Lessons Learned From a Trail-Running Shooter

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Dan tells me, “You’re missing a leg.”

“I’m missing a leg?”

“Yeah. Here, look. See? You’re an amputee. Try it again.”

I am with the mountain-sport photographers Dan and Janine Patitucci, and I am flunking trail-running photo school. Badly. We are in Switzerland’s Jungfrau region, where there’s something like 500 miles of the best flowy singletrack in the world, and I am stuck in a 100-yard recursive trail-running loop. Working with Dan and Janine is like being in prison with two of the nicest people you could possibly imagine. I am in the photo equivalent of Groundhog Day.

I make another pass on our alpine runway. I hear the shutter on Dan’s Sony a7rII whirring. I stop, and Dan stares intently at the camera’s screen, flying through something like 30 images in 10 seconds.

“I don’t have it,” Dan says. “We need it.”

Dan, I realize, is one part tweaker, one part Kilian Jornet, one part Dalai Lama. He has a heart of gold, and he is fully capable of accidentally grinding fellow runners into the dirt. But if he doesn’t get the shot he craves, he mopes.

I am not helping. I move through the mountains like a worn Sherman tank, every inch of ground hard-fought. There’s someone nimble inside, but he hardly ever appears.  Most of my surfaces have battle scars.

Yet the power of imagery is such that it’s all worth the effort. Single images have changed people’s lives, mine included. Years ago, I saw a photo of a climber in British Columbia’s Bugaboos. He was happily dangling his feet off a ledge, the forest incomprehensibly far below. “One way or another,” I told myself, “I am going to do that.” A climbing and mountaineering life ensued, with celebrations atop remote peaks, funerals so soul-crushing my eyes still mist at the memories and many deeply fulfilling experiences between those poles.

Related: 15 Inspiring Images from Trail Runner’s 2016 Photo Camp

In my life’s slideshow, Dan and Janine’s trail-running images have supplanted the one of that climber. They have been everywhere I looked, from the Patagonia catalog to Rock and Ice to this magazine. So, when I needed photographs of trail running in the Alps for an idea that would become an improbable career, I hopped a train to their corner of the Alps, Switzerland’s ridiculously dramatic Jungfrau region. We talked for a few hours at their local pub, but not once about work. I caught the last train home feeling like a transfer in grade school who had found his new best friends.

Everyone knows them, and everybody loves them. Just mentioning Dan and Janine creates an unspoken bond. In Colorado, a bartender once overheard my conversation and blocked me as I headed for the door, pleading, “Tell Dan and Janine Kathy from Silverton says hi.” One of these days, when I need a place to crash for the night, I’m going to head for the nearest brewery in the nearest mountain town and yell, “Dan and Janine said I might be able to crash with one of you guys.” The door will open to someone’s spare bedroom.

The last few summers, I have been training new trail-running guides, who will lead running trips on which, of course, many clients will take photos. I try to convey what I learned from Dan and Janine: technical tips, body-movement insights, advice on clothing choices. But something’s always been missing.

Last fall, I realized what it was. We were trail running the Tour du Mont-Blanc, and found ourselves high on the col between Switzerland and Italy long after the season’s tourists had come and gone. The day was winding down. Hungry, we coasted through tilted pastures towards dinner in the Swiss border village of Ferret. Rounding a corner, we intruded on a scene that has played out in that spot for centuries—a shepherd, her flock, dog at her side. Dan was first through, and he captured a scene both beautiful and timeless. We were there, I realized, for the simple reason that he and Janine get out. A lot. They are there when beautiful things happen. Over and over, day after day, over the course of years. The important thing, as Kilian Jornet says, is to keep moving. Dan and Janine do.

These days, I still lumber along. I wear clothing that’s not quite colorful enough, and I can barely remember the photographer’s rule of thirds. But I always think of their example: Get up early, grab your shoes, run through town and head into the hills while others are reaching for their first cup of coffee. Be the one who’s there.

Doug Mayer is not sure if he lives in Chamonix, France, or Randolph, New Hampshire. But he thinks he might be a trail-running model in a future life.

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