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Saturday, June 20, 2009 -- Davis, WV
Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run (iPO Event Id#: 11805)

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Ultra Photography - A picture taking marathon

Story and photos by Don Parks

Highlands Sky 40 Run Photo by Don Parks
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It was well in advance that I accepted the assignment to take photographs at the Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run. As the date got closer my wife asked if I could take Travis, our one and a half year-old son, along with me. I figured it would be a nice day of father-son bonding in the beauty of Canaan Valley and the Dolly Sods Wilderness, so I agreed.

The alarm clock went off at 3:00am the morning of the race and the weather report called for a good chance of rain and thunderstorms. My wife had helped me pack the previous evening and it wasn't long before I was on the road with a sleeping child in his car seat as we headed for the 6:00am start.

We arrived on time but before we even got near the staring area the cars were lined all along the narrow road and I knew this place was going to be a zoo. With the first two miles on the paved road I figured I'd just head out and get some early race photos somewhere a little less congested.

In my search for a good vantage spot I came across the first aid station which is just 2.4 miles into the race. I parked my car and introduced myself to the friendly aid station volunteers. Travis was still asleep and the rain was holding off. Everything was going well... so far.

Highlands Sky 40 Run Photo by Don Parks
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Less than 20 minutes into the race the first runner, Aaron Schwartbard, arrived alone with a big lead already. I overheard the volunteers comment on his sub eight minute pace and how that wasn't likely to last.

I was happy that I got an okay picture but with such an early start and the cloudy skies the only way I was going to get pictures that were in focus was to use the flash. This isn't a problem when the runners are spread out but soon many of the roughly 200 runners would be streaming past.

It was frustrating to wait for the flash to recharge as I watched runners pass without snapping a picture. I like to try and get everyone's picture as often as possible, but obviously this wasn't happening. And then a light rain started to fall. I still managed 40 or 50 shots in the 20 minutes it took the field to pass the first aid station.

Travis was awake now and a quick diaper change was in order before we headed off to find another spot for more pictures. We settled on a trail head a little before aid station four where the runners come out of the woods and onto a dirt road in the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

Being that we were about 19 miles into the course and it had only been about an hour since the race began, we had some time to kill. But the weather had now turned for the worse with strong, gusting winds and intermittent pouring rain. Luckily Travis can amuse himself for quite a long time just sitting in front of a steering wheel.

Highlands Sky 40 Run Photo by Don Parks
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Around 8:30am, two and a half hours into the race, the rain had seemed to let up and I decided it was time to get out on the trail. I got Travis in the backpack carrier, grabbed the umbrella and my camera, and off we went. It wasn't long until we were heading back to the car.

Once out on the trail the rain started picking up again and up went the umbrella. Travis enjoyed grabbing it and pulling on it while I tried to have the camera ready with the hand that wasn't holding the umbrella. There was just too much going on with the weather, a curious and fidgety little boy, and the job of taking pictures.

Back at the car I maneuvered it into a position where I could open the hatchback and use it as cover. I could sit under it and keep everything out of the rain but Travis was obviously getting bored with being in the car. That's just about the time that Michelle Hamric came to the rescue.

Her husband, Ron Hamric, was running in the race and she had mentioned previously that she might be able to help watch Travis. She took him up to aid station four where it was reported he had a grand time playing in the mud puddles. Now I could concentrate on pictures with only the weather to worry about.

The first person out of the woods was Schwartbard who had only stretched his lead since we last saw him at aid station one. He had covered the first 19 miles in just over three hours and had an almost 10 minute lead on the next runner, Nick Whited. Schwartbard wasn't on a course record pace but he was outdoing the field by about 30 seconds per mile.

Highlands Sky 40 Run Photo by Don Parks
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Picture taking in the wet conditions was a challenge but I did a fairly good job of getting a good number of in-focus pictures. The runners seemed mostly in good spirits at this point even as the course was more like a creek than a trail in many places.

After two and a half hours of picture taking I decided I better go get Travis so that his babysitter could get to the finish to see her husband finish. It would also give me time to get to the finish to hopefully get a picture of the race winner. My apologies to those runners that I abandoned on the trail without getting their picture.

By the time I made it to the finish area the sun was now coming out but the wind had done its damage. The finish line banner had been blown down and the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners' new large digital race clock had been toppled over. I was busy enough, and stressing enough, just taking pictures. It's amazing how well race director Dan Lehmann handled what must have been an incredibly long day for him and his support team.

It was no surprise to see Schwartbard's figure first appear on the hilltop above the finish line. What was surprising was the distance he had managed to put on the rest of the runners. His winning time of 6:37:13 was no where near last year's record time of 5:54:19 set by Joel Wolpert (the only runner to ever finish in under six hours), but it was over 36 minutes ahead of the next finisher. Second place Whited finished at 7:13:28.

I had encouraged Karsten Brown at the 19 mile point when he was running in fifth place. I knew he had had a good second half as he arrived at the finish line at 7:17:25. He later told me that it was late in the race that he finally passed Nathan Miller (7:18:24) and Greg Zaruba (7:20:17) to capture third overall.

Highlands Sky 40 Run Photo by Don Parks
See more Highlands Sky Photos
It was nice that the sun was coming out and I could set up for some good photos. It was also nice to once again have Michelle and friends helping to keep an eye on Travis. Her goodwill must have been good karma for her husband who took 30 minutes off his previous year's time and finished fifteenth overall at 7:59:13 and tied with Randy Young for first Grand Masters, he's 52.

I hope I captured plenty of the mixture of pain and happiness that showed on so many faces as they completed the 40+ miles of tough mountain terrain that was only made more difficult with all the water and mud. My batteries died just after 4:00pm after ten hours and almost 400 pictures.

I apologize again to anyone whose picture I didn't take and to those whose pictures didn't turn out that well. But to be honest, after such a long day I wasn't really that unhappy to pack up my boy and my camera and head for home. Congratulations to all the finishers and maybe next year I can join everyone on the other side of the camera lens.

See more race reports and photos at the official 2009 Highland Sky website, hosted by WVMTR.

About WVMTR: The objective of the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners (WVMTR) is to encourage running and the healthy, positive qualities running encompasses. They achieve this by holding a trail run series, races, non-competitive club runs, social events, assisting other organizations with running events, and in general just running around having fun. They are a non-profit organization and are affiliated with the Road Runners Club of America.