The continuing adventures of an ultrarunner’s crew member

Kim had another race at Wilson Lake in Kansas last week. It’s starting to become familiar territory for me after a couple races and training sessions there. Typically, at ultramarathon races, Kim runs many many miles and I wander around with my camera, making sure to be at the appropriate aid station every few when she comes through. I fill up her water, hand her some snacks, ask her how she’s feeling, and wave goodbye as she runs off again. It’s not the worst job in the world.

This race was a little different. All the runners were going around the same 4 mile (plus a little) loop over and over. They had to be ready re-start the loop every hour, on the hour. The last runner on the course wins. Sounds rough, right? I know! I had to be available EVERY hour, which really cut down on how far I could walk around with my camera. Plus, it was cold and very windy – and it rained for most of the morning. It was arduous, but I managed to get through it.

Lichen on a rock.

Once the rain finally stopped, the only challenges to photography (besides my limited travel range and free time) were the dark overcast skies and the strong winds. The clouds eventually started to break up a little, or at least lighten some, so I grabbed my camera and started making some short forays out into the nearby rocky, cedar-infested prairie to see what I could do in the fact of the wind.

One perk of the Wilson Lake landscape is that it includes a lot of rocks, and they’re big enough that even this weekend’s wind doesn’t move them around. Even better, many of the rocks host colonies of lichen, which do move, but VERRRY slowly, and are also unaffected by wind. They’re also very colorful and form interesting (to me) patterns. I spent some happy time composing photos of lichens and their rocks.

A very popular rock with lichens.
One of many rock outcroppings.
Another rock outcropping with lichens and moss.
My favorite kind of abstract art.
More art.

We’re just starting to see the first few spring wildflowers here in Nebraska, so I figured I’d see even more down south. There were a few, but not as many as I’d hoped. Part of that was probably due to the heavy thatch accumulation across most of the site. I did, eventually, find a few blossoms to photograph. I had to work on the south sides of steeper hills (or cedar trees) to have any chance of getting photos of flowers that weren’t whipping around impossibly fast. (Did I mention the wind?)

I think this is western wallflower (Erysimum asperum) but I’m not familiar enough with the possibilities to be 100% sure. See the wind-blocking hill in the background?
A closer view of the wallflower.
I believe this is a little introduced flower species called Filaree (Erodium cicutarium).

Another wind-resistant photo subject turned out to be a colony of ants and their mound. I came across a big ant mount along the race trail and watched it for a while. The cool weather (and the fact that I didn’t mess with the ants) seemed to keep the ants moving at a relatively sedate pace, but they were still quick enough to make photography a challenge. I managed to get a couple of sharp photos. I even broke down and did a little video work of them. It’s good for me to branch out now and then…

Here’s a photo and then a short video clip. (As always, if the video doesn’t work, click on the title of this post above to open it online.)

These mound ants (Formica sp.) had a nest right in the middle of the running trail so I had to time my photography carefully to avoid getting in the way of racers. I managed it.


Of course, I did also photograph Kim a few times. Besides fighting my cheap camera’s slow autofocus, the biggest challenge in doing that was to not look too much like a stalker…

Kim, about halfway through her race.
Here’s a relatively flat portion of the trail.

The last photo subjects I worked with were some early-blooming shrubs. Buffalo currant and wild plum were both flowering. I found that if I went to the downwind edge of a big patch of shrubs, the gale force winds were suppressed enough that I had half a chance of photographing flowers. The currant was a little more challenging than the plum since both the plants and patches were smaller.

I assume this is buffalo currant (Ribes aureum).

I was a little confused by the wild plum, and maybe some of you can help me. Much of the plum looked very familiar to me – the right size, appearance, and smell. But there were also some patches in which the height, stem diameter, and especially the flower size were much smaller than normal. They looked like a miniature version of wild plum. The flower diameter was maybe 1/3 the size of more ‘typical’ wild plum that I’m used to seeing.

I did a poor job of photographing the plants in a way that will help with identification (again – it was VERY windy). However, if anyone knows of a shrub that looks like wild plum, but smaller, let me know. I’m familiar with sand cherry and these didn’t look like that. The flowers are below. The first image is the regular-sized wild plum and the second shows the smaller flowers.

Wild plum (Prunus americana)
A smaller version of wild plum? Or a closely related species?

Kim eventually stopped running after 9 loops (about 38 miles). She could have kept going but she was mostly using the race as a training run for a 50 mile race next month, so she wasn’t ‘in it to win it’ this time. Even then, she finished as the second place woman (the first place woman ended up winning the whole race and ran a total of 125 miles!)

For myself, my legs got a little stiff from sitting in the car most of the morning and my knees got kind of wet while kneeling on the ground during the afternoon. I don’t think I’ll suffer any long-term effects, but thank you all for your concern.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

9 thoughts on “The continuing adventures of an ultrarunner’s crew member

  1. As a retired ultrarunner I enjoyed and had a good laugh at your post! I thought of all my crews and pacers I have had over the years and always wondered how they entertained themselves while I ran and ran and ran. And ran some more. Maybe they watched ants and took photos of rocks?

  2. Great way to spend the time, Chris. 😃 Love your lichen close ups and your flowers are spectacular. It’s a challenge when the wind is whipping…just had that problem out in the desert!

    • Thanks Nadine – do you think both the big and small-flowered examples are P. angustifolia? Or is one sand hill plum and one wild plum? (Botanizing is hard when you don’t know what the possibilities even are!)

      • I was thinking the small flowered are P angustifolia and the larger flowered American plum. Both are found throughout the state of Kansas. I had to dig out my Kansas ID books. Primary differences are flower size and some differences in leaves.


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