The Antelope and the Camera: Making a Photo Story While Racing a 50 Miler

I’ll take just about any excuse to embark on a road trip through the American Southwest, I get excited planning where I will sleep in the back of my Santa Fe, waking up to instant coffee with the warm, Arizona sun seeping through the brisk desert air, not to mention the new rock formations to explore through a viewfinder while wandering over textured slickrock. So when a stranger’s post on a local trail running Facebook page scrolled into view offering a bib to a sold out race I barely hesitated. However, as you might have guessed, the pressing issue was the looming race date only allowed for one or two good training blocks and a consolidated taper (which, for an early season race like this, inevitably involves a bunch of ski-touring instead of running. Time on feet, right?).

Sunset before race day on the Antelope 50 course.

Sunset before race day on the Antelope 50 course.

Flash forward two months, one over-ambitious 75 mile training block, and 15 hours of driving later and I’ve found myself at the starting line of the Antelope Canyon 50 Miler in Page, Arizona. This isn’t my first 50 mile race (nor is it my first less-than-prepared ultra) but something feels different about this one. A quick glance down at my hydration vest reveals a camera, specifically a Fujifuilm X-T3, awkwardly rigged between straps, around my neck, and stuffed into the left side flask pocket. Being a mirrorless camera body, it’s a bit smaller than your standard DSLR but still bulky enough to make a fellow racer scoff at the awkwardly perched camera remarking, “I can’t believe you’re running with that”.

Ben entering a cloud of pre-race exhales from fellow runners.

Ben entering a cloud of pre-race exhales from fellow runners.

Let me provide a touch of context to this decision:

I’m a photographer and a trail runner, and I often advertise myself as being a ‘trail-running photographer’. Many folks understand this mostly entails either A. Taking photos of trail runners, or B. Running on trails and periodically stopping to take photos.

However, there are a select few that think this means I run ultra-distances, camera in hand, snapping photos all the while trying to beat cutoffs and work my way up the finisher rankings. So, to fulfill this self-given title and to make me feel better about what I was assuming would be a sub-optimal performance, I thought “why not race with my camera?”

After a pre-race briefing and a Navajo blessing, the clock started. Shuffling through the cold sand across the crowded starting line, I haphazardly snapped away mostly blind to the images appearing on my camera’s display, trying to edge my way through the presumably mid-pack group and occasionally spinning around to grab an image of blurry legs and bright headlamps.

I spent the front 20 miles of the race with fellow Washingtonian photographer, Ben Groenhout, a first time utrarunner but no stranger to endurance events. Ben and I occupied the morning miles trading stories of glaciers and bikes, proclaiming this year’s summer goals, eager for mountain running season to come back to the Northwest. Being my first time trying to shoot and run a race, I tried formulating focuses for my images; perhaps portraits of volunteers, a collection of individual runners in the vast desert scenery, or maybe just a photo of my legs for every mile (thankfully didn’t follow up on that one). I decided to wing it and see what would feel the most natural, and that quickly became Ben. Folks who have ran an ultra will often talk about a person they met, an unexpected partner through the undulating miles that they developed a connection with through the cycles of pain and gratitude. Reflecting on my past races, this is one of the most fundamental attractions to these events and thus, the most natural subject.

As we wandered over slickrock under the starry morning sky, the far off gradient of sunrise approached, illuminating the distant canyons we were to run through. The more people we passed, the more suprised comments I collected, inquiring what I was doing with that unwieldy camera around my neck.

I’d been to a few slot canyons in the area on prior Utah trips, however never this early in the morning. Most folks that visit Antelope are hoping for the glowing red and orange sandstone walls that flood their Instagram feeds, however you only get this effect from the midday, overhead sun. Nonetheless, I found navigating the muted walls by headlamp an entertaining alternative as we were constantly ducking around rock triangles seemingly marching towards us.

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Sun broke over the canyon and I watched the lead runner pass us on an out and back, a few miles ahead, meanwhile contemplating how the effects of 30 miles of soft sand would manifest in my legs. Soon we had arrived back at the first aid station, retracing our steps away from the namesake canyon of the race and back towards the town of Page.

Ben exiting Upper Antelope Canyon. The canyon resides on Navajo land and being granted access to run through it is one of the biggest appeals of the race.

Propelled by quesadillas and Swedish Fish, we began to close in on the 20 mile mark as we traversed the other-worldly terrain the desert is so well known for. The hard, unforgiving sandstone started to make me thankful for the sand I had become so familiar with over the past few hours (neither of which was as kind to my legs as the soft forest floors of Washington).

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Waiting at the 20 mile aid station were Ben’s wife and kids. Sporting hand-drawn signs and bright, cheesy grins, the two kids excitedly embraced their dad, hollering words of encouragement.

I’m not going to go into detail about the following 30 miles for two reasons - first, they were rather painful, and second, I decided at this time I would toss my camera in the back of my vest and buckle down. I knew Ben and I had worked our way into the top 20, so thoughts of a sub-10 hour finish made me think I should take the remaining miles a little more seriously.

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My under-prepared legs did have their breaking point though, and as I entered the final 10 miles (which were supposed to be super fast single-track) my hamstrings were hit with off and on cramps, gripping my legs as if they knew I had scoffed at a training plan upon signing up in what was supposed to be week 12 of a progressive training block. Or perhaps my now-personified rogue muscles felt it was their duty to enforce a strict bonk-policy to people who try to bullshit their way through an ultramarathon. Regardless, I stumbled my way to 13th and a 9:27 hour finish. Technically a PR, but my other 50 miler involved climbing a heavily glaciated volcano, so perhaps not the best comparison. I guess that’s why we’re running on trails, sand and snow instead of roads.

(Someone please convince Brooks to un-discontinue the Mazama)

(Someone please convince Brooks to un-discontinue the Mazama)

My tendency to sign up for races on a whim is admittedly not the smartest race strategy, however, I do credit it for my decision to treat this event as a visual-journalism endeavor. Removing the pressure to perform well led to pursuing a new challenge of documenting the race experience, from the perspective of the racer.

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This feels like the resurfacing of my roots. Back when I would introduce myself as a visual journalist (insert resentful comment about the state of the journalism industry), I was always searching for personal projects that might be worthy of a photo story. I came up with the equation: whatever uniquely fits your skill set + what is obscurely interesting to the public = a worthy photo story. I can’t say for certain that running 50 miles in the desert is overly interesting to the majority of people, in fact it probably sounds rather dull at first glance, but I do think that perhaps there is some outsider intrigue into the general ultra experience. Maybe more importantly, after running a race, I tend to hold on to quiet moments of struggle or triumph or beauty - a small section on the Chuckanut Ridge trail that in a state of delirium felt like a bouldering problem, a friendly volunteering bearing a bacon and brie waffle on a forest road at 3am, or the moment I looked over my shoulder at Ben taking down a handful of quesadilla while descending into the shadows of a small gulch. Moments not always caught on the cameras of race photographers or on the cell phones of crew members; moments exclusively experienced as a racer. Ones that are a little challenging to put into words, but flood back into memory when asked “How’d that run thing go?!” by a coworker the following week. I’m not sure that I’ve successfully encapsulated those moments in the frames above, there are so many moments I’ve missed, but I kind of don’t care either way. What I do care about is the discovery of this purpose through the act of doing. In other words, I went in to this endeavor blind to my focus and, through running and shooting whatever was in front of me, discovered the direction: the collection of moments experienced as a runner.

Red Rocks and Red Hands / Spring 2016

Something about the taste of instant coffee and the promise of an uncomfortable night in the back of a Hyundai Santa Fe becomes so appealing when it coincides with a plethora of other-worldly sights. With 16 Google Maps tabs still open on my laptop depicting a theoretical route through a handful of well known locations in Utah and Arizona, Sarah and I took off accompanied by the voice of Sarah Koenig and a large box of goldfish. 

About 5 and a half days were dedicated to this Southwest trek - not enough, but it'll have to do. Following all the dry air, I spent a few days in the significantly more saturated environment of the Olympic Peninsula, a classic Washingtonian Spring Break destination. A day of celebrating Holi and a few purchased Harvard Business Cases later, my final quarter of undergrad has begun. 

Sunrise, somewhere in Idaho. 

Ocean spotlights. 

Moonlit walls of Bryce Canyon

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We happen to run into badass runner, Jay Harcum, in Zion. He was generous enough to do a spontaneous trail run shoot on his favorite Zion trail at sunset while guiding a college trip through the park. Among many others, Jay has run the San Diego 50 and will be running Boston for his second time this year.

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Lower Antelope Canyon

Our mobile, 5-star hotel for the trip. 

Instant pasta + instant coffee = instant success

16 hours of driving and a couple of rest days later Jake, Kyle and I found ourselves on the Olympic Peninsula. 

Washington Democratic Caucus

The Eastside Friends and Family Holi Celebration

Center Focus - Recent Updates

This quarter flew by in a rush of nerve-racking basketball games, quick, local vignettes and digital marketing classes. Here are some of the images I made in between and during. 

WWU basketball star Jeffery Parker repeatedly dunked for me while I attempted to make uneducated suggestions. Very thankful for his patience and talent. 

Japanese artist, Rintaro Hara stands amidst the many softly rolling styrofoam balls of his piece "Uplift and Slope" featured in Western Gallery exhibit "How Space Turns." See the whole story at here and experience the exhibit in person at the Western Gallery.

UW Track Invitational

Kneeling before a wooden crucifix, Rev. Joseph Altenhofen prays the rosary in his home, adjacent to the Sacred Heart Church. Full story.

Klipsun Magazine's Editor in Chief Halee Hastad introduces you to the Promise edition.

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During a Lynden High School boy's basketball game I met Henry Kuiken - a 1952 Lynden HS graduate who played in this very gym for the same team 64 years ago. Since then, Henry has been in the Air Force, worked for Boeing on President Kennedy's plane, and been married. In 1979, Henry was struck by a car with low chances of recovery. But he pulled through and claims "God kept me around to watch basketball."

After decades of growing acceptance, my grandmother, Marilyn Danielson, has completed and published her book - Scott's Rainbow: A mother's journey of loss, faith, and survival. The book tells the story of my father's younger brother and his battle with brain cancer. Last month I got to spend a morning with her, listen to her recollect, and see the artifacts from Scott's life, cut short.

With exactly 35 minutes remaining before the start of a game against rival team, Central Washington University, the WWU locker room goes silent. Just as he does before each game, Jeffery Parker leads his team in prayer. Full story.

End of 2015, Beginning of 2016

Fun portraits of varying styles, a cabin community in the cascades and basketball season kicking up. Take a look. 

Western Washington University freshman, Gabriela Pelogi was gracious enough to do a quick 20 minute shoot with me for some marketing materials leading up to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA II tournament. 

Abbi Milner preparing for yoga.

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Friends, food and funds.

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It was an exciting night at the Seattle Center. Lightsaber Battle 2016.

The Scottish High Camp is a cabin lodging area that offers amazing backcountry skiing in the winter and gorgeous colors during the summer. 

Chris Hanson, owner and director of High Camp still gets in her turns despite a busy schedule.

Puget Sound Energy donated funds to the Whatcom K9 Unit for bullet proof dog vests.

A fun story from Mark Hartley taking a look at the relationship between men and their beards. Check it out here.

A mountain for your time.

(Mostly) October 2015 - Deep Passes, Crowded Headers, and the Blood Moon

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Western Washington University's Becca Cates goes up for a header against MSUB defenders.

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Mount Baker sophomore Thomas Barbo drops a pass in the endzone during the third quarter of the game at Meridian High School on Friday, October 2.

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Western's Michaela Hall spikes the ball for a kill against Central Washington University. 

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Erik Friberg celebrates scoring the winning goal against LA Galaxy on Wednesday October 28 during the first MLS playoff knockout round. See more Sounders photos from the previous posting below. 

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The supermoon eclipse rising above Shuksan on September 27th. 

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A participant of the Bellingham Bay Marathon running down the Red River Pedestrian Path on Lummi Reservation, Washington.

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Headers and lights - WWU Men's Soccer vs. MSUB

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Squalicum High School students prepare for a friday night football game against Sedro Wooley High School on September 25th. 

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After completing a reception from quarterback Garrett Sorenson, Squalicum High School junior Ben Peterson dives into the endzone for a touchdown in the third quarter against Sedro Wooley High School on Friday, Sept. 25. 

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Silver Lake Park Invite - Saturday, Sept. 26.

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42nd Western Washington University Classic - Lake Padden, Bellingham, Washington

Vesper Peak, North Cascades, Washington

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Mount Baker High School vs. Meridian High School Oct. 23rd. 

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Lummi Nation School vs. Crescent School - Oct. 9th. 

A lost opportunity. 

Looking the opposite direction of the supermoon eclipse on Sept. 27th. 

Sounders vs LA Galaxy 10/28/15

I had the opportunity to shoot the Seattle Sounders vs Los Angeles Galaxy MLS knockout match for Prost Amerika, and after shooting college level soccer for the previous month, standing on the sidelines of Century Link Field made it feel like I had stumbled across an entirely different sport. I spent the first half of the game shooting Galaxy players attempting to blast in big kicks past Stefan Frei (succeeding twice). The second half of the game, I got to internally cheer for the Sounders offense as they wore down Galaxy players to claim their victory. Here are a handful of my favorite images.

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Fellow photographer Max Aquino walking out before the match. 

LA Galaxy players celebrate after their initial equalizing goal early in the first half.

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Sounders midfielder Erik Friberg celebrates after scoring a goal that put the Sounders up 3-2 against LA. 

Summer 2015

Full of mountainous running and freelancing, summer of 2015 included nights under the stars, at trip to Yosemite National Park, a Mariners game, and much more. 

Trail Running and Other Excursions

Ranging from easy hikes with populated lookout towers, to a 35-mile day run around the Copper Ridge Loop the summer had much in store for my longing to be surrounded by craggy peaks and alpine lakes. 

La Bohn Gap / Mt. Hinman 

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Mt. Pilchuck Overnight

Copper Ridge Loop in a Day

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Skyline Divide

The Enchantments

Lake Ann

Trappers Peak

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Ptarmigan Ridge 

Alpine Lakes Left and Right

The Aurora Outside North Bend

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Yosemite National Park

A Zipline Wedding and Mariners Ballgirls - A couple memorable assignments for the Everett Herald

Spring 2015

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During this spring, I shot a handful assignments for Klipsun Magazine - however, one stood out as the most visually intriguing. The following few images are from a story on body cameras of Bellingham police officers. I had the opportunity to spend an evening with Officer Andria Fountain responding to calls - see the full story here: http://www.klipsunmagazine.com/body-behind-lens/.

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Officer Rene Wagner asks a man arrested for violation of a restraining order what the substance found in his side pocket is. The man claimed he had no knowledge of the small bag saying "these aren't my pants". An on-the-scene drug test kit suggested that the substance was methamphetamine.  

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Officer Fountain attempts to find the owner of a misplaced phone.

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Officer Fountain talks with a homeless man who frequently is reported for welfare checks. The reported man was sleeping outside of the Northwest Chiropractic Clinic on April 25, 2015. 

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After crashing his car outside of a local restaurant, a Bellingham man takes a sobriety test administered by Officer Fountain. 

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Bellingham Police Officer Andria Fountain walks a man into the Whatcom County Jail to be processed and admitted for the night. The man, arrested for driving under the influence, claimed to only have one beer that night but registered a blood alcohol content level .09 above the legal limit. Fountain, who was the first of four officers on the scene, says that many people don't realize how fast officers have to make life-impacting decisions in the field which is one of the reasons body cameras are being implemented. 

Spring Excursions

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Sourdough Mountain, North Cascades, Washington

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Artist Point Road, Mt. Baker Area, Washington

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Artist Point, Mt. Baker Area, Washington

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Index, Washington

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Thunder Creek, North Cascades, Washington

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Thunder Knob, North Cascades, Washington