“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” – Robert Frank
This is a quote that always comes to mind when I take photographs of athletes pushing themselves beyond their limits during some of the toughest endurance events on the planet. The longer I do sports photography, the more I realise the sense of community it brings and the shared emotions it can create. I’ve witnessed some of the greatest highs and lowest lows possible, and being there to capture those moments - the nerves, the determination, the camaraderie, and the sheer and shared elation of crossing the finish line - only serves to drive my passion for trail running further and add to the already immeasurable respect I have for those who continue to go beyond the limits of the sport.
During the 2022 edition of UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc), I wanted to go a step further. I wanted to not only capture the faces of those attempting the impossible, but also find out the ‘why’ that lies behind the face. We all have our reasons to run, but seldom are they the same. I wanted to find out the ‘why’ from those taking on what is arguably one of the toughest ultras on the planet. I wanted to know what drives them, what carries them through the dark moments, and why, above all else, do they choose to run. To boil it down to its purest form, I ended with the same simple question for each runner: In 3 words or less, describe why you run.
For those who haven’t heard of UTMB, it’s one of the most brutally tough trail runs in the world and attracts the best ultra runners from all different corners of the planet. Those brave enough to compete must navigate a circular 106 mile loop of Mont Blanc using nothing but the power of their own bodies, starting and finishing in Chamonix in the French Alps.
It’s always interesting to know where and when running became part of someone’s life, how it grew to become more than just an exercise, and the impact it’s had on them. For fan-favourite and US pro trail-ultra runner Zach Miller, that journey began at a very young age.
“I started out as a soccer player. I was the kid who actually liked it when the coaches would make us run at practice. I started running small races in fourth grade for physical education class. I started running track in eighth grade, then cross country in tenth grade. I ran throughout high school and college and things snowballed from there. Largely I learned that I love to run. I guess I also learned the value of taking risks and putting yourself out there. I learned that sometimes the best thing to do in life is to just go for it, even, or maybe especially when you are unsure of yourself.”
While Zach’s motivation seems to come from within, it’s a mixture of the internal and the external that keeps British athlete Jasmin Paris driven as she takes on longer and harder trails.
“Running brings me great joy, the wilder the location the happier it makes me. Mountains have always given me a sense of perspective, which is a wonderful thing to come back to after the clamour of everyday life. When I take on harder, potentially impossible challenges, that’s when I think I really start to understand what I am capable of. Experiences like those give me confidence which carries through to all areas of my life.”
The one question which really resonated with me was when I asked ultra participants what they discovered about themself through running, as it spoke directly to the power of running that I’m sure is felt by almost every runner, no matter where they are on their journey.
“For me, running is something that helps me process life, heal, and rejuvenate,” answered Canadian runner Sam Yam. ”I love how running puts your whole self through so much physical and mental stress, yet is so incredibly invigorating. I realise how incredible the body and mind are and its ability to be stretched beyond limits is amazing.”
For Matthew Tallis it was far more decisive, answering that through running he had discovered “discipline, commitment, structure, calmness, balance and grit,” while for the Iranian Payam Dibadge it was “stamina and positive energy.”
But the answer I perhaps appreciated the most came from Valentine Ramette, who spoke directly to the healing powers of running natural trails.
“I finally found what I was missing in road running: being outside, in nature, facing the elements, facing myself, having to manage my emotions and my body for several hours!”
As much as running is all about the highs, ultra running is also synonymous with the infamous lows. Those moments where doubt sets in and the mind, body, or both begin to falter. Being able to complete any ultra involves knowing how to deal with these moments, and even for those of us who are running much shorter distances, there is a lot to learn.
“I practise in training getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” explains The North Face athlete Elsey Davis. “So when the going gets tough in races I am able to disconnect my mind from my body which has helped me get to the finish line against the odds on a lot of occasions. I think you learn the most about yourself on the bad days and I know that I’d rather have a bad result with a valuable learning experience than a DNF.”
For Jasmin Paris, it’s about turning the negative into a positive.
“I try to look around and remind myself why I chose to run, primarily because I love to be in the mountains and to experience nature. I also try to remind myself of the sacrifices I’ve made to get to that point - all the early morning starts, and the time spent away from my family. Sometimes I actively imagine the end of the race, and plan what we will do when I am reunited with my two young children. On the other hand, sometimes I don’t think at all, instead I enter a sort of meditation, just focusing on keeping my feet moving stride by stride, eating and keeping warm.”
But for Matthew Tallis, it’s about recognizing the pain of others and counting your blessings.
“I have never quit a race as I recognise that what I am experiencing at that dark moment is not even close to what other people who I care about or people or communities who I know of are going through in their lives. To be in a position to be comfortable with being uncomfortable during training or a race is a position I don’t take for granted.”
Getting closer to the ‘why’, I asked which part of them shines the brightest when they run, and nothing seems to shine brighter than that of the head and heart.
“My heart. That's what shines brightest. I run with my heart,” exclaimed Zach Miller. “My head is calm, my thoughts are clear, and I am always in a better place than when I started the run,” explained Matthew Tallis.
For Giulia Alberti and Tina Pederson it’s their determination, answering “my positive mind, I never want to give up” and “probably my optimism!” respectively.
Always the inspiration, Valentine Ramette elaborated on the mental and physical positives that shine through when she runs.
“I discover the strength of my mind and my body. The complementarity of them. During the race I manage to free myself of everything, to be focused on my breath and my sensations.”
A simple question with a short answer, but certainly a lot to think about. Try asking yourself the exact same question next time you’re out on the trails, and take the time to remember the answer when the dark moments set in.
I absolutely loved the inspirational answer of Valentine Ramette, “to feel free!” and the profound “Zen. Therapy. Joy.” from Sam Yam. And who can disagree with Elsey Davis who is always thinking of “the finish line beer” to keep pushing on?
As for myself, it will always be the people, the mountains, and the moments. Perhaps not technically 3 words, but three connected factors that for me place trail running above any other sport, and not only keep me running, but keep me driven to capture those moments of humanity.
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