Runners at the Gates



I’m just mad about Saffron,
Saffron’s mad about me.

“Mellow Yellow” by Donovan

There had to be very good reasons for Lynne and me to wake up at 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday. We were going to catch a train from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan for the New York Road Runners Al Gordon 15K footrace, even though on the same day Pat DeHaven was directing the Mid-Hudson Road Runners Club 5-Mile Winter Run, which was free for MHRRC members. Lynne’s reason was to run her fourth of nine qualifiers for the 2006 NYC Marathon. My reason was cursus gratia artis--“Running for the sake of art.” I was determined to photograph the runners in Central Park as they ran past Christo’s “The Gates” art project.

From 2/12/05 through 2/27/05, the artist Christo and his spouse Jean-Claude set up their latest outdoor art project in Central Park. Saffron-colored fabric panels suspended from 7,500 metal gates formed a 23-mile path. According to the Web site, “‘The Gates’ will create a visual golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees, highlighting the shapes of the footpaths. The luminous moving fabric will underline the organic and serpentine design of the walkways, while the rectangular poles will be a reminder of the grid pattern of the City blocks around the park.”

There were plenty of gates near the start of the race on Central Park’s East Drive at 101st Street, although the runners may have been too cold to notice, for the temperature was at the freezing point. In addition, a brisk wind made it very uncomfortable for the runners, but great for photographs, as the saffron panels billowed in the freezing wind.

While the shivering runners assembled at the starting line, I marveled at the elite runners who wore shorts and singlets in the bitter cold. I marveled more that 103-year-old Al Gordon was present at the start of the race. Also in attendance was Frank Shorter, the gold-medal winner at the 1972 Munich Olympics, who ran the 15K.

A week before the event, I sent an e-mail to the NYRR Webmaster asking if there were any places on the course where I could photograph the runners and the gates together. The Webmaster replied, “‘The Gates’ project is spread out all over Central Park, so the race courses for both the NYRR Al Gordon 15K and the (2/26/05) NYRR Snowflake 4-Mile pass by the gates at numerous occasions during the course of the race. In fact, there are probably few places along the course in which the gates would not be visible.”

The Webmaster was correct. The gates were everywhere. Lynne said the best place on the course was at the Bethesda Terrace. As she ran towards the Terrace, the morning sun backlit the multiple saffron panels, turning them into a fiery orange-gold stream. The glowing panels reminded her of the multiple orange torii (Japanese gates) at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Japan.

During the race, several runners commented about having to dodge all the tourists who were out viewing “The Gates” project. Normally, Central Park is much less crowded on a Sunday morning. However, it appears more runners also were interested in being tourists and seeing the gates, for the race had 2,581 entrants in 2005, versus 2,120 participants in 2004. The gates apparently did not distract race winner Rob Zand, for he finished the 15K in 50:08, a 5:23 per mile pace.

After the race, Lynne and I wandered through Central Park admiring the gates, becoming one of the hordes of tourists out on a sun-drenched Sunday. Running a race and admiring ephemeral art: what a fantastic way to enjoy a Sunday in the park with Christo!


You can’t always get what you want.

The Rolling Stones

At the February 13 NYRR Al Gordon 15K I had wanted to photograph the runners, including Lynne, as they passed in front of Christo’s gates in Central Park. Indeed, I shot many photographs. However, I made a basic photographer mistake. I had wanted to capture the vibrant, rich, saffron colors, so I used 100-speed film. Yes, the colors were vibrant, but almost every runner was blurred, including Lynne. Duh! What to do? Nothing, except to try once again. We woke up at 3:30 a.m. on February 26 to catch the train for the NYRR Snowflake 4-Miler, the day before the end of Christo’s gates project. 3:30 a.m.? Yes, I would suffer yet again for art.

It had snowed recently, so “The Gates” would be even more spectacular in the snow. And, since I decided to shoot with 800-speed professional film, I would eliminate the blurring problem. I could not possibly screw up the photographs. Or, could I?

Because Lynne had run the 15K two weeks earlier, she told me that the best place for gates photographs was at the Bethesda Terrace along the 72nd Street transverse. Thus, while Lynne went to the start of the race at 102nd Street, I walked towards the Terrace. The men’s race started at 8 a.m., and I had reached the back of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when the 2,049 men runners approached me. There I took several photographs, including one of male winner Matt Downin of Westwood, NJ who would finish in 20:12. I then continued on to Bethesda Terrace to be at the halfway point of the 9 a.m. women’s race.

Lynne said she would be running on the left side of the road. Accordingly, I positioned myself on the left side of the road where I was able to photograph female winner Tatyana Hladyr of New York City, who would finish in 22:50. As the 2,106 women ran past my position, I searched for Lynne. Then I heard a voice cry out, “Bob, I’m over here!” There was Lynne, wearing orange to match the gates, on the other side of the road. What we had here was a failure to communicate--the runner’s left or the observer’s left? Had I missed the definitive photograph of Lynne and the gates?

But, wait! I suddenly realized that Lynne would run straight on the course before making a 90-degree turn to the left to head north. If I ran on a diagonal walk path, I just might be able to photograph Lynne as she ran by the Central Park boathouse.

First I would have to wade across the stream of female runners without causing road rage, then dash down the Bethesda Terrace steps, run up the path while dodging the hordes of tourists admiring Christo’s gates, and arrive just in time to photograph Lynne. This would be the first running I would attempt since my hip replacement. However, a photograph of Lynne would be worth any pain, so I “ran” the best I could, after not having run in 10 years. It wasn’t Chariots of Fire; it was more akin to Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks.”

So, naturally, I arrived at the boathouse just after Lynne ran by, missing her by three seconds. Afterwards we met Sue, Dan, and Helen who had come down to NYC for “The Gates” and a show, for Lynne and I had planned on a little R&B--Running and Broadway. Looking for an independent (a.k.a. sympathetic) opinion, I asked Sue what she thought “being on the left side of the road” meant. Sue said that meant the runners’ left. That wasn’t logical at all. Women!

Speaking of women, Lynne recounted an incident of road rage that she witnessed during the race. As the female runners ran past a pedestrian crossing in the park, a woman armed with a baby stroller pushed directly into the path of the packed runners, causing several runners to nearly fall. One runner immediately starting cursing at her, and the perambulator perpetrator responded in kind--a classic New York City moment.

As Lynne recounted the event, I suddenly realized why I had missed photographing her at the boathouse. I had lost precious seconds while attempting to cross the road against the stream of female runners. Perhaps if I had acted like the stroller assailant, I might have gotten the shot! Too bad I did not have a baby buggy.

Oh well, I guess I will have to wait to see if there is a race at Christo’s next event, the suspension of fabric panels across the Arkansas River in Colorado. Hmmm, photographs from the left bank or the right bank?