An Ultra for the Ages
A picture is worth a thousand words, but what about the person on the other side of the camera?
If you ask anyone in Washington County, Maryland about the JFK 50 Mile Race, they’ll probably tell stories of its historical origins and the huge community involvement it brings. For me, the race is personal. I was lucky enough to grow up with this race, watch it evolve over the years, and witness the impact it has on the competitors. And recently, my dad became the official photographer for the race.
The race first started in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy pushed the nation to become more physically fit, commissioning numerous 50-mile runs across the country in an effort to increase the nation’s physical fitness. Originally, the race was designed to set a standard for military officers: they should be be able to cover 50 miles in 20 hours to maintain their commission, an idea originating with President Teddy Roosevelt. In tribute to President Kennedy following his assassination, the race in Maryland was named after him and changed into a memorial race that still sets a high standard for a test of one’s limitations. That tradition carries on as the race continues to have a strong focus on the military and awards the “Kennedy Cup” to the service that has their top 5 finish first.
Prior to my dad, the photography was managed by Brightroom Sports Photography, a larger organization with significant resources. While Brighton was shooting, my dad and I would drive to different points in the race to follow the elite runners, who were coached by some of his friends. We enjoyed this guerrilla style of photography, but when the offer was made to my dad to lead the operation, it was hard for him to pass up. We remember our earlier small-time operation fondly as the work now comes with its fair share of difficulties.
The race is capped at 1,250 runners. On average, each runner gets a handful of shots from various points along the course. This ends up being roughly 15,000 pictures taken over 14 hours, each tagged to a bib number. That usually means sitting in one spot for several hours at the end of November in cold, mountainous central Maryland, pressing the shutter button over and over. You are starting in the dark and finishing in the dark. With three photographers and time cut-offs at various spots along the course, it’s a balancing act between staying long enough to get everyone and covering all of the locations. You want to give the runners a variety of pictures from different points, but that can be challenging when dealing with a spread-out field. And when the sun goes down, flash photography adds another challenge, even more so when talking about large packs of runners and a crowded finish line.
It is a privilege shooting the oldest and largest ultra in the country. Being involved with this race over the years has allowed us to witness people running through life changing moments. Whether they are going through a divorce, honoring a loved one, or running the 50 “when I’m 50,” we get to hear their stories and share in their happiness. Not to mention, familiar and sometimes famous face shows up every now and then. The drummer from Matchbox 20 ran it a few years ago, but my dad says he always recognizes the same eclectic people every year. Some run in tuxes, cow outfits, tutus, and even bell bottoms. My dad presents these inspiring people with a memento of their day and finds a way to make his brief interactions with them meaningful. He makes it a point to encourage and make them laugh; that emotion is evident in the string of shots he captures. When it comes to the elite runners, his comments on more practical: he’ll notify them on their status in the race, how far off from the leader they are, their pace, and the distance to the next aid station.
My dad ran his first JFK 50 in his early teens. so he has been in the athlete’s shoes and his passion has only intensified. Our family has been involved in this race for over a decade and we keep coming back for the people, those who put on the race and those who run it. It is a great display of courage, passion, and fitness, and not to mention, a wonderful way to prep yourself for Thanksgiving dinner.
If you’d like to learn more about running the JFK 50, visit www.jfk50mile.org.