Chasing Runners at the Cougar Mt. Series

After doing 35K (21M) at the Chuckanut 30K, I was feeling pretty good and trained (and cocky?) and was tempted to try my hand at a Full Marathon distance before Portland in October.  Back when I did my first Half Marathon, I chose Lake Sammamish and then Mercer Island 3 weeks later in order to qualify for the Half Fanatics.  Along similar lines, I’ve been looking at the Marathon schedule to try to find a good set of marathons within a 3 week period to qualify for the Marathon Maniacs.  I thought I found the first in the Cougar Mt Series 26M race but Maniac #111 and Calendar Guy Robert was kind enough to point out that it literally was 26M and not 26.2M and therefore didn’t qualify.  Crud.  I also want to be able to say “I ran a marathon” and not “I ran just shy of a marathon.”  Yes, I get that it doesn’t matter but explaining it to non-runners is a pain.

The day before the race they posted that they were still looking for volunteers.  I took a look at the signup list and noticed they had no photographers signed up.  I sent mail to the organizer making sure they had already contacted their past photographers Glenn Tachiyama (who I figured was getting prepped for Angel’s Staircase anyway), Steve Sanders (turns out he had other commitments), Tim Harris, and Takao Suzuki.  I also contacted Tim and Takao directly; Tim was busy running at the Evergreen Rock the Green race and Takao hadn’t planned on going but said he might show up.  I signed up.

I spent the evening digging around the NWTrailRuns website trying to find the maps for the Series.  The site usually has maps for each distance but this time I only found a 13M.

It seemed reasonable that the 26M would do two loops and there seemed to be an obvious loop for the 5K.  I planned out my locations, looking at the starting time and estimating where the runners would be when.  It looked like I could catch them early on and then again at an aid station which the 14M and 26M runners pass twice.  It was brilliant.

I made sure to get their plenty early, right as registration started.  I checked in with the RD Eric Sach and asked about the course maps since I wasn’t sure about the 5K course.  I asked if the 5K was the same as the others with an early cutoff and was told that no, every distance was different with different loops which would help spread out the runners.  Hunh?  I took a look at all three course maps and realized they were all different than the map I had looked at the night before.  Ruh-roh.Trey Bailey

After the race was over, I was able to find the maps on the Seattle Running Club Series page.  Meanwhile at the race, I took a picture of each map and then sat down to come up with a new plan.  I also met the other photographer who signed up the night before, Trey Bailey, who was familiar with the course and gave me some hints on where he’d be.  Here are the actual maps:

5K    13M    Cougar-Mtn-26-Mile-2013

I took my well-marked, but no longer accurate, map and marked up the key points. I got pictures of the 14/26M start and then figured I could head off the 5K runners, who started 15 minutes later, before catching up with the longer-distance folk.Start

I kind of knew which trails I wanted to take but didn’t mark them as well as I should have.  The 14/26M run started and I headed off after the last runner passed.  Rather than following them, which I figured was a touch more circuitous, I headed down a side path that I figured would shorten the walk.  I was wrong.  I also got turned around so wasn’t sure where I was when I came out onto Clay Pit Road.  By the time I got there, there were already runners coming up and heading off on a trail.  I figured these were the 14/26 runners and I could still catch the 5K runners.  I went up the trail and staked out a spot.  It was pretty slow and the runners coming through were very slow, as in back-of-the-pack slow.  It then dried up and no more runners came.  Where were the 5K-ers?

Grim feelings set in as I headed back down to Fred’s Railroad Trail to try to find the 14/26 runners.  I now had runners coming at me and had once again run into the back of the 5K pack about 1/2 mile from the finish.  Crap.  Also, despite planning, I was shooting in some mode that had the ISO at 400, far slower than I wanted and I didn’t notice how slow my shutter was, about 1/80 – 1/40.

Fred Railroad

Every time I took a picture these two would go all jazz-hands. Hilarious!

I was staring at my map much of the time, trying to make sense of my chicken-scratch notes of the new courses.  I kept heading down the trail and came to the intersection where the 14/26-ers meet up with Fred’s Railroad and then head off to the main loop.  I continued down the path, found a nice place at the bottom of a gradual hill with OK light and waiting for the runners.  The runners started coming down and I had a mix of speedy runners and fairly slow.  It took me a few minutes but I figured out that the fast runners were doing the 26 and had already blown through their extra 2-3 mile loop.  I stayed there for a bit then went further down the trail until it intersected with waited until things slowed down and then headed down Quarry Trail to catch all the runners on the way back, the 14s for their last 2 miles and 7 for the 26s.

ApproachingQuaryTrailI scoped out a few spots, catching a few runners before moving on to try to find a better spot.  I was looking for something that was level or a bit downhill so they weren’t climbing, slow, and tired.  A turn is good to both get them (potentially) angled to round the turn as well as hiding other runners.  And of course good light.  I finally settled on a spot that was more downhill than I preferred but everything else was good.

It was around this point that I noticed my white balance was set to indoor lighting.  Uh-oh.  I took a test pic or two and then reviewed the differences between Outdoor (I think it was outdoor, the indicator was a cloud), Auto, and Indoor.  Sure enough Indoor had a large blue tint while Auto and Outdoor both looked the correct shade of green.  Double-crap.  Hopefully it would be easy to correct on the computer later on.

QuarryTrailAfter several hours and 800 pictures, I finally was on top of things.  ISO was reasonable and getting better as the clouds parted and it got brighter.  White balance was fixed.  Shutter speed was 1/250 or better.  I was able to get 4-6 shots of each runner with at least 1 but usually 2 or 3 looking pretty good, at least in my small camera screen.  It was awesome being able to shoot fast enough to not only get good shots of most everyone but also when people did fun moves like jumping in the air.  Once the last few runners came by, obvious as they valiantly struggled through the final miles, I headed back to the start.

Dashed home for some family time and copied the 6GB of photos to my home computer which for some reason took 1hr+.  Then hopped in the car heading to Angel’s Staircase <link> while at the same time copying the photos to my laptop to work on Saturday night while in Chelan.  This time copying took <10 min so I need to look at what the bottleneck is on my home machine.  Two things come to mind: writing to (slow?) hard drive vs SSD on laptop or faster processor on the laptop (i7) vs one of the first quad-cores on the desktop.

Took several hours reviewing the photos.  Aggressively deleted photos so left a minimum of one and preferably two photos per runner per location.  Occasionally had a great set and left up to 4 or even 5 images.  Did another pass flagging the photos I wanted to post as “teaser” photos on FB, especially ones where I could tag friends.  Then uploaded to SmugMug, bought myself a domain (, and published the album.

I need to figure out how to leverage FB better.  Some people post all photos on FB (Trey Bailey and Tim Harris) while others do teasers and put the full set on other sites (Glenn, Steve, and Takao).  It’d be fun to put them on FB since people can tag but I’m not sure they can since I’m an individual person on FB and not a Page or Group.  I trust SmugMug more with my photos and it makes it easier to buy hard-copies.  I’m not interested in making money right now although it might be nice someday.  If I bump up my package to the SmugMug Portfolio package for $160/yr I can also easily add watermarks.  This is a good topic of conversation with Trey who posts from his Page on FB.


Lots of good learnings this time around:

Find the right maps well in advance.  Don’t guess.  If you aren’t sure you’ve got the right ones, ask.  I feel horrible when I miss runners, or take such bad pictures that I have to toss out all the ones I have of runners, and I need to do a much better job here.

Triple check the camera settings.  For the first half, I wasn’t doing good shutter management.  If I had been paying attention, I would have noticed the shutter was slower than I wanted and therefore I should crank up the ISO.

If I’m going to continue doing this, it’s time for a new camera.  In tests the night before, there was noticeable degradation of the picture as the ISO hit 800 and especially at 1600.  Sensors have improved a ton in the past 8 years and are now much more sensitive and handle higher ISOs better.  They are also much smarter, automatically adjusting the ISO if the aperture is wide open but the shutter speed is too slow.  The Canon 70D coming out in September 2013 is mighty tempting.  Trey shoots with the Canon EOS M using a 22mm f2.0 lens and did a great job with his pics so I’d love to learn more about his technique and camera.

Also need a new, faster shorter zoom lens, especially since my current slower lens is broken.  The Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens is mighty tempting but is also $1060.  😛

Investigate why transfer to main computer was slow.  Hard drive?  Slow processor?

Figure out how to add watermarks.

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