Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Park2Park Relay 2012, Part II:
An ultra moment to shine

I was reminded at Saturday's second annual Hendricks County Park2Park Relay how inspiration can hit you in a flash (excuse photography pun), without warning.

On a daylong event like the Park2Park, especially when you're coordinating a key aspect of the event as I was doing with the photography coverage on behalf of the Indy Meetup Photo Club, the mind is constantly trying to anticipate. This is on top of pulling back and doing the basic work -- photography. For example, I spent days trying to anticipate the handling of lighting for the 5 a.m. start of the ultramarathon competition, as I outlined in yesterday's post. Still ... despite the best intentions ... I learned a key lesson: If you don't get there early enough, you might not have enough time to set up things to experiment with enough ideas to optimize exposure.

I shrugged off the partial disappointment and returned focus to the rest of the event. Except for the surprisingly large spacing between when runners would show up at relay stations along the 64.5-mile course, things went smoothly and mostly as expected. It wasn't until I was at McCloud Nature Park, the event's terminus this year, that I was hit by the "inspiration" mentioned in the opening paragraph.

I'd already been at McCloud for about an hour and a half, invariably resting, eating/drinking, talking with race organizers and other club members, and taking some shots at the finish line, when I got the idea to explore the course trail within the park. I first headed to familiar terrain -- the elegant rust-colored steel bridge in the west part of the park where a couple of club members and I camped out last year as runners crossed that bridge on the first leg of their long journey (the course started in McCloud last year; the race organizers flipped it around this year and made McCloud the finish point). We had some dramatic morning light to make beautiful pictures last year; this year, runners were crossing the bridge in the early afternoon, not ideal lighting for pictures.

Still, gazing at the bridge is when the seed of inspiration was planted, though the lightning still would not strike until about a little later. I was on a mound overlooking the bridge, trying to shoot runners as I saw them crossing the bridge to my right in the early portion of this 3.1-mile leg and also coming at me from the south, a point on the course about three-quarters of a mile after the bridge cross for them. On the bridge, I saw Michael Scott, one of six men competing in the new ultramarathon division (individuals who run a 52-mile course across the county). I'd come across Scott earlier in the day about midway through the full course and took pictures of him smiling as he jogged toward me. I didn't realize it until that night, at home processing my pictures after the shoot, that I also had photographed him some 10 hours earlier in the parking lot of Sodalis Nature Park near Plainfield, this year's start point.

On the bridge at McCloud, Scott lifted up his arms and flashed thumbs up (see photo at the top, leading off this post), perhaps to acknowledge that the remaining 3 miles ahead of him was a pittance compared to the 49 he'd already logged. I took a couple of pictures of him on the bridge. Then I got to thinking that I never explored much else of the course trail within McCloud last year, so ... I followed the course from the point where I had been standing when I photographed Scott on the bridge -- roughly, the final 2 miles. The path -- which was grass-covered at that point -- took me to the ravine that the bridge spans to the south. I came across few runners in my journey after this, maybe a half-dozen altogether. But one of those turned out to be Scott, who reappeared as I was concentrating on photographing one of several birdhouses I came across on the path, which at that point parallels Big Walnut Creek. I had enough time to turn and photograph him coming toward me. He acknowledged my presence and offered a warm smile, and I told him that I thought he was looking good.

That's when the idea bolt struck. I decided that not only was I going to walk the final section of the course, but I was going to stay on Scott's trail -- at a distance -- as best as I could. I wanted to document in photos, the final stretch of an ultramarathon runner. After passing me near the birdhouse, Scott helped me accomplish that task a bit; he stopped jogging and began to walk, thinking I was out of his sight. I'm sure all the ultra runners stopped to walk portions of the course, so I understood that doing so was no embarrassment. I tried to remain at a distance because I didn't want to make him feel like he had to return to jogging because someone was watching. But, alas, there was a hairpin turn down a steep hill in a wooded section, a turn I didn't know was coming. It gave him an angle to see me, so ... he returned to his jog, and I decided to jog as well to keep up.

When we emerged from the woods back onto a grass portion of the path, he came upon two men who apparently had been looking for him. They offered Scott words of encouragement and joined him on the run the rest of the way. The separation between us would grow every time I stopped to take a photograph, and I worried I'd get too far behind to get a good shot of Scott crossing the finish line. So my "jogging" turned to a healthy run for about a quarter- to a half-mile, but I was up to the task. I was really excited.

When Scott emerged into the open area and the finish line in sight, there was a team of runners walking toward us, heading to plant a tree near one of the gravel parking lots. (Planting trees is an honor given to all teams who win the divisions they compete in for the relay). I recognized the team, Team Tenacious, from last year, when it also had won its division and planted a tree along the pond at Sodalis Nature Park.

Scott was only about 100 meters or so from the finish line when I crouched to try and track his final steps. That's when a passerby on a cellphone lazily walked almost right in front of me. I tried to veer left or right, but there were obstacles -- ironically, just at that point -- in either direction. I had to stop. By the time the unsuspecting cellphone user was out of my way, Scott was about 10 feet in front of the finish chute. I got off a couple pictures, but not the ones I'd been hoping for. I also photographed him talking to someone immediately afterward. I learned later that night that Scott was the third of the six ultramarathoners to cross the finish line. He completed the 52-mile course in 11 hours, 39.05 seconds, or a pace of 10:45 minutes per mile. Winning the ultra competition was Keith Gropple, who crossed the line in 10:21.28 (a 9.34 pace). Full results of the relay can be found at the Park2Park website.

Nicely done, Michael ... and all the ultramarathoners.

Next post: The start line at Sodalis Nature Park.

Above: I didn't realize it when I took this picture at 4:50 a.m. Saturday in the parking lot of Sodalis Nature Park, 10 minutes before the start of the ultramarathon competition, but the man on the far right -- Michael Scott -- would inspire me, about 11 hours later, to document in pictures the final 2 miles of his 52-mile journey in the ultramarathon competition of the second annual Hendricks County Park2Park Relay.

Above: Michael smiling as he approaches me, well into his ultramarathon odyssey. I know it was definitely between Blanton Woods in Danville and the relay station ending Leg 15 several miles east of North Salem. If I had to guess, I think it was on North County Road 350 West, right before runners turned left (west) to approach the Leg 15 relay station. But I'm not sure.

Above: I was standing on the gravel path you see, a little to the left of this bridge overlook vantage point, when I saw Michael cross the bridge in McCloud.
Above: Looking down from the bridge into the ravine ... and the path that, much farther down, runners would pass over in the final 2 miles of their journey to the finish line. 

Above and below: Michael came past me a final time at a point where, moments before I noticed him coming at me, I'd been photographing a birdhouse along Big Walnut Creek. He was about a mile from the finish. I allowed him to jog a very short ways before I turned and captured the photo below from behind, just before he would make a right turn and slip out of my sight. He then slowed down and began to walk. I began to follow him from a distance.

Above: These two men backtracked the course from the finish line, looking for Michael. The finish line announcer might have broadcast Michael's presence in the park, which he had been doing for many of the runners; ham radio operators at the runners' park entry point on the northwest side of McCloud no doubt were relaying that information to the finish line. This photo was taken after Michael had seen me following him when he came upon the hairpin turn in the woods, so he had been back in jog mode when the men found him and accompanied him the rest of the way.

Above: The three amigos, as they climbed an incline that would emerge into the park's main open area near the Nature Center. 

Above: The three amigos run past the circular ground openings where division-winning teams would plant trees. Members of one of those teams, Team Tenacious, which won the Mixed 40+ division, can be seen in the background (blue jersies) walking toward the area to do their ceremonial planting.

Above: Michael acknowledges applause and well-wishers shortly before veering left to approach the finish line chute.

Above: The journey is over for Michael Scott; a nice-sized group of spectators acknowledges his accomplishment. 

Above: Michael conversing with someone moments after he put on his finishing medal.

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