Every year, on a bleak Sunday in the middle of winter, 4,000 people head to a small donkey sanctuary in Perton, near Wolverhampton in England. Surprisingly they’re not there to see the donkeys but to take place in the original endurance obstacle race. Following the starting ceremonies, dressed as anything from zombies to Superman, The rock band KISS to Winston Churchill, or even in just a mankini, they tackle a 12 mile cross country run. As the course gets back to the donkey sanctuary things get interesting. ‘The Killing Fields’ is where the famous old obstacles lay in wait. Competitors run through fire, pools of icy muddy water, electrified wire before stumbling over the finish line.
You can imagine for a sport photographer, it’s an assignment that’s a perfect remedy to covering endless football matches at that time of year. I reckon I’ve covered about seven or eight now and I’ve learnt the more effort you put into it, the better the pictures are that you get out. It’s not without its own challenges for a photographer. It’s usually freezing, there is mud everywhere, the crowds can be three deep and the smoke from the fires is so intense it stings your eyes and renders you blind as tears stream down… never good for a snapper!
Experience tells me to takes two camera bodies and a selection of lenses. Only take what you need and bear in mind you need to dodge and weave through the crowd, competitors and obstacles. Key is to give yourself plenty of options for shooting by packing, a variety of lenses and flash equipment but don’t overdo it. I had with me, for the first time the Manfrotto Active Backpack 1 which enabled me to carry extra lenses, flash cables, batteries and an assortment of equipment without being too bulky. I needed to be able to access the bag quickly when saw a picture that required another lens and also for the bag to keep the equipment safe from the endless mud that seeps into every crevice.
After shooting the start of the race , there’s a 40 minute wait for the competitors to reach the ‘Killing Fields’. It’s a chance to have a recce of the obstacles and there’d been quite a few chances to the course since the last time I’d been there (I blame health & safety!). The traditional fire jumps had been moved and I spent time trying different lenses and angles as the fire is best right after they light it ahead of the first runner coming through. I had a 70-200mm, 85mm, 24-70mm, 17-35mm and an old manual 50mm to choose from in the bottom compartment of the bag and eventually decided the most striking image would be backlit with (hopefully) a good silhouette of someone jumping over the fire on the 17-35mm. It took a while getting coated in mud as I crouched by the puddle as the front runners came through before I got something I was happy with. Fortunately I’d brought a serious amount of kitchen roll in the top compartment of the Active Backpack 1 to continually wipe down the front element of the lens. From there things just got muddier! Arriving at a water obstacle I grabbed a 70-200 from the lens compartment just in time to get a chap wearing a horse mask jump into the icy water. It’s my favourite picture of the day as the startled expression on the mask seemed in keeping with diving into the freezing water!
It really helped to have the equipment on hand in the easy access fold out pocket and knowing that they were safe and protected by the dividers when it was closed. The bag took a hell of a beating but for the first time in a long time, I didn’t have any breakages due to impact or water damage. Possibly even a first for covering Tough Guy!