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XC Your Own Limits

While covering this year’s State Cross Country Championships last weekend, somebody asked if I’d rather cover cross country or Water Follies. Tough call. While I had a blast covering the boat races this year, the state meet always offers me an intriguing glimpse into the balls-to-the-wall nature of the sport. There’s something so twisted about distance runners. Quotes from legend Steve Prefontaine like, "A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more," epitomize the masochistic badges of honor these athletes truly compete for. To recycle the opening from last year’s blog about the same event, my favorite cross country shirt read, “My sport is your sport’s punishment.”

This year, instead of killing myself rushing around the course to find different backgrounds for the ever-exciting action shots of people running, I concentrated on getting a variety of post-race images. Of course, I couldn’t resist hoofing it to the outer reaches of the course once for this semi-artsy, totally fartsy shot of the 4A girls race,

but for the most part, I saved my energy so I could stay in the finish area as long as possible before sprinting back to the starting line in time for a couple preparation features and the start of the race. It was hard to resist the clean, obvious, straight-down perspective of runners crashed out in the athlete/media area after the race,

selectively including a few elements here and there to mix it up,

or stepping back a bit to include more of the scene, as I did with 2A repeat champion Scott Carlyle of Sehome:

While waiting for him to catch his breath so I could snap a mugshot for our winners roundup, I looked for other details amongst his teammates:

I’m not sure that haggard callus really reads in this haphazard composition, but I wanted to stay in position for Carlyle. After getting his mug and walking away, I heard some heaving. I turned around to see Carlyle showing just how hard he had run. Had I been in position, it’s a photo I definitely would have made. Rushing back to get some puke shots just didn’t sit right with me, however. Enough people give me dirty looks for the tired photographs that I don’t need to make myself seem even scummier in their eyes. It didn’t stop me from snapping the aftermath later, though:

Searching out these photos, as obvious as they may be, is all in the name of storytelling. Seeing the faces of exhaustion tells you so much more than the often generic-looking action shots you get from this sport. And it’s not like I’m just "focusing on the negative" like so many people accuse us of doing everyday. I’m also on the lookout for warm hugs,

tired hugs,

teammates offering support,

and exhibitions of good sportsmanship, another pervasive theme in the sport:

But the warm and fuzzies just don’t sum up the sport quite as well as the crumpled images of total exhaustion. The process often begins in the chute after racers cross the finish line, sometimes using each other for support as they hobble toward water and respite:

Sometimes, the pure facial expression is enough to convey the message, whether the athlete is gasping for air,

or seemingly on the edge of consciousness:

The moment at which the runner finally surrenders to what his body has probably been telling him for a while can be telling as well. Mead’s Andrew Gardner had a look of steely determination as he approached the finish line, where he promptly collapsed, catching me and my composition off-guard:

For some reason, his posture vaguely reminded me of Robert Capa’s iconic and occasionally controversial "Falling Soldier."

The Eisenhower runners also clearly ran their guts out en route to winning the 4A team competition, the first time a non-Spokane team has won the Big School Boys Championship since 1987, the last time Eisenhower clinched the title:

This shot of Timothy Cummings dead to the insanity of the finish line chaos around him is my favorite of the day:

A close second of the day, was this W.F. West runner looking like he might actually die

after a tandem team of adults worked to get runners off the ground and breathing:

He thankfully snapped out of his tired trance soon after:

For the more typical images of exhaustion, I worked to mix up my angles and compositions,

while looking for other telling details of hard work:

But this faceless shot ended up being my third favorite of the day:

It has a messy background full of obnoxious colors, to be sure, and a black-and-white conversion is probably in order, but there’s something in its subtlety that I like. While many of the other shots I have from this essay are quicker reads, they also hit you over the head with their messages like that godawful "death sticks" scene in the second of the new Star Wars movies.

I'm still not sure which event I prefer covering. The ample space to publish boat race photos versus the tight sports section that allowed for two photos to run from my bloated 79-photo edit tips the scales toward Water Follies, but it’s hard not to smile while you’re shaking your head at these young runners' dedication.

SHAMELESS PLUG: For those of you in town, there will be a reception Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. for From the Land a photo exhibit at WSU Tri-Cities' Art Center inside the CIC Building at 2770 University Dr. in Richland. It's free and you can check out photo stories and essays by current and former newspaper photographers Sara Gettys of of Yakima, Rajah Bose of Spokane, Kathryn Stevens of Wenatchee, Erika Schultz, Danny Gawlowski and Josie Liming of Seattle, and myself. Click here to view a PDF of the poster.

Read more about it at


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