“The true martial arts teach non-resistance. The way of the trees bending in the wind. This attitude is far more important than physical technique. Never struggle with anyone or anything. When you’re pushed, pull; when you’re pulled, push. Find the natural course and bend with it. Join with nature’s power. Release attachment to outcomes. There is no ‘me’ left to do it. In forgetting yourself, you become what you do. Your actions are free, spontaneous, without ambition, inhibition, or fear.” Anonymous
It’s in the eyes. What it is varies from runner to runner but make no mistake: it’s there, and every ultra runner has it. Distance. Stillness. Fear. Acceptance. Exhaustion. Joy. Time. I am a photographer by choice and inclination, a writer by nature and a runner by something cellular that I have never truly understood. In none of these am I superb nor any better than generally competent, but in all of them I have learned that showing up is most of the battle, if battle it is, and that doing what there is in front of you to be done that day is the rest of it. I got involved recently in several ultra events as a photographer and while I can’t say that I have had epiphanies and revelations, I can tell you that not much about my working life has been the same since.
I responded to an offhanded Facebook request for a photographer who might possibly be interested in thinking about talking about shooting an upcoming 100K in the Willamette Pass area outside of Eugene. My response was pretty direct, Hell, yeah, sounds like artistic fun and some hard work; you can’t beat that…. Oh, and what about the money? (This is a paraphrase) Let’s have coffee and talk about it. So we did and so I did…find myself hiking into Pothole Meadows with too much weight around the middle and on my back. Shot some images, hiked back out went down the road over the hill, down the trail to the Lower Rosary Lake Creek and did it again. This was not your average photo shoot. More like a half marathon at elevation with weight training devices added in and the occasional photo op. One of my shooters told me later that he was worried that I might die. You and me both. The runners ran, the day went night, and the pictures caught some of it in a way that paid out the promise of the day in full measure.
Later on, I thought about what had happened out there. I realized that it had begun in Idaho at the Wild Idaho Endurance Runs (WIER) on the first weekend in August. I had gone out to shoot it, not really having given it much thought, as in, it’s a race, I shoot races, simple enough and besides, I’m doing Craig’s thing later on; this will be good practice. It took a couple of hours of talking to the 100-milers to get that this was no simple deal I had signed up for; this was beyond anything I had seen up close, more akin to a loosely organized vision quest, a tribal understanding without the drumming and face painting, a calmness that did not quite hide the underlying urgency that each of the runners had that it was time, that the gate was open and that the “real” world was to be left behind, that all of the concerns of the day to day were secondary and that the next 24/36/48 hrs were theirs and theirs alone, theirs to go forth and find out who they were that day.
I gave up my room at the inn down the road, slept in the front seat of my car if I slept at all, moved up the trails on foot and ATV and 38 hours later was finished shooting my first 100-miler. It is odd that, in as much as the effort is singular, everyone there, and now this includes me, becomes part of that community, and what they do and what I do is forever and intangibly linked; their efforts and mine, nowhere equal but complementary nonetheless, are bound together and because we care about what they do the tribe is united, community made stronger, made whole, made invulnerable, infinite and universal, made entirely human. Said Dennis upon finishing 38 hours after he began, his body bent severely to the left, “No, Michael, I’m not hurt. I’m just tired.” His smile broke through the dust and weariness like lightning in the summer sky.
Shooting ultra’s is physical. I put my sweat into the ground, my footprints into the trails. I wonder at the vistas and seek the comfort of the shade, the warmth of the sun. I have gone out before the runners get there to set up. I have worked hard to be good enough to be asked to do this work, to share this quest. I appreciate their effort. I wait for them in silence, aware of memory, ancient forests; the wild mountain sage and thyme change with the breeze. The runners’ footfall is signal; my response must equal theirs. Attention must be paid in similar ways: to light, to footing, to timing, to breath. Breathe in, exhale, find stillness, wait, shoot.
“Hey man, good work.” me to them. “Hey man, thanks for being here.” As old and honorable as Bedouin in the sands, as traders on the Silk Road, as Comanche hunting parties heading south under a sliding moon, we are here with our sweat and our blood; our dreams and our very best work will meet in this one moment. We are one and then we move on, the story to be told later around the modern versions of campfires and oases. It becomes legend. I felt like I understood the insides of the hunters who returned to Lascaux and started painting on the wall even as they ate their kill. The story needed telling; the immediacy of it spoke of a belief in a future that was bound to the past and present, all time in the single moment. My job, I realized, is to paint these stories on the wall. It takes everything I have on the day. And everything I have been. It has been a long time coming, this work of mine, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Photos by Michael Lebowitz. All rights reserved.