Trail Running | Race Day Photography | Hills Creek Endurance Challenge

Last year I ran the 12 hour version of the Hills Creek Endurance Challenge. I had such a positive experience there that this year I really wanted to return to the event, but in a totally different way.

This year I was back at the Hills Creek Endurance Challenge, but not as a runner as a photographer.

As a photographer I love these loop course races. They present so many opportunities for fun photography with the runners. There are so many options that can be employed. As a photographer I know I will see all the runners multiple times over the course of the event. This frees me up to be more creative and take chances with my photography because I know if I miss a shot once I will have another chance to photograph the same runner later. And if I possibly can I really prefer to photograph all of the runners that are at a race so I can give everyone a memory to look back on.

The start of the Hills Creek Endurance Challenge

I had so many possibilities and options floating through my head. Different things I thought I might like to do at this race. Things I have done at other events that I could bring to this event do here as well. I brought all my gear. Photography and otherwise. I think I was more well prepared for the event this year as a photographer than I was last year as a runner.

Even with 12 hours of shooting I still didn’t use all the gear I had or try out all the ideas and techniques I thought about using for the event.

I started off the event with my GoPro. Recently I added a GoPro hero 10 to my toolbox and I am still learning how to use its new features. I filmed video of the runners as the race began. The runners emerged over the grassy hillside and approached where I was until they reached the section of trails that entered the woods. A nice section of single track, which created a little bit of a bottleneck as the runners reached that spot which was nice for my video because it provided more time to get a better view of all the runners starting out on their journey.

The tools

It was a an overcast day, so I knew there was not going to be a lot of light. The plan was to shoot with my f/stop wide open. My two main tools for that are my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and my SONY 20mm f/2.8 lens. It was so dark that for much of the time I also had to have my ISO cranked way up from where I normally shoot so I could have a good exposure and fast enough shutter speed that the runners aren’t all blurry.

After shooting the opening video of the race starting I headed out on the trail with my SONY alpha 6000 and 20mm f/2.8 lens. This is a nice small and light weight set up. Perfect for a long day out on the trails. The wide angle allows me to easily get out of the way of runners and capture images that not only show the runners but show off the beautiful scenery through which they are running.

Out on the course

I went out on the trails walking in the opposite direction the runners were moving. This way I would see them as they approach me and could set up for a shot. After each runner or group of runners passed by and I photographed them I kept on moving. So during this portion of the event every series of photos is taken in a different location even if only slightly. I like photographing this way so that I can show off as much of the environment as possible as well as photograph the runners in a variety of places and circumstances during their races. During just this one loop I walked I photographed many runners several times. It worked out perfectly.

After a loop around the trails with the runners mostly running at me I wanted to find a spot where I could set up and remain static while the runners ran parallel to me and I could photograph them from the side while they ran by me. So this series of shots would be more of a profile view. The tools for this series of photos would be my Nikon D500 and my Nikon 70-200mm lens. With this bigger camera set up and style of photography I wanted to do I needed to find just the right spot. And I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to as much of this course is beautiful single track often through the woods.

But I found the perfect spot and I found it even faster than I imagined I would. A space where I could back up and get the view I wanted as the runners passed me by and the spot was nice as open on my side with a nice woodland view in the background for the runners to run by. I shot a series of more wide angle photos on the first time runners passed by me. Then as runners looped back around and ran by me for a second time in the same spot I zoomed in more to get a tighter photo featuring the runner more as they moved through the course.

One loop of the Hills Creek Endurance Challenge Course

Then I moved to the finish line area to photograph runners who were finishing of their running of the three hour event.

Incorporating time lapse

I really wanted to shoot a time lapse series with my GoPro during the event. But I wasn’t really sure what approach I wanted to take. It was a cool day and I felt best when I kept moving so my preference was to soot it in a way that I could stay on the move. Then it occurred to me I could use the head strap mounting system for the GoPro. Where the GoPro on my head and record time laps there. And shoot still photography with my SONY camera and 20mm lens. The SONY setup was small enough that it should not get into the frame of the GoPro, which is challenging because it shoots at such a wide angle.

So I embarked on another loop of the course. Again moving the opposite direction of the runners so that I could see them coming. This time not only did I have my small SONY set up but I had the GoPro mounted on my head capturing images the whole time. I can only imagine what the runners thought when they saw me like this. Camera strapped to my head. But it was cool and worked out well. I was able to create another series of still images across the entire course and create some interesting time lapse footage.

The 20mm lens was great for capturing scenic views of the runners as they moved through the course. Now I really wanted to focus more closely on the runners as they moved and worked. I set off onto the course with my Nikon D500 and 70-200mm lens. Photographing runners as they approached my location as I was walking. I kept moving all the while looking for just the right spot to sit for a while and shoot photos. I found a couple of decent spots and stopped for brief periods, waiting for runners to reach me. Eventually I found what I think might have been my favorite spot of the entire day. There was a small hill overlooking the trail.

Finding a good spot

From this hill I could see runners coming and going. It also provided this unique angle looking down from above that I liked. Eventually I also realized that I would look across a section of the lake and see the runners from farther off as they came around the lake to where I was. I began zooming in and photographing the runners from cross the lake. It had a nice scenic vibe. But I don’t think I ever got that dialed in for great photos as I was constantly switching between the runners near me and the runners across the lake.

After staking out that location for a while I headed back towards the Finish line area to photograph runners as they completed loops and started new ones. I stayed in that general area for the rest of the race capturing the runners as they pushed on, giving this event their all. It provided some nice scenic views. Near the end the sun even poked out and provided some nice light as the race was closing in on 12 hours. And then it was done. 12 hours of running captured on 12 hours of images.

I love the trail and ultra community so much. They are always out there to have a good time. They take time to say hi and thank you and talk to me as the photographer. And they really have fun with the photography which make my day much more fun and enjoyable as well. And I really love this because for myself I am quite introverted and I never know how to respond to a photographer on the course. So maybe I can draw some inspiration from my fellow runners. I also think it helps to see the photographer over and over on the course. Maybe some people were sick of seeing me by the end.

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