourite lesson at school and since joining a local athletics club I’ve never stopped.” A trip with university friends saw Jodie run her first 50 mile race in the Lake District, and so began her addiction to ultra-running.
Jodie at one of the home stays, by Alexis Tymon and Ben Crocker
She tells me that she loves the feel of running on trails, something that she’s recently realised might be to do with rock pooling as a child. “I was always skipping across the rocks, being quite nimble, focusing on finding little sea creatures – and now when I run I do the same, picking the more technical routes, almost dancing over the rocks. It’s a thought that’s only just occurred to me and I still love the feeling of being able to move and flow over off-road terrain.”
Above left Gabe, Jodie and Jody, above right warding off the cold nights, both by Alex Mundt
Now running is part of Jodie’s daily routine. She tells me it’s how she does everything; it’s the way she socialises, the way she relieves stress, the way she has a break from her work. “I love to explore new places and getting outside has become part of my life. I’m very comfortable with running long distances and would be happy to complete a marathon without too much extra training, but for Tajikistan I did up the miles and do some strength exercises.
I knew the boys were really strong runners so I needed to be prepared.”
The idea of the trip was to be super basic and very much experience the terrain in a raw way. The team was lucky to have a great set of sponsors especially for some of the more technical kit required. “One of the stand out bits of kit was a satellite phone that we needed for safety reasons, especially for the last few days when we were out in the middle of nowhere – luckily we didn’t use it! The rest of our kit was fairly basic, although we did need really warm sleeping bags,” explains Jodie. “It was so cold at night. It was bizarre as we were really exposed to the sun during the day but as we climbed to the plateau, which was more than 4,000m above sea level, when the sun went down it was minus a lot!”
“I would run all day and then get back to camp and immediately bundle up in all my layers and seek the warmth of my tent. As soon as the sun set even the little streams next to where we were camped were freezing over – and when I woke all I wanted was some water and it would all be frozen.” The team carried as much water with them in the support vehicles as they could but setting up water filters was a nightly job to ensure they always had enough for the next day.
Running such long distances meant that hydration and fuel was also really important as Jodie explains: “We had to be very be aware of reminding each other to eat, especially when we got to the higher altitudes which can affect your appetite. We were lucky to have two great sponsors for our food rations. Real Turmat supplied our main meals and breakfasts, which were delicious. They freeze dry the individual ingredients, rather than the whole meal, which made a big difference. We also had Tribe on board for our snack bars that were nut and fruit based and full of natural proteins.”
Alexis Tymon and Ben Crocker
“We didn’t bank on being able to, but lower down in the valley we were lucky to have some house stays. The local people were so hospitable and proud that we were visiting their valley and country. They really don’t have too much and basically have to grow all of their food in an eight month period, as outside of that they’re locked down in snow. But they were so willing and happy to share what they had.”
“Aside from us runners, we also had a small but perfectly formed support crew. Ben Crocker and Alexis Tymon from Sourcy Film were there to capture the action, while Alex Mundt was our team photographer and an amazing help in every aspect, especially as a great pep talker. We also had two local drivers Orzu and Farid who were invaluable for their local knowledge but were also great entertainment as they loved to dance. They were also super helpful when we were going through the little hamlets as they were able to communicate and translate for us, although even they sometimes struggled as the local dialect changed so often. Even though they lived about a quarter of the way through the valley, they had never driven the whole length.”
The valley seemed without end, by Alex Mundt
As with any adventure, the team experienced highs and lows, with both Jody and Gabe falling ill during the trip. “It was a stark wake-up call that we weren’t invincible, but the upside was that it made us hyper-aware and drove us on.”
“I also hit a wall on day four. We were on one of the highest points and it was a wide open plateau. I could see for literally miles and it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere – it was one of those days where we didn’t have a defined distance. I’m not normally a watch or a distance checker but that day I had no energy and was desperately ticking off the miles. I had no enthusiasm and ended up hike running 20k without seeing anyone else.”
“I was telling myself this is really pathetic. You’re in this amazing location, doing this incredible thing and you’re being really selfish, feeling that you’re bored of doing the thing you love. Not wanting to run was a strange thing for me to experience. I had found days hard before but never mundane – it was so barmy, there were beautiful glaciers to one side and incredible rugged terrain to the next. When I eventually made it to the camp I just bawled. Reflecting back now, I can see that I was just mentally and physically exhausted.”
Finding comfort in companionship, by Alex Mundt
Other than Jodie’s low day, the scenery blew her mind. “On the longest day, it was me and Gabe and we started running up the climb on to the plateau. He flew up, but I just had to stop and turn around when we were climbing up , so I could look down back through the valley – I needed a moment to absorb it all. Barely anyone else had been where I was stood or had seen what I was looking at. At that moment, I felt very luck to be able to physically take on the challenge and to have such an incredible opportunity. Tajikistan has only recently started to have a push on tourism so there are not many people from the western world who have visited. There’s still lots of prejudice about the area but I felt safe and welcome the whole time. It’s often depicted as a depleted war zone and it’s really not.”
And no trip would be complete without a strange encounter, as Jodie recalls: “After our first night of camping Jody and I set off on trail, while Gabe was still faffing! We knew he would bound past us shortly, so were happy to go on ahead. None of the other guys were with us and we were just running up the track when a child on a mule appeared from the right side of the valley. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old. He trotted up to us. He couldn’t’ speak a word of English, we couldn’t speak his language, but we managed to get his name and the name of his mule. The encounter lasted no more than five minutes and then he trotted off down another pass. As soon as he had disappeared, the rest of the team arrived! If Jody hadn’t have been with me I would have thought it was all a dream.”
Above left dancing over the terrain by Alex Mundt, above right an incredible journey by Alexis Tymon and Ben Crocker.
Jodie puts the success of the trip down to the team: “It worked because of the set of people who were involved. It was always going to be a test of endurance but also a test of how we were going to get along. The bunch were serious when they needed to be but every other sentence was a joke. We all approached the trip with a light-hearted, no pressure vibe. Everyone was so supportive of everyone else, in whatever situation and no matter what happened it was about the adventure and a journey to one of the remotest places on earth. It didn’t actually matter if we hadn’t completed the journey, it was more about seeing if the journey was even possible.”
The resulting film, Running The Roof, is a true adventure into the unknown. It has already won Banff Audience Choice Award 2020 at this year’s Banff Mountain Film Festival and has just aired at the Kendal Mountain Festival.