Photographs Shape Our Understanding of a Race
An ultra-marathon is an immersive experience, combining race, landscape, and people
The summit of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland, was bleak. The clouds were on the ground, and the rain was a continuous fine spray.
Out of context, the view would have been disheartening.
But I carried with me from the beginning of the race the haunting sound of bagpipes, and along the climb, beautiful scenes of valleys and rivers.
This was magnificent.
Only the thought of a voluntarily, out-of-control descent darkened the moment.
An event, especially an ultra-marathon, is intimately linked to the environment. The weather, landscape, terrain, travel to the event, fellow competitors, race officials, and even the local residents, all combine to provide an overall race experience.
Ultra-marathons often take place in distant, beautiful locations, with research suggesting the environment, and motion through it, shapes both the perception and the cognition of the participants.
Indeed, ultra-marathoners tend to form a close, positive attachment to the location of the race, partly due to the community hosting the event, and partly the challenging landscape. The more serious the racer, the stronger that relationship.
Researchers suggest that ultra-marathoners form a literal understanding of the places they run through: the physical characteristics of the course e.g. terrain (mountain versus sand), what’s underfoot (rock versus mud); and, the challenge of the event.
A 2017 article by Hinch & Kone outlined an unusual approach to understanding this integral relationship between sport and natural landscapes. Their research uniquely examined ultra-marathoners, competing in the challenging, mountainous, 125km Canadian Death Race, using their own photographs.
Runners took photos during a training weekend and the race itself, and subsequently submitted those that best represented their experience. Analysis suggested four areas of focus: landscape, competition, community, and self-portrait. Whilst self-portrait was evident during both training and racing, competition and community were most prominent during racing.
Further analysis suggested that ultra-marathoners connection with the environment goes beyond that of the tourist – reaching passed the landscape, and including temperature, wildlife, and people. The running community (racers and support crew) itself was identified as key to the runners understanding of the setting for both training and competition.
For the ultra-marathoner, the event itself became a celebration of life, consisting of an important focus on both running and health, and actively shaping the individual’s identity.
The latter was strongly connected with both where they raced, the event, the landscape, and the running group they found themselves in.
Analysis of photographs provided valuable insights into how runners identified with both training and an event, and the location itself. Competition, nature, community, all impact identity and when combined help form an understanding of an ultramarathons and a runners place in it.
Conclusions suggest that during training a runner will feel most connected to nature, whilst at race time, competition and community are central. When you run, especially longer distances, you form a strong relationship with the landscape and, due to the intimate bonds with their environment, the people.
Suffering, exhaustion, and happiness are all locked into a run, and the perception of the place itself – the rocks underfoot, the stream to cross, and the mud that threatens losing a shoe.
The final lap was round the playing field, with the mountain standing proud as my backdrop.
The finish was made up of cheers, claps, mud left on my shoes, the announcer, and the older ladies serving sublime cakes and a cup of tea.
The race was not just the run, it was everything - it was the experience.
When you complete an event, it’s a journey in more ways than one, through the environment, through time, intimately connected with location, geography, and people.
Jeremy Sutton is a writer, speaker, researcher, and ultra-marathoner.
He was awarded his PhD in Human Endurance in 2018, and continues to explore the psychological, physiological, and philosophical factors of extreme endurance through research and running. He has a BSc in Cognitive Science and an MA in Philosophy.
You can find more of his work in the Medium publication ‘Explore the Limits’, please click on the link at the top of the page.
Also found at www.evolutionaryendurance.com
Hinch, T., & Kono, S. (2017). Ultramarathon runners’ perception of place: A photo-based analysis. Journal of Sport & Tourism,22(2), 109–130. doi:10.1080/14775085.2017.1371065