James Mackeddie is a trail runner, mountain biker, and above all, enjoys spending his time in the mountains and wilder places. From time to time he can be found in the thick of a trail race, testing products for brands, and participating in the sport he documents. Inspired to pick up a camera by mountain bike photographers, he can be found shooting trail, ultra, and OCR races for brands and race companies across the UK and Europe.
Words and images by James Mackeddie
I was invited to the Lake District by my running coach, Paul Giblin, to shoot the next installment of the Pyllon XP (experience), a trail and ultra running camp, sharing the experiences of runners, up to, and including, international standard, with a broad base of attendees. Held the 1st to 3rd of March in the picturesque village of Grasmere, on the flanks of several classic Lakeland fells, it’s a runner’s and mountain photographer’s paradise.
In essence, it is three days spent in the mountains, exploring trails, working on mind and body, meeting new people, and eating mountains of food. Having attended the inaugural Pyllon XP in 2018, my running was supercharged for the year ahead and it was a great social gathering after the solitary months of running in the darkness of a grey and wet British winter.
The biggest challenge was running with my camera. Though my load is relatively light, with a Canon 7D and 16-35mm L IS lens, the route I opted to run was 19 miles (30.5km) and 7000ft (2250 meters) of climbing, which proved to be a real test, given it was the first time I’d run in the mountains since racing a two-day, self-supported mountain marathon in October of 2018, some five months before.
Getting myself into position, to avoid a series of repeat shots, not to mention only shooting people from behind, meant running ahead of the main pack when possible. The first miles on the ridge lines, after the sun had risen, burning off the morning hill fog, wasn’t a real challenge; however, as the day progressed, repeated intervals took their toll. In reality, putting the camera away and having the support of those having their photos taken was the solution.
Documenting is very different than a photo shoot, and much like race photography, it’s not about capturing every moment and orchestrating the scene, rather, becoming a part of the group you are accompanying on their adventure and picking your opportunities. This way you are able to create a bond and friendships with those you are with, whilst also getting more natural shots when people have let their guard down.
Inadvertently, I got to test the construction and protective qualities of my bright blue f-stop Kenti pack when I fell off the side of a mountain called Harrison Stickle. I was at the back of the group and when I planted my right foot near the edge, the ground gave way. With my weight loaded onto the right of my body and nothing but space to my side, momentum took me into a cartwheel as I tumbled down the slope, landing on my pack, which partly broke my fall, before my hands and feet instinctively dug into the terrain to halt my acceleration.
Looking up, I noticed one of the runners had clocked my endeavour to find the most efficient way to the valley floor. When I stopped, having regained my bearings, I stood up and stuck a big thumbs up in the air. I was okay. Catching up with the group, the first thing I was asked was, “Is your camera okay?”. To be honest, I hadn’t given it a second’s thought, despite landing on my camera bag. I had heard no crunching sounds of my camera body or lens breaking, nor had I felt it impale my back. On inspection, everything was in perfect condition. It was a testament to the padding and construction of the Kenti. It had softened my impact, protecting me and camera alike.
The biggest tip I can provide for any mountain adventure, whether you’re running, hiking, or riding, is to learn to pack light. Take only what you need. I shot Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in 2016 for a brand. Being my first major commission, I carried everything I owned, in addition to everything I required for twenty-four hours in the mountains. Bearing in mind this included climbing to a mountain pass at 2,500 meters and then running down it. At the time I thought it was fine and powered through. But afterwards, the effects of the exertion kicked in and I was side-lined for months. Two-thirds of what was in my camera bag was never used.
Learn what is essential, master those tools, and accept that there may be a compromise; but know that you will work around it. Had I carried my 70-200, which weighs 1.5kg, in the Lake District it would have reduced my ability to run with a group. Think of it as three 500ml water bottles in addition to everything else you are carrying and suddenly your perspective shifts. It may feel like a compromise at the time; however, you may be more compromised by carrying it, and may miss more of the action. I now always carry a 16-35mm, and if at a race will carry my 70-200 if I know I’ll be in a position for a while and I don’t have to keep up with anyone.
Visually, I like to keep things natural and raw. I’m not one for Lux, presets, or much manipulation. I want the person looking at the photo to experience the moment as it occurred, whether they were present or not. Endurance athletes experience such a vast array of emotions and sensations when training and racing, and it is these I look to capture. Please don’t smile for the camera, act as if I'm not there. I predominantly shoot in the UK and next up for me is the 50 mile (80km) Ultra Trail Wales in August.
Learn more about James here:
My instagram - https://www.instagram.com/jamesmackeddie/
Coach's instagram - https://www.instagram.com/pyllon/
My website - https://jamesmackeddie.com
Link to full story of the XP - https://jamesmackeddie.com/2019/03/10/pyllon-xp-2/