Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Different Kind of Racing Photography

More than 250 runners competed in  each of the men's and women's races
Last weekend, I got the chance to photograph the NCAA Division 1 Cross Country National Championships at the Lavern Gibson championship course in Terre Haute, Indiana. I have photographed a lot of different sporting events over the years but this was one of the coolest for a number of reasons. First, the weather was cold and rainy with the temperature never cresting above 35 all day. Second, I got an inside look at the culture of top level collegiate cross country racing for both men and women. Third, I was amazed how many fans showed up with flags, wearing school colors, clanging cow bells and using all sorts of noise makers on a thoroughly miserable November day in little Terre Haute. After the men's race, I said to one of the finishers, "You guys are crazy!" and his response was "Yeah. It should be illegal!" That alone summarized my experience of the unique culture of this sport and how much it meant to each of the competitors who splashed through the mud and rain to the finish line last Saturday. One of the coolest things I saw was the "shoe tree" off the back of the course where athletes have created a tradition of "retiring" one's cleats by throwing them up in a big tree. Like the twisted cypress tree oceanside at the Pebble Beach golf course, the shoe tree has given this facility a unique trademark image.

The shoe tree near the course
So how did I get this opportunity? It's a testament to the power of social media. A Twitter contact had referred a competing school's athletic director to me and also shared my contact information with the event staff. Out of nowhere I started getting emails from schools wanting to know if I was available to photograph their athletes. I ended up with university clients with individual runners in the both the men's and women's races. I have photographed a lot of sports over the years so I was pretty confident I could do a good job, but I didn't want to get in over my head. I actually had to turn two other schools down so I wouldn't get overloaded. That Twitter contact, Dave Wegiel (@pinolaphoto), was the person who had helped me connect with the ISC-Purdue website last year which led to an opportunity to shoot the Purdue football team's Music City Bowl game against Auburn and a home basketball game for the Boilers against Minnesota early this year. It was extremely gratifying to be the recipient of that sort of support and it gave my confidence a real boost going  into what would be a most unusual event for me as a photographer. It's nice to know people have faith in my ability to deliver photos even when the event is a bit out of the norm for me.

The woman's winner  Weini Kelati 
Since the mid-80s, I have photographed football, basketball, soccer, team handball, boxing, track and field and a boatload of auto racing, but no cross country since taking pictures of my younger brother racing when he was in high school. No matter what event I shoot, I always have a plan and go into a shoot with a strategy. I was able to do a lot of internet research into the sport of cross country in general and the Lavern Gibson course specifically, so I knew the course and felt comfortable with what to expect. I was hoping for good weather for the race as good lighting always makes for better photos but I didn't have any control over that so I just packed all my rain gear and went into the day as prepared for the elements as I could be. That turned out to still be a learning experience which will help me in the future. I learn something every time I have a photo assignment and this one was no different in that respect. I knew the start of each race would be dramatic and I was hoping to get photos at the finish, but I knew getting photos in the middle section of each race would be a challenge. The women's race was 6 kilometers and would only take about 20 minutes while the men would race 10k in about 30 minutes, so I knew I would be on the move. I also expected it would take a bit of luck to find my runners in the packs since there were about 250 runners in each race. I'm not quite sure how I merited it, but the event organizers selected me to get one of the special NCAA photo vests that allowed me access to the finish line chute where the runners finished. There were only eight (8) of those vests given out so I felt very fortunate to get one and it made my job so much easier.

Race finishers came in exhausted in both races
That finish line area not only gave me a chance to get good photos of the winners in addition to the runners I was covering, but I saw another aspect of the culture cross country racing that thoroughly impressed me. Much like an auto race, I could feel the excitement building as the start times grew nearer for each race. With legs instead of horsepower propelling these collegiate runners to the finish, seeing their effort and exertion at the finish line was very different than the racing I am most accustomed to photographing. I saw runners collapse, some were puking, others could barely walk on rubbery legs, and all the while event officials were yelling at them to keep moving through the finish area so it wouldn't be blocked! I've felt that level of exertion as an athlete when I played college basketball at the University of Chicago, but I was never involved in anything with the stakes as high as these athletes experienced.

Teams raced away from the start together 
Overall, the event was a really great experience. Even though I had a lot at stake as a photographer, I knew it was going to be a good day even before I got to the Lavern Gibson course. On the drive over to Terre Haute from Indianapolis that morning, I had said a little prayer and asked God to guide my efforts. Within 30 seconds of saying amen, a large redtail hawk flew up into a tree along the highway as I drove past. Hawks have been a personal spiritual totem of mine for years, so anytime I see one I know everything is going to be alright. The whole day I kept thinking of advice I had gotten over the years from other photographers I had worked with and the main thing that stuck with me was "Go make some freaking pictures" and that's what I did. It reinforced the belief I have that I am a photographer, not just a motorsports photographer, although I consider that to be my specialty. I can't wait to do more sports and other unique events like this one. And in this season of Thanksgiving, I am extremely grateful for the trust people have put in me to deliver photos they can use. Thank you all! If you want to see more of my photos from the event, then please click here for a photo gallery.

Despite the cold and rainy conditions, most runners didn't seem to feel it
One of my runners was from Kenya so I was hoping he would win. Alex Masai (589) was strong early.
Many teams took their morning warmups on firm ground since the course was muddy.

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