Trail running

In the Land of Fire and Ice: Ísland (Iceland) Extreme Triathlon

In July 2019, despite some challenging weather that included thick mist and driving rain, I had the pleasure of shooting promotional photographs for the inaugural Ísland (Iceland) Extreme Triathlon on the Snaefellsnes penisula in western Iceland. The race, a long course triathlon where competitors are challenged with a 3km swim beneath Kirkjufell, a 180km cycle around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and a marathon 42.2km run over the side of Snæfellsjökull, a glacier-capped stratovolcano, is the brainchild of US race directors Aaron Palaian and Tony Saap, who operate a company called ExtremeTris.com and put on the Ísland Extreme Triathlon with support from local athletes. Aaron and I first met in 2017 when I photographed him ahead of his participation in the Celtman Extreme Triathlon and we kept in touch. It was good fun to catch up with Aaron (and to trade insults, as only friends can do) but also to meet Tony and to visit the wonderful country of Iceland and meet other new friends. I’m definitely keen to go back.

Ísland Extreme Triathlon 2019

  1. Geir Omarsson (Reykjavik, IS) - Finish Time: 10:09:43

  2. Raphael Vorpe (Ittigen, Switzerland) - 10:48:17

  3. Pétur Gundnason (Reykjavik, IS) - 10:51:48

The first female home was Erin Green (Wilmington, NC, US) in a time of 15:34:39.

Mountain running: Grey Corries, West Highlands of Scotland

Charlie Lees celebrating the dawn near the summit of Stob Choire Chlaurigh in the Grey Corries in the West Highlands of Scotland

Charlie Lees celebrating the dawn near the summit of Stob Choire Chlaurigh in the Grey Corries in the West Highlands of Scotland

The Grey Corries are a group of four Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft) that form a natural rocky ridge running south-west from Spean Bridge in the West Highlands of Scotland to Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak. I’ve trekked over the Grey Corries many times, on day trips as well as backpacking them as part of the Lochaber Traverse and during an attempt on Tranter’s Round. Each time I’ve arrived on the summit of Stob Choire Claurigh, the highest summit in the Grey Corries at 1177m, I’ve made a mental note of the expansive views as the ridge snakes its way south-west towards Ben Nevis. I’ve always resolved to come back for a photo shoot.

The image I had in my head was of a trail runner descending from the summit of Stob Choire Claurigh as the sun set far in the west over Ben Nevis. I’d roped in a friend, Charlie Lees, who is supported by Gorewear, and we’d hiked up the mountain the previous afternoon so we were in a perfect position for the shoot. Unfortunately, as is often the case in Scotland, the weather didn’t play ball. The forecast was good but the light at sunset was muted by low-lying cloud and so we improvised instead, shooting a variety of shots until it got too dark (around 11pm). I wasn’t too concerned as we’d had the foresight to bring sleeping gear with us and we planned to spend the night on the summit so we could shoot again the following day.

In the morning, I woke early, well before sunrise. I was disappointed to find the cloud was still there but a wild mountain hare, stationary not five feet from my head, buoyed my spirits. The hare and I sat in silence for a while, perhaps both of us just admiring the view, before it hopped off down the ridge. I called out to Charlie and we got ready for the shoot.

My intentions were still to shoot facing west, catching Charlie as the sun caught the ridgeline out to Ben Nevis. The view to the east though as the sun rose behind the spine of a subsidiary top, Stob Coire na Ceannain, caught my eye and we headed along the ridge. As Charlie crested the summit, he leapt in the air slightly and I knew I had my shot. After a few repeat takes, including some without the leap, I was happy.

Capturing this image reminded me that the photograph I’m most glad to have captured is not always the one I had planned. It’s best I keep an open mind and consider all my options when planning and executing a shoot. It also reminded me to keep an eye on an athlete’s natural traits and take advantage of them, when it’s appropriate, when I’m producing an image.

Published in: Runner’s World, June 2018  (A variation of this image)

Trail and mountain running ideas: Chamonix and nearby

In August 2017, I had the opportunity to photograph husband and wife Donnie Campbell and Rachael Campbell in Chamonix, France. Donnie Campbell is one of Britain's top ultra runners, sponsored by Salomon. Rachael is a nurse and a talented mountain runner, running for Team GB in 2018 and placing 5th female in the 2018 Marathon du Mont-Blanc 90km series. 

One of my first tasks was to decide where I would take elite athletes for a mountain running shoot near Chamonix that would help me to produce images I hadn't seen before.

Location 1 - Désert de Platé

Donnie Campbell running on Desert de Plate with Mont Blanc in the background

Donnie Campbell running on Desert de Plate with Mont Blanc in the background

On the day Donnie and Rachael welcomed us to the Argentière campsite they'd been calling home for the Summer, my assistant Alex remarked how we appeared to have brought the Scottish weather with us (a temperature of 3 degrees C was reported for the following day). Although the Chamonix valley was socked in with low cloud and drizzle, we had done our research and the weather was looking better a few days ahead so we headed north in the rain to Plaine Joux and followed the route of Le Dérochoir (a fun, if initially sketchy-looking 'via ferrata' that follows a weak point up the dramatic cliffs of Rochers des Fiz and leads to Col de la Portette). Our plan was to stay overnight at Refuge de Platé and shoot sunrise shots of Donnie and Rachael playing on the amazing limestone rock landscape of Désert de Platé, with Mont Blanc in the background.

Désert de Platé was an area that had immediately sprung out when I did some location scouting online. I definitely did want to shoot running images in the Chamonix valley but, when I googled possible locations, the south side of Chamonix (the Lac Blanc side) was clearly the running photographer's location of choice. For good reason. The views are awesome. But I also wanted to find a location that no-one else had. So my plan for our 4-day shoot was to shoot on the balcony paths of Chamonix but also find another location that I hadn't seen any running shots of. Désert de Platé, as it transpired, wasn't an entirely unique location for running (whilst we were in Chamonix, Kilian Jornet posted a video of Seb Montaz and himself playing around between the rock crevasses) but I think we made a good choice. The cracked limestone rock offers huge potential for foreground interest in a photo shoot and the views of Mont Blanc are immense. We only had the time and the weather for one shoot before we headed back to Chamonix but I'd love to return and explore more.

Location 2 - Lac Blanc

Rachael Campbell running at lower Lac Blanc with the Chamonix Aiguilles in the background

Rachael Campbell running at lower Lac Blanc with the Chamonix Aiguilles in the background

When the sun became too bright for photographs at Désert de Platé, we descended via Le Dérochoir and returned to Chamonix for lunch. Two hours later, Alex and I were on our way to 2,352m high Lac Blanc, taking advantage of the chairlifts from Les Praz to Flégère to L'Index to help alleviate some of the weight of our camera and lighting gear. Donnie and Rachael chose to run up from Argentière. The location of Lac Blanc (the 'White Lake’) is, arguably, home to the most famous views in the Alps, with thousands of photos on the internet of the scenic lake and its mountain refuge, nestled beneath the Aiguilles Rouge, with its expansive views over the Chamonix valley to famous peaks such as Aiguille du Tour, Aiguille du Chardonnet, Aiguille Verte, Aiguille du Dru, Grandes Jorasses, the Chamonix Aiguilles and Mont Blanc.

Donnie and Rachael met us at Refuge Lac Blanc. By the time they'd arrived, I’d already decided that a Saturday night in August wasn’t the best time for a photo shoot at this busy location. There was an awful lot of people around the lake. It was too crowded for the shots I had in mind so we descended to lower Lac Blanc and prepared to shoot there. There were already photographers set up (it's a popular lake for reflections) so I took the time to check they didn’t mind if we took some running shots and received a positive response (though in the morning I learnt there was a photographer I had missed and we had spoiled their time lapse. If this was you, I do regret it). After we wrapped up our shoot, I chatted to Salomon's social media manager, Jeremy. Donnie and Rachael returned to Argentière and Alex and I bivvied out so we could shoot some mountain landscape images at dawn. We arranged to meet up with Donnie and Rachael later that day.

Location 3 - Le Brévent

Donnie Campbell running nearby Le Brévent with the summit of Mont Blanc in the background

Donnie Campbell running nearby Le Brévent with the summit of Mont Blanc in the background

Donnie and Rachael’s base in the Alps was their camper van at Camping du Glacier d’Argentière (www.campingchamonix.com). After Alex and I had descended from Lac Blanc (pleasingly, the trail popped out at a bakery in Argentière), it was nice to sit in the mid-day sun at the campsite with fresh bread and a chilled drink as we prepared for our last shoot of the trip. We had two locations in mind. A visit to Tête de Balme or Aiguillette des Posettes for a sunset view down the whole Chamonix valley or to head south-west to Brévent for a closer view of the Chamonix Aiguilles and the summit of Mont Blanc. The latter won, not least because I love looking at the Chamonix Aiguilles (and Les Drus - oh, Les Drus - along with Cerro Torre and Torre Egger in Patagonia, two peaks I could photograph simply every day).

Le Brévent is a popular destination in the Alps for Chamonix’s aerial specialists. Paragliders take off very close to the Plan Praz mid-station, taking advantage of thermals above the town, and BASE jumpers plunge from a pedestal not far from Le Brévent’s 2,525m high summit. We didn't see any BASE jumpers but we did see plenty of paragliders as we left the summit of Le Brévent and headed into a magnificent rocky playground that stretches out like one great, big, broken ridge into the distance towards the Aiguilles Rouges. I'm confident there's huge potential for capturing adventure sports images beneath the peaks that rise above the Grand Balcon Sud, including running, hiking and scrambling photos, all with stunning views across to the big alpine peaks. I made a note to discuss it with clients on my return.

All that was left was for us was to descend the 1,500m to Chamonix, first on an easy trail and then down the initially scrambly but fun Chamonix VK route steeply downhill to arrive in town well after dark. I knew my quads would burn from the 3,000m descent I’d had that day but it was a good feeling and I was sad to be leaving. Three days shooting running in Chamonix simply isn't enough. I'll look forward to going back.

Gear I use: Adidas Terrex Boost mountain running shoes

adidas-terrex-boost.jpg

For a long time, I was happy to wear traditional hiking boots when photographing athletes in the outdoors, arguing that they were stable, dependable and provided me with the necessary ankle support I needed in the mountains (though despite some models having waterproof / breathable liners, they weren't always guaranteed to keep my feet dry, simply because there's a big hole in the top where my foot goes in).

A lot of my work has been photographing runners in a mountain environment. Obviously, runners don't wear boots and, over time, I've gradually seen the benefits of wearing lighter footwear to help me move faster in the mountains. Moving faster means there's more opportunities for shots, more shots means there's more choice and more choice helps me to keep an art director or a photo editor happy.

When I decided to switch from boots to trainers for photographing mountain sports (generally choosing trainers now unless it involves winter snow, ice or glacial travel) there wasn't much choice in my local outdoor shops. They had a good stock of old-school approach shoes but they were usually heavy, waterproof and looked like they'd take a while to dry. Dedicated running shops meanwhile had a great choice of lightweight footwear but mostly with a minimal amount of the tread required to keep you upright on rock, grass, mud and snow.

What I was looking for was something light and grippy and predominantly mesh so even if they did get wet (and they would) they would dry quickly. So I was fortunate when Adidas ran a digital marketing campaign for the Adidas Terrex Boost trainer, footwear they advertised as being built for mountain running.

I bought my first pair of Adidas Terrex Boost trainers online from Rat Race Adventure Sports (a company with an excellent returns policy - they even provided a re-usable bag to put the shoes in, if required). They appeared to fit well so I tried them out, first on the trails in my local Pentland Hills and then on a big day out in the Cairngorms mountains. They performed excellently, even more so when I took them on the steep grass, rock and heather you find off-trail in Glen Coe and Ardgour. They were so impressive I quickly bought a second pair from Rat Race for when the first pair inevitably wears out (which I don't expect any time soon but manufacturers do commonly discontinue niche models).

What I like about Adidas Terrex Boost for mountain running

  • Mesh - Breathable, dries quickly (though it can mean I get cold feet if I'm standing around too long)

  • Comfort - Adidas advertise the Terrex Boost as having a 'sock-like feel'. They're very comfortable.

  • Grip - Continental™ tyre rubber is used for the soles. It provides an absolutely awesome grip on trails, rock and even steep wet grass. I've found it doesn't like wet moss but not many treads do. I've found the grip it gives to be a huge improvement over Vibram.

  • Heels - I'm very hard on the outer heel of my shoes (under-pronate) and soft heels are commonly the first thing I manage to collapse and render a shoe useless. The heels on the Boost are really solid.

What I would change

Only the lace tightening system. Whilst initially hesitant on the practicality of the lace garage (which is at the toe of the shoe compared to Salomon's tongue pocket) I've found them very reliable and I've never had a lace come loose. What does frustrate me though is how difficult sometimes it is to undo the lace tensioner after a day on the hills. On two occasions I've given up and forced the shoe off. (Update - I've found it helps if you pull the tensioner all the way to your ankle first, really tightening the shoe around your foot before you try to release it).

Alternatives

  • Salomon XA Elevate (see below)

  • La Sportiva Bushido

  • Inov-8 Mudclaw 300

July 2019 - Both pairs of my Adidas Terrex Boosts are now past their best. The sole ripped on the first pair when I wore them too often on spiky mountain bike pedals and the uppers on the other pair wore out with age through normal use. I’ve replaced them with a pair of Salomon XA Elevate shoes, which have a slightly wider toe box which suits my foot after an injury.