Getting Close at the JFK Runway Run

I recently participated in the annual JFK Runway Run.  Hosted by the JFK Rotary Club, this 5K is billed as more of a "fun run" than a race.  The attendees were a broad mix from various groups.  In addition to the serious runners in attendance, there was a group representing event sponsor Lufthansa (some of which had just flown in from Germany), another group from the ATC Tower, and a small contingent of avgeeks and planespotters.  While the winner of the race covered the course in a very respectable 17 minutes and change, we enthusiasts were more than happy to bring up the rear clocking a time more than an hour longer than that.  In contrast to recent years where the run has often been held in a more isolated area further away from aircraft, for this year's run the course largely consisted of Runway 22L. 

After starting the day early to grab some early morning shots of the pink Delta 767-400, I headed over to the event check-in across the airport.  After getting my number and t-shirt, I headed outside and met up with a few other spotters that were a mix of new and familiar faces.  A shuttle bus to the starting line soon pulled in and the group of us hopped on.  We wound our way back around the airport almost all the way back to where I had started out that morning.  The bus dropped us off in front of the airport's fire training center where we were among the first to arrive and had a great view of some very close arrivals. 

Shortly after the scheduled start time of 9:00, the race began.  We enthusiasts had courteously placed ourselves at the rear of the pack of 963 participants, in the section designated for those who would be walking. As we watched the line quickly stretch out in front of us, we walked down Taxiway Echo grabbing shots of several arrivals on Runway 31R.  On this particular morning, all of the departures were being sent to 31L while the lion's share of the arrivals landed on 31R. We walked down the taxiway a short distance, pausing briefly at the end of Runway 22L for photos.  Its not very often that you can get a shot up close to "the numbers", so this was an opportunity not to be wasted.

The guy in the orange on the right was in the lead. We were far from it.

The guy in the orange on the right was in the lead. We were far from it.

Following our brief photo pit-stop, the trek down the runway began.  Before we knew it, the fastest of the runners were passing us going the other way! While we all felt that they didn't know what they were missing, I'm sure they had similar thoughts about us. After a fairly short distance we crossed under the very last bit of the approach for Runway 31R, with planes gliding no more than 100 feet over our heads.  As I have discussed in the past, there are certain challenges associated with getting this close to the action.  The challenge on this day was having just the right amount of lens for a given shot.  Aircraft on approach were very close and needed a short lens.  Those taxiing or departing however needed something a bit longer as they were further away.  After swapping lenses around for about the first mile of the walk, I ended up going with my longest lens as we moved further from the arrivals and just stayed with it for the remainder of the day.

As we rounded the halfway point, the pace began to pickup out of necessity. With most of the racers having completed the course already, most of the security detail now focused on us.  The Port Authority Police officers were nice to us (one of them even pumped the ground control feed through his loudspeaker) as were most of the Operations folks.  However one Ops vehicle decided that it was their life's goal to get us off the runway and began honking at us any time one of us stopped for a moment.  To be honest, it was a bit overbearing. However I did my best to look past that one bad apple and just keep doing my thing.

Getting closer to the finish line, we came back close to and underneath the 31R Arrivals again.  The wind had picked up over the past hour and had become gusty, which made for some interesting arrivals like this one:  

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The disadvantage of a long lens

The disadvantage of a long lens

As we neared the threshold of Runway 22L, we noticed that the Operations crews from the Port Authority were working feverishly to get the runway cleared.  One crew was dismantling the giant 'X' that marks the runway as closed while behind us they were already removing the orange cones and starting to sweep the runway of any debris that had been left behind.  Judging from the wind speed and direction, we figured that the airport was anxious to move operations to the 4s or 22s.  Somewhat surprisingly, they maintained the use of the 31s until late in the afternoon, long after the event was over.

After crossing the finish line, we got back on the bus and headed back around the airport towards where we had checked in.  Already, awards were starting to be given out for the fastest times both overall and by age group. As we munched on our post-race snacks, the awards ceremony ended and they moved on to the raffle, with many prizes donated by the various sponsors of the event.  Though I didn't win anything myself, our group did quite well, banking a blender and a pair of round-trip tickets to anywhere in JetBlue's system. A prize like that can be a spotter's dream and the winner was very excited for not only the fact he had won, but the potential places that he could go.  One particularly awkward moment was the awarding of the prize by airline El Al, who offered a single roundtrip ticket.  Never had I heard of anything less than a pair of tickets being awarded. At the conclusion of the raffle, a few in our group had to head their separate ways, while others of us met up at one of our regular spots for lunch and an afternoon of spotting with a few others who hadn't made the race.  Though I went home a bit sunburned, it was a great event and a great day with a great bunch of people,  I am looking forward to participating again next year, and will be recruiting as many other participants as I can until then.