Sports Photography – Tough Mudder Chicago 2015
Last Saturday I was contracted by Gameface Media to shoot the Tough Mudder Chicago event. This was a very long day of shooting. 10 and a half hours of shooting with no breaks. Talk about pushing one’s limits (I began to know how Rand Paul felt when he last Filibustered Congress). [All images here were shot by Anthony Sell and are used with permission from Gameface Media]
For those who don’t know about the Tough Mudder, it is one of the more popular and challenging obstacle-themed races. The average course time is a little over three hours, and the course it self is about 12 miles, with at least a dozen obstacles. Each obstacle involves getting dirty, wet, shocked or having one’s abilities tested in a number of different ways. It is not for the meek, nor is shooting one of these events.
It was a cool day, having rained the night before, the field was nothing but sucking slippery mud. I ruined a pair of shoes and socks making my way to my assignments. I had on long pants a t-shirt and a fleece jacket, and I could feel the wind blowing through that. It was overcast and dour for most of the day, although the sun came out at times, it never really got warm out. Most of the competitors ran in skimpy exercise gear, and many of the men were shirtless. Ambitious but foolish.
They assigned me two different obstacles at this event. I began the day shooting the “Kiss the Mud” event, which consists of a pit of mud with a few berms as obstacles to be climbed over, all of which has barbed wire strung above it. This forces the competitors to crawl belly down in the mud getting filthy, cold and wet. Sucking in facefulls of mud is entirely optional, but apparently popular nonetheless.
The race began at 8am and we had our first competitors by 10 after. This was the first truly dirty obstacle, about a mile into the course, so everyone came to it in relatively pristine condition…and left covered in mud up to their elbows.
At about 9:30 I was to join another photographer at an event on the tail end of the course, which was fortunately only a half-mile hike back through the mud towards the start/finish line. The event was called the “Funky Monkey” and it consisted of a large rectangular pit of bright green water (think antifreeze). On either side of this pit was a platform constructed of wood and steel plating for the flooring. Above the pit was constructed a large frame that suspended monkey bars that reached half way across the pit, a metal hinged trapeze swing bar, which led to a pipe suspended at three points by a couple of links of chain from large metal supports. These pipes extended the rest of the way across the pit.
The goal was for the competitor to make their way, hand over hand across the monkey bars, conserving their momentum as they took the trapeze swing, and reached out to grab the pipe. From there they would make their way hand over hand along the pipe to the other side of the pit. They could then continue along the course towards the finish line. This was the fifth to last obstacle on the course. If they did not make it across, they would find themselves falling into the water, which was quite cold from all accounts, and at least 5 feet deep. The monkey bars started at a height of roughly 7′ above the platform, and went higher as the competitor got towards the center. This meant having to climb as well as traverse the bars. On the other side, the pipe was on a slight decline towards the opposite side of the platform.
There were medical staff on site, and two lifeguards (who earned their salt that day). The people who had the easiest time of this challenge were those who were able to conserve their momentum to make it across from the monkey bars to the pipe. They swung like primates from one grip to another. The problem was the shape of the hinge on the trapeze swing. Many would get there and see their momentum die. As they tried to lift their legs to swing, the number of mechanical levers involved had a way of cutting peoples’ momentum, leaving them hanging in the center of the pit, helpless to generate enough swing to get across. A few were able to do a great enough pull up to recover a grip on the monkey bars and then generate more momentum. Many just gave up. You could actually see the decision in their faces.
I’ll tell you one thing, seeing the expressions – concentration, determination, pain, abject terror, despair, shock, sudden relief – when you suspend monkey bars over water you have instant drama. It was hard to not get caught up in certain people’s tribulations.
The day was not without injury. Many demonstrated a mastery of conservation of momentum, and gymnastic prowess, only to show a complete lack of familiarity with Archimedes’ principle of liquid displacement, attempting to swing off of the pole and land on both feet on the wet, mud spattered platform, only to slip and fall back into the pit. Which was hilarious, most of the time.
A few slipped off the pipe and landed hard on the edge of the platform, striking an arm or a leg or a face on the unforgiving surface. The platform had a rubber edge to it, but one landed so hard the rescue swimmer had to pull him back to the surface, where he simply moaned in pain for a few minutes. It sounded like broken ribs. Another competitor completely dislocated his shoulder as he lost one grip on the trapeze bar and his body twisted. Apparently he had just had that shoulder repaired surgically. After they dragged him out of the pool, which involved a long continuous stream of cursing, he hobbled on to the finish line, with his shoulder still obviously out of place. Given that people were at risk of falling down on top of one another throughout the day, I am quite surprised more people weren’t hurt.
While all this was going on, I was on one end of the platform, dodging competitors as they finished and stuck around to cheer or assist their teammates. Nothing like 8 and a half hours of people “Woooh hooo-ing” right into your ear. Because people would congregate on the platform, there was no way to set up a chair or use a monopod to lessen the burden of the camera. So I shot standing all day, hand held with my camera and battery grip and a 70-200 lens. By the end of the day my wrists and shoulders were shot. I was quite surprised my back didn’t lock up.
The crowd only got larger as the day wore on. The problem was that this obstacle was a naturally choke point for the competitors, as there was no small amount of hesitation, as people watched others to learn the best way across, plus they could only handle 7 people at a time. I was told that this event had over 9000 competitors on that day alone.
At least my gear held up. I was shooting with back button focus for most of the day. In the last hour, the back button on my battery grip started to stay pushed in, it wouldn’t pop out when released like it should have, so I switched back to a shutter focus. I went through four sets of batteries, and was grateful to have borrowed an extra battery from a friend.
A little after 6pm, as the traffic finally started to slow down, and we had only the stragglers left, the sun was severely backlighting the competitors, so I opted to move to the edges of the pit to get better lighting. The only difficulty I had throughout the day, besides physical exhaustion was the fact that the glare cast off of black, wet Under Armor seemed to play havoc on my autofocus system.
I believe I’ll get the contract to shoot the next Tough Mudder in Madison. Looking forward to it, but I just hope I get an easier assignment. As exhausting as these assignments were, it still beat having to do post-race photos.