Where do I start? I left with a million memories, stories and impressions. I’ve been back just eight weeks but already, with my usual whirlwind pace of life, details are starting to escape me so I forced myself to sit down and record my recollections…
February 12th, I landed in Amman, Jordan for a gig I’ve long been passionate about. For a little over a week, I would be surrounded by some amazing athletes, both full-on pro’s and weekend warriors, all bound by some quest for discovery, all intimidated, nervous yet excited by the challenge that lay ahead. My history with the Racing the Planet / 4 Deserts goes back to 2007 when I shot their Sahara Run in Egypt, which was quickly followed by my covering their races in remote China and the salt flats in Chile. I just loved them. The growing understanding and …passion for ultra distance running saw me sign up for their Gobi March race in 2011. Competing and not shooting, was even sweeter!
If you’re not aware of these events, the format is pretty simple. You load a backpack with the bare minimum to be fully self sufficient for seven days and start running. Over six stages, you cover a mind-blowing 250km and if you manage to keep your act together during the race, you happily cross the finish line to receive the biggest medal ever. Sound easy? Just try one and you might re-consider your answer!
It’s worth watching the above slidemovie to absorb some of my best images. My objective when it comes to race photography is pretty straightforward. It’s about story telling… creating a visual story that captures the true essence of the race.
Below are some of the notes I made on the way home to record a handful of the special conversations and memories of the race…
- Pre race gear check. The competitors lay out all their gear for a detailed check to ensure they’re carrying all the mandatory equipment. This is a street market of innovation, weight saving techniques and the latest fancy gadgets on sale. It’s at this point that you learn all the hidden secrets but perhaps this is too late, just a day prior to the race start. The aim is to make your pack as light as possible, but still, packs tend to weigh anywhere between six and 14 kilos. Trust me, the six kilo runners will go hungry and the 14 kilo guys may end up rethinking their load and shedding en route. I guess ideally, you want to be somewhere in the middle…
- Food. Funny how time spent in the great outdoors always leads to discussions on food. You become obsessed with your dream first meal when back in civilisation. Good nutrition and long distance running go hand in hand. The challenge with these races is that you have to carry all your food for the entire race so luxury picnics or intense carbo loading simply aren’t an option. It’s energy gels, freeze dried meals and crushed up Pringles all the way. It was a conversation I had with a guy, Shaun, on day six, the rest day after the long march that put it all in perspective. It was 9am and he said, “I’ve only got a small package of porridge which I’ll have at 3pm. That will do for today.” Just imagine, you ran 84k the previous day, you’ve been on your feet for at least 15 hours (or longer for others) and all you have to eat the following full day is a bowl of porridge! Granted your stomach gets smaller during the race but still… hunger plays an interesting mind game.
- Extreme races also attract pro athletes looking for a different way to push their boundaries and this Sahara Run was no different. To name a few in the line up we had Jordanian champion Salameh Al Aqra who ended up taking victory on home soil, the Spanish ‘Chema’, a double Olympic champion having his first go at a staged ultra and full time adventurer Philppe Gatta from France who came along ‘just for fun’.
- Back in 2008, I also had the pleasure to work closely with Dean Karnazes, when The North Face commissioned me to do additional photography work with him. Dean is a legend in his own right. Just google his name and you’ll see exactly what I mean or visit his site at www.ultramarathonman.com. Dean is the author of a number of inspiring books, some of which feature my images. Why bring this up? Well during this race in Sahara, we had a group of Polish runners and every morning one of them would hold a mini ‘state of the nation’ by reading inspiring quotes from Dean’s book. Beyond the obvious uplifting, inspirational and motivational effects of this initiative, it dawned on me how small the world of ultra running really is… how events, race icons and athletes all connect together quite seamlessly.
- What a stunning course! Wadi Rum, in particular, blew my mind away. The scale and the beauty was truly unbelievable. The great thing about being the photographer is that I get to see the best of the course. I spent a lot of time on foot with the runners and at times just did so, to get in my own run. The start of day five was through a stunning but difficult to access Canyon. I did a recce the afternoon before, during a long run myself, and amazed by its sheer beauty, was super excited to shoot it on race morning. The following day I joined Carlos and the course team to set-up the last stage, backtracking to camp from Petra. Again, more magic for the taking.
- Over the years, I’ve pretty much sussed out what gear to bring. The one thing I failed to take this time was an umbrella… we had unexpected downpours over the first 1.5 days so I’m super grateful Canon knows how to prep their pro gear for rough conditions. As for the best two items in my bag…. easy! First of all, my custom made winter sleeping bag. Nights were cold and this meant I could really get an awesome night’s sleep. And secondly, my portable espresso machine… a wonderful gift from my buddy Paul Rosenquist as he knows how much I love my coffee. I can’t stand instant coffee and during the week there was no access to anything else, except my own freshly brewed caffe latte. I can easily go without a shower for week, I’m ok on smelly clothes, more than happy to use a tree as a toilet and can handle endless freeze dried meals, but take away a good nights sleep and a fresh brew and it causes havoc with my happiness and creativity.
What makes these kinds of races so special and makes me want to keep on coming back are simply the people… the volunteers, the competitors, the crew. It takes a certain breed to like this kind of stuff and for one week we’re one big happy family working our butts off a magical experience for all.
Would I race again? Yes. As a matter of fact I competed in a shorter (if you call 140k short) race in Dubai called Extreme 3 just a week after returning home. As for a biggy like 4 Deserts … it is sort of in my head that if the Sahara Run returns to Jordan, I’m in!
My big thanks to Mary, Sam, Alina, Matt and the remaining crew at 4 Deserts for the opportunity and adventure. See you soon.