Tony Holler’s Formula for Successful Track Meets, and Some Thoughts on Sports Photography

Photos from the Payton Jordan meet at Stanford on May 2, 20015 (60 photos). Read on for details. (For a smaller view, decrease the size of your browser window.)

Doing good work takes a heap of preparation. We run best when we warm up a long time. We’re successful in business when we do our research.

When I was a staff photographer at Runner’s World (1972-76), I was fanatical in the way I prepped for an event.

It wasn’t only a question of preparing the equipment and bringing enough film. I always found that taking great pictures required preparing two ways: inside and out.

Outwardly, I would show up at road races or meets at least an hour and a half before the start.

I did this unfailingly. I had to. I’m art-impaired. I used the time to explore the course with furious attention, looking for spots where the light, background, and position of the runners as they passed would be favorable.

Lots of my photos appeared in the magazine, because I went the extra mile.

I also found it indispensable to prepare my innards. If my shots were out of focus, there was no chance that Bob Anderson, the publisher, would use them, and if I was unfocused there was a good chance that I’d miss those fleeting moments where good sports photos are made.

The RW publishers had other magazines on soccer, gymnastics, martial arts, and swimming. I covered them the same way – show up early, study the course, stay focused.

I remember a swim meet I photographed in 1974, the Santa Clara Invitational. It was a rare opportunity to stock our files with photos of Olympic-class swimmers from many countries, including the superstars from Russia and East Germany.

As I prepared to photograph the event, I made a risky decision. I decided I would stand in an imaginary circle just 12 feet in diameter.

While the other photographers scrambled for the best angles, I remained planted in my imaginary circle.

Over the two-hour meet, I took about 200 photos. A pittance by today’s standards, but it was the pre-digital era of film, which was expensive and a pain in the butt to develop. Something like 193 of the photos were published in various media, including high-end swim gear catalogs.

It was an amazingly high rate of “keepers.” I’m convinced it happened because I put myself in a situation where I had to focus like the dickens.

It forced me to work with tunnel-like concentration and intuitive feeling – qualities that help in any high-pressure assignment.

Tony Holler sent me a link to an article he wrote for the Illinois state coaching association: 10 Questions for a Sectional Host. Tony’s piece made me smile at the start, and by the end I was laughing with pleasure.

Tony coaches track and JV football at Plainfield North High near Chicago. You won’t find his writing in Track & Field News or The Daily Relay, and that’s a shame. Tony writes beautifully crafted pieces for the websites of the Illinois association and Freelap Timing (a respected resource for sprint coaches).

His tips for organizing a good meet recalled my days as a sports photographer. Tony will do whatever it takes to create a great meet. The not-so-secret key is careful preparation.

In 10 Questions for a Sectional Meet, Tony serves up his recipe for a successful event.

The ingredients include (a) a fully automated timing system (FAT), (b) a detailed and inflexible music playlist, (c) a meet announcer who cares about every kid and isn’t too lazy to research their backgrounds, and (d) a concession stand that’s stocked with great food and doesn’t run out before the meet ends.

About a month ago, I motored over to the Payton Jordan Invitational track meet at Stanford. The PJ is a major event on the international calendar. It’s been a blessing, over the years, to be able to watch the elites run at the two big annual meets at Stanford. The other one is the Stanford Invitational.

I attended the meet as a sports photographer, not a track fan. I had a great time, and I think it was because I prepped as I would have 40 years ago.

For several days before, I thought about the best way to watch the races, take pictures, and enjoy myself. I thought about where the sun would be, the best positions to shoot from, and the camera settings.

More important, I spent a lot of time thinking about the mental and emotional state I wanted to be in at the meet.

I knew from fifty years of spiritual practice that if I could get calm, grounded, focused, positive, harmonious, and somewhat free of ego, the meet would be a more interesting and enjoyable place. That may sound like a chore, but it’s as simple as being realistic about one’s place in the scheme of things, and knowing what we want. I wanted most of all to find the joy of an expansive heart and a self-discipline to be open to others’ realities.

On the day of the meet, I found my head in the old, familiar place: relaxed, grounded, focused.

(Totally Unfocussed Digression.) It’s beyond me why college sports marketing folks try to make jocks look like pre-teens refusing to clean their bedrooms.



I understand that they want the jocks to look defiant and indomitable. But an article at suggests folded arms send a different message than the sports publicity folks intend.

Arms can act as the doorway to the body and the self. When they are crossed, they form a closed defensive shield, blocking out the outside world. Shields act in two ways: one is to block incoming attacks and the other is a place behind which the person can hide and perhaps not be noticed.

Crossed arms may thus indicate anxiety which is either driven by a lack of trust in the other person or an internal discomfort and sense of vulnerability (that may, for example, be rooted in childhood trauma).

The extent of crossing indicates how firmly closed the person is. This may range from a light cross to arms folded to arms wrapped around the person. An extreme version which may indicate additional hostility is a tight close with hands formed as fists. If legs are crossed also then this adds to the signal.

In other words, folded arms make the Oregon athletes look like frightened, traumatized, angry ducklings. These are wonderful people — why not show them that way? Quack!

Back to the Payton Jordan:

I took about 1100 photos, and most would have been rejected, even in the old days. Camera focus is critical. It’s always a challenge, and digital cameras are unforgiving. I should have trusted the technology — when I set the camera to follow-focus it did a great job; when I tried a semi-manual approach, I was way off more often than not. My mistake.

Never mind, in sports and photography there are no failures, only learning experiences.

It was four‑ish when I arrived, and the steeplechasers were running. I wandered to the water jump to watch.

It’s wonderful to see the waves of runners soar over the barrier and splash down, or sail completely over the pit. The sun was lowering over the Stanford hills, and the runners were backlit against the infield grass.

Between laps I eavesdropped on the conversation of two young athletes standing nearby, from whose mouths there issued an unbroken stream of stunningly brilliant track talk.

The sustained outpouring of stats and projections for next year’s team was impressive. The main speaker’s energy was wonderful. Built like a whippet, he was an 800m specialist of no small talent – “Looks like we’ll have a couple other guys who can run sub-1:50 this year.”

He was tack-smart and brilliantly clear in his expression. In his quiet way, he exuded a refined, high-octane energy, and a clarity of thought and a positive magnetism. To my mind, these are qualities of exceptional people. Later, I learned he was an elite half-miler. I won’t reveal his name, to preserve his privacy and because my old brain has forgotten it.

The steeple was the prettiest event of the day. The water jump was far removed from the blaring announcer and milling crowds. There was a countrified feeling out there, just a handful of athletes and coaches leaning on the rail and watching the runners attack the barrier. One grizzled, tanned guy with a ponytail hollered advice to his female athlete, sounding like he truly cared. She won the elite steeple in an upset.

As Tony Holler is fond of saying, the best athletes in every sport are the most athletic. They’re the all-rounders. The best football players are two- and three-sport jocks who run track and play basketball or baseball. College recruiters look for speed and athleticism, not just brute strength.

The best distance runners at Payton Jordan seemed to confirm the all-rounder rule. The top guys in the distance races were well-muscled and looked athletic, especially in the 10K. I imagine they would do well in other sports.

After the steeple, I walked over to the finish area. I didn’t hold much hope of getting good photos of the race finishes. The area behind the finish line at a major event is clogged with pro photographers lugging $20-30,000 Nikon and Canon rigs.

(If you haven’t heard a Nike D4s fire at 11 frames per second, it sounds like a loud videocam or a quiet Minigun – brrrrrrrrrrrrrp. The reason those guys get sharp pix is because they’re pulling video frames.)

The peasants’ section behind the finish has a comfortable elbow-high rail, and I was fortunate to find a spot with a view down lane one. When the photogs blocked my view, I realized I could backpedal up a grassy slope and shoot over their heads.

I was surprised by how happy I felt amid the hordes of athletes, coaches, and fans, yakking, stooping over their gadgets, and milling about.

At major meets in the past, I’ve tended to feel a bit self-conscious, uncertain of my place in the overall scheme. This time, narrowing my focus yielded an enjoyable inner calmness and a relaxed and kindly interest in others.

Payton Jordan runs a WR 30.89 in the 200m at age 80.
Payton Jordan sets a WR 30.89 in the 200m at age 80. Days after I wrote this, I sat down with the calculator. Payton was running 4:08.5 mile pace for 200m at age 80. That is a long way beyond awesome.

By the way, I met Payton Jordan, I think it was in 1972, although “met” is an exaggeration. I had a Runner’s World press pass to photograph a major meet at Stanford where Steve Prefontaine was scheduled to run a 3,000 or 5,000, I forget which.

I was a nature boy runner, and as I wandered the infield snapping pics I got the brilliant idea to take off my shirt and catch some rays.

Payton was a straitlaced, buttoned-up guy who’d been a star sprinter in college. (He was still winning sprint medals in his eighties.)

Seeing me wandering around in Tarzan déshabillé, he told me to put my shirt on, as it was a formal occasion and a certain decorum was in order.

He was perfectly right. People of Payton’s era watched baseball and track in coat, tie, and fedora.

Payton Jordan was a big-time figure in the track world. He coached the 1968 US Olympic track team that won 24 medals, including an amazing 14 golds.

I did another silly thing during the meet. I climbed atop a very unsteady water stanchion at trackside, so that I could take pictures without including the gosh-awful, butt-ugly empty stands in the background. I remember Pre peering up at me on an early lap with an amused expression, “What the hell do you think you’re up to?”

Sadly, the negs of Pre were shredded by a mother mouse to build her nest in the storage shed of our former cabin in the foothills near Nevada City.



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