100 Mile Runners and Dead Man’s Bench

[Editor’s Note: In our November Community Voices column, we share the photography of Larry Gassan, a California-based photographer and ultrarunner. Currently, Larry’s work is on display at the California State University Channel Islands School of Art in an exhibition titled “100 Mile Runners & Dead Man’s Bench.” The CSUCI School of Art galleries are open on weekdays, and the exhibition runs from November 12 to December 6, 2019. This article shares four images from the exhibit, and you can see all its imagery on Larry’s website. In this column each month, we showcase the work of a writer, visual artist, or other creative type from within our global trail running and ultrarunning community. Our goal is to tell stories about our sport in creative and innovative ways. Read more about the concept in our launch article. We invite you to submit your work for consideration!]

This exhibit logo is an adaptation of the original Finish Line Portrait Project logo, which dates from 2009. All images: Larry Gassan

100-Mile Runners at the Finish Line

I started the Finish Line Portrait Project in 2004. Here was a unique opportunity to make portraits where none had before. Typical running photos then were sports photojournalism, color pictorials, and casual snapshots. I thought I’d be done in a year, tops. And here we are.

My 100-mile finisher experiences are essential, along with knowledge of the sport’s conventions and customs. I finished nine 100 milers between 1991 and 1998, three of them at the Angeles Crest 100 Mile. There also were three DNFs as well, which weren’t fun at all.

The portraits are made in a mobile studio, where I shoot black and white film, with a vintage medium-format Hasselblad 500C. Each portrait takes typically less than 90 seconds.

My photo references are Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, August Sander, Gary Winogrand, and a little Helmut Newton.

Thanks again to the ultrarunning community—the runners; the race directors who let me set up at the finish lines; and the friends who have all given freely of time, advice, and technical expertise to make all this possible.

Cat Bradley, Western States 100 Finish Line, Placer High School. Auburn, California. June 23-24, 2017. Cat was the 2017 women’s champion.

Stephanie Case and Kaci Lickteig, Western States 100 Finish Line, Placer High School. Auburn, California. June 23-24, 2017. Kaci had won it in 2016. Her 2017 race was a struggle. She was about to drop at mile 78 when Stephanie arrived. Stephanie had broken a few ribs in an Alpine accident six months earlier. They helped each other finish.

Dead Man’s Bench

Dead Man’s Bench, located on Manzanita Ridge on Mount Wilson in California, is an unofficial stop at 81 miles into the Angeles Crest 100 Mile. These photos were mainly shot in ‘available darkness.’

The shooting location is a rugged two miles below the summit of Mount Wilson, altitude 5,700 feet (above Sierra Madre/Pasadena). Typically I’ll set up while its still light—6:30 p.m. As the light fades I make test shots. Then I wait. Voices carry up the canyon, so I’m ready when the runners arrive.

At this stage, everything is still in doubt. The race outcome is uncertain. The finish line is 20-plus miles away, and you can still miss cutoffs at the next three aid stations. That’s what makes this location so epic. Then I stay, usually until around 7 a.m. Sunday morning. The last runners are coming through, and they’re chasing the clock to make cutoffs further on.

The mountain is home to a multitude of radio/TV towers, in addition to astronomic observatories. This has been problematic with older triggers due to electromagnetic field interference.

Runner Maria Lourdes pacer Alejandra Ortiz. Dead Man’s Bench, Angeles Crest 100. August 15, 2019.

Runner Dennis Williams and pacer Sarah Emoto. Dead Man’s Bench, Angeles Crest 100. August 4-5, 2017.

Technical Details

  • Nikon FM3a, Nikkor 20mm, Kodak TMax 400 film
  • Q-flash mounted on light stand to my right, dialed down to 1/16th power for ambient
  • Vivitar 285 on stroboframe for keylight
  • Godox trigger + 2 receivers

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you seen Larry Gassan’s exhibit in person?
  • Have you been photographed by Larry over the years at the finish line of a 100 miler, on Dead Man’s Bench, or elsewhere?

There are 3 comments

  1. Thomas Rupp

    While I have not met Larry or been photographed by him, I have been looking at his pictures for years and always eagerly await them after the races he covers such as Western States. It has been said that ultrarunning is a very honest sport where luck plays only a small role and therefore, it’s not surprising that most pictures reveal the determination of the runner even when in pain or despair. After the finish line that determination is then replaced by a deep satisfaction and happiness that can be seen in spite of an even deeper feeling of exhaustion. A life in a day experience is often the story I see in Larry’s pictures and I love them for that!

  2. Tony F.

    So awesome! Thanks for sharing. My brother shoots with a variety of cameras including a Hasselblad. I’ve become drawn to photography that is similar to his style and always appreciate artistic photographers. I’m sorry I’ve just now learned of you. Super excited to look into more of your work and forward this on to my brother, who has had the privilege of attending one hundred of mine, capturing some amazing moments for me.

  3. Ian Torrence

    Larry’s photo of Emily and myself at the finish line of her top-10 Western States finish was proudly displayed in our photo collage at our wedding. It caught, very nicely, our end of journey. I believe Larry’s talent for trapping us at our best and worst was perfected when he captained, for several years, the final aid station of the Zane Grey 50 Mile (at See Canyon) in the late 90s, early 00s. There he saw a breath of the participants—winners and the back-of-the-pack—suffer in their own ways. I bet buckets to donuts his Finish Line Portrait story originated there. Thanks Larry!

Post Your Thoughts