Jamison Swift only found his love for ultras in the last decade. Now he's a regular racer, photographer, and founder of his own winter ultra. In this interview we talk about what fuels his passion to do tough stuff and how he's helping build the community he loves.
Learn about Jamison Swift's race, the St. Croix Ultra on his race website or see more of his photos on Instagram or his portfolio page.
You're an ultra athlete, ultra photographer, and ultra race director. How did this become such an important part of your life?
Interestingly I wasn’t always athletic.
I didn’t start running until 2010 and didn’t get into trail running until 2015 when my wife Lisa turned me on to the sport.
What I found in the trail running world (and it’s very similar to what I’m finding in the gravel world as well) is a small community of people who support each other and cheer each other on through tough stuff.
I’ve made incredible life-long friends in this community and the focus is rarely on becoming faster and faster. It’s about experiencing the natural world around us and overcoming our limits to do hard things.
We encourage each other, support each other, and try to build a place where everyone is encouraged to accomplish their goals. It doesn’t matter if someone is attempting their first 10 mile or 100 mile trail race. Or if they’re attempting a multi-day solo bikepacking trip. It’s all about encouraging people to try the things they’ve always wanted to try.
Heck, you started your own ultra race, the "St. Croix 40". How does that fit into the ultra race landscape?
St Croix 40 is a unique beast. In the winter ultra world of the upper midwest there are two big events, Tuscobia 80/160 and the Arrowhead 135. Both of these events are incredibly difficult and success for beginners can be hard to find. In many cases there were folks who were curious about winter ultras but didn’t feel ready to step up to the 80 mile distance at Tuscobia (Tuscobia did offer a 35 mile race for a few years but it wasn’t a good fit for them).
"We created St Croix 40 specifically to be a place for folks to come and learn if this sport is really for them."
We’re unique in that we’re a short-course, overnight, race but we still require similar gear as Arrowhead, and we force people to use it.
At SC40 racers start in their bivy sacks and sleeping bags and when I say “GO” they jump out, pack up, and hit the trail.
Then at the only checkpoint at mile 24 we require them to pull out their stoves and boil 12oz of water. Many people never need to do this at races like Arrowhead or Tuscobia, but if you end up in an emergency situation these are the skills that will save your life.
SC40 has built up a reputation as a place where people can go to test the waters in a safe environment, and we’ve had a lot of success. There are many people who don’t finish SC40 and realize that winter ultras just aren’t for them. If we keep people from jumping into bigger races and putting themselves in danger, we’ve done our job.
Ultras are inspiring, but somewhat intimidating. What would you say to someone contemplating an ultra?
I would encourage people who are “winter ultra curious” to start watching videos about Arrowhead and Tuscobia, or even the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Look at the suffering those people are going through and think about if that’s something you want to overcome. Then commit to spending time outside in the winter and learning to be comfortable in the cold. Practice your layering techniques, figure out what works for sweat mitigation in different temperatures.
I also encourage people to try sleeping in a bivy sack and winter sleeping bag in their backyard while it’s freezing outside. These are great ways to learn about how you react to the cold and how you can strategize how to overcome issues.
Get used to riding slow on a loaded fat bike.
Many people only average 5-6mph on these races and for some folks that can be very discouraging. You just need to push through the mental expectations and realize that this isn’t a crit race. Oh, and of course make sure your bike is tuned up for winter with the correct grease in the hubs.
Finally, I’d encourage people who are serious to sign up for St Croix 40. Registration opens in August (and fills fast) and there’s no better way to figure out if this is for you than trying it out.
You also photograph ultra races. Why does your shooting tend to focus on people doing hard things and portraits of pain?
This is such a cool question. I guess I don’t see most of my work as portraits of pain, but as a window into watching people overcome adversity.
Every single person that I photograph in these ultra races has struggled and fought to get to the starting line.
As I capture them along the trail they’re continuing to overcome with every step or pedal stroke they take. I love watching people do hard things because it means that they’re pushing their limits and living life to the fullest. No one gets 20 miles into an ultra endurance event without fighting and struggling and succeeding in that struggle.
"Sometimes folks don’t make it to the end, but every moment that they’re out there is a moment of victory."
I love capturing these moments so that people can remind themselves that they did something incredible. No matter how far they made it, they experienced a part of life that very few people get to experience. They might be miserable when they’re done, sweaty and in pain, but they dared to try.
I want my photos to be reminders that they should be proud of their effort, and help them remember the beauty of being outdoors, doing something amazing, and testing how much they’re truly capable of.
What do you shoot races with?
I’ve been a photographer for the majority of my life, starting as an assistant with a wedding photography company when I was 13 years old. Over that time I’ve shot everything from point-and-shoots to medium format Hasselblads. Now that we’ve all gone digital my brand of choice is Sony and for many years I was shooting with a Sony a6000.
I’ve recently upgraded to full-frame with a Sony a7c and really love it. As for lenses I am a huge fan of ‘portrait’ lenses, specifically 85mm. Most of my race photos are shot on a Sony 85mm f/1.8, though if I’m perched on a hill with a good view I’ll sometimes use a 24mm and go for a nice wide shot with the landscape dominating the shot.
The most challenging aspect of shooting races in the woods is often controlling the light. Over the course of a long day the light can change dramatically and force me to change positions and angles multiple times. It’s a fun challenge and keeps you on your toes.
Tell me about your winter ultra bike.
My fat bike ride is a 2021 Surly Ice Cream Truck (Buttermint Green colorway). There were VERY few of these produced at the time due to the supply chain crunch and I was incredibly lucky to score one.
Despite being a race director of a winter ultra I’ve never successfully completed one myself. However, in my most recent Tuscobia 80 attempt I outfitted the bike with a rack and panniers on the back and a set of Salsa Anything Cages on the front. I really like the Anything Cages since they allow you to balance a lot of weight up front without taking up all your cockpit space. In the cockpit I usually have two bottle holders for quick water and snacks, and if I need it I’ll strap a small drybag to the handlebars.
One thing that is somewhat unique is that I use thinner Barmitts pogies instead of big insulated ones (like from 45NRTH). This forces me to wear basic gloves which makes it much safer for my hands when I have to stop and do things. In my opinion there’s nothing worse than pulling a hot sweaty bare hand out of a pogie into -10°F temps and having it instantly freeze. This past year at Tuscobia the temps got very, very cold, but my hands were fine the whole time.