Every year military journalists have the chance to enter contests to be recognized for their work of the past year. Writers, photographers, videographers and graphic artists submit their work to the annual media contest awards in hopes to bring credit upon themselves and their respective units.
This year I’m proud to say that I won Military Photographer of the Year for the Air National Guard representing the 139th Airlift Wing. One might think there isn’t much a photographer from a small base in the middle of a Missouri cornfield can offer to a nation-wide contest, but the “Show-Me State” seems to hold up to its name over the bias underestimating complacency of it. Only two photos in this collection weren't taken in St. Joseph.
I’m going to briefly review each of the photos and do a bit of a ‘through-the-eyes-of-the-photographer’, to describe compositionally what was going through my mind.
In the media contest there were a number of categories to submit to: news, feature, pictorial, operational documentation, training documentation, portrait and photo story. There is a separate award submission for the photographer of the year, which includes 20 photos max, from several of the categories mentioned. It’s a summary of a photographer’s ability.
Missouri Airmen arrive in England for trainingU.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Brandon M. Guardado (left) and Staff Sgt. Cory C. Clary, with the 139th Logistics Readiness (139 LRS) Squadron replaces a clutch to a MAN 6x4 10-ton tractor at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, July 6, 2016. The 139 LRS were conducting deployment field training in their respective career fields as part of annual training requirements. (U.S Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Patrick P. Evenson/Released)
Out of the 17 photos that won me the photographer of the year, this was one of two that wasn’t taken in St. Joseph. What immediately caught my eye as I walked into the maintenance bay were the two massive flags hanging. The story I was in England to capture was the joint partnership of both nations. On trips like this, that’s always the story. If I could show that these Airmen were in a maintenance bay at RAF Mildenhall vs. some random bay in the U.S. that would be even better. I would cover all of that in the caption of course, but having two massive flags hanging from the ceiling, filling the frame, just makes the story unfold visually instead of me writing it. I would have surely taken a knee to shoot the photo anyway, but to get the flags as the background for my subject it was a necessity.
Vietnam War veterans are honored at air showU.S. Air Force Col. Ed Black, vice commander of the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard, thanks a Vietnam War veteran from the Cameron Veterans Home at Rosecrans Air National Guard Base, St. Joseph, Mo., August 26, 2016. Vietnam War veterans from the Cameron Veterans Home received recognition for their service during the Speed of Sound Airshow and Open House at Rosecrans. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Patrick P. Evenson)
I’m leaving a lot of the photo context out, because it’s in the caption when hovering over the photos.
The story I needed to capture here was service members of new honoring those of old. Although I was farther away than I would have liked, I think I captured the emotion on the face of our veteran. That’s what I needed. The whole scene is framed by the out of focus Airmen in formation.
Sound of Speed Air Show performs for community above MissouriA Navy Leap Frog parachutes with an American Flag during the Sound of Speed Air Show and Open House above Rosecrans Memorial Airport, St. Joseph, Mo., August 27, 2016. The air show was hosted by the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard to the thank the community for their support. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Patrick P. Evenson)
This photo was taken at an air show, as can be guessed. This is one of those photos that anyone with a camera had some sort of version of while attending the Speed of Sound Air Show. It’s a gigantic American flag falling from the sky underneath a man with a parachute! ‘Awesome! America is the best! How cool is that, not to take a picture of?’ That is what everyone and their mother was saying out on the flight line.
My thought is how I could execute that photo as best I could. I don’t want a dot in the big blue sky. I want the flag, the Navy parachute, and the Leap Frog. So I had to wait for the flag to be facing me, spread out, and low enough to see that their was a human profile under the canopy with “Navy” spelled out. Plus cropping out the dead space in Adobe Lightroom helps out too.
Sound of Speed Air Show performs for community above MissouriA child is lifted up onto a AH-64 Apache helicopter during the Sound of Speed Air Show at Rosecrans Memorial Airport, August 27, 2016. The air show was hosted by the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard to the thank the community for their support. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Patrick P. Evenson)
What kid doesn’t like climbing on and in a for-real attack helicopter? I’m not even a kid and I would dig it. This photo is about the moment. It’s about the moment shared between a father and son as the boy is lifted into the helicopter. Probably not the best composed photo, but the moment is captured. … Maybe there is something poetic about the underlying message of the photo regarding how this nation sends their children off to war. Haha.
Sound of Speed Air Show performs for community above MissouriGary Stein, an aircrew member of the A-26B Invader "Lady Liberty", looks out the window during a flight above St. Joseph, Mo., August 28, 2016. "Lady Liberty" was part of the Sound of Speed Air Show, hosted by the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard to the thank the community for their support. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Patrick P. Evenson)
This aircraft was cramped. There was very little elbow space or even places I could point the camera inside this Douglas A-26 "Lady Liberty". Cool aircraft and cool ride, but not much to work with. I throw my wide-angle on, and waited for the moment were something of context was in the huge overhead window. I was waiting for downtown St. Joe honestly, but with the position of the sun, the shot would be blown out. A nice second place option was the Missouri river, and with the way the sun was hitting Gary’s face, it made a nice highlight of him looking out the window. Photo complete.
Missouri Guardsmen provide flood reliefAir Force Capt. Rhonda Brown with the 139th Airlift Wing, and Army Spc. John Talbert with the 1140th Engineer Battalion, Missouri National Guard observe a flooded roadway from a levee near East Prairie, Mo., Jan. 2, 2016. Soldiers and Airmen with the Missouri National Guard, volunteered to support the Missouri Department of Transportation in flood relief efforts in south central Missouri. The focus of the aid is to ensure traffic control, water purification and levee reinforcement in affected areas. (Missouri Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Patrick P. Evenson/Released)
Floods happen a lot in Missouri. Some place in Missouri is always flooding it seems. Cue the National Guard. I love volunteering for things. That’s kind of the name of the game when joining the Guard, however I always dread getting those text messages from my command notifying me of the need to mobilize. It’s easy for me being single with no family and freelancing as a job. The great majority of citizen soldiers and airman can’t say the same. They leave their family, careers and civilian lives to respond to state emergencies. Yes, that is what they signed up for, but it doesn’t make it any less inconvenient. It needs to be done and they are always willing and ready. One day they are drinking a café latte at their job as a doctor, office assistant or college student – the next they are on the opposite side of the state standing at the new bank of a flooded river which a week prior was a road.
Photojournalism should be as much about the people and what I just described as it is about what is happening.
Missouri Airmen learn to surviveTech. Sgt. Justin O'Dell, assigned to the 185th Air Refueling Wing, instructs airmen of the 180th Airlift Squadron, Missouri Air National Guard, how to mark a drop zone during Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training at Rosecrans Air National Guard Base, St. Joseph, Mo., Sept. 29, 2016. SERE training is required for all aircrew to equip them with survival techniques necessary in the event of an emergency. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Patrick P. Evenson)
Farther below is a more digestive photo story of this aircrews’ survival training. As with most of these photos I've discussed so far, I always try to both fill the frame with information and get my camera in a position for a compelling angle. The reason I usually take a knee is because everyone sees the world from a standing level. That's not unique or interesting - it's everyday life. Not only does having the camera as close to the ground as I can get it give the moment a grandiose feel, but also it makes the ground as much a point of the image as the action being done. The ground gives the image location context and completes the framing that nature gives around our subjects.
Missouri Airmen learn to surviveU.S. Air Force Senior Airman Steven Sirois, a load master assigned to the 180th Airlift Squadron, Missouri Air National Guard, poses for a photo during Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training at Rosecrans Air National Guard Base, St. Joseph, Mo., Sept. 29, 2016. SERE training is required for all aircrew to equip them with survival techniques necessary in the event of an emergency. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Patrick P. Evenson)
This is another photo from the same survival training. It is my least favorite photo in this portfolio. It’s super posed, which I personally hate. That’s not photojournalism, that’s a happy snap. For better or worse though it helped get me photographer of the year.
Missouri celebrate the 380th birthday of the National GuardU.S. Guardsmen, with the Missouri Army and Air National Guard dance during the 8th Annual Missouri National Guard Birthday Ball, at Tan-Tar-A Resort, Osage Beach, Mo., December 10, 2016. The National Guard was celebrating its 380th birthday, which was established on December 13, 1636. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Patrick P. Evenson)
This photo of the Missouri National Guard's birthday ball, is one of my favorite photos in this collection. I’m a sucker for a good romance, and I’m drawn to the tenderness of this couples close embrace and kiss while dancing. The lighting from my off-camera speedlite adds the perfect light and shadow that makes them pop from the multiple other couples that fill the room. In this photo, the affection that these two share with one another is all that matters in the ballroom at Tan-Tar-A.
The last piece of my portfolio submission for the military photographer of the year award was a photo essay. I choose the Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape training to submit because it was the best collection of photos that told the story beginning to end. SERE training is required for all aircrew to equip them with survival techniques necessary in the event of an emergency. As can be seen in the photos I hope, it takes the aircrew members through the scenario of landing via parachute, planning a route back to safety, evading enemy detection and capture, signaling extraction. That's a very general description of the training but you get the point.
Sound of Speed Air Show performs for community above MissouriA Twin Beech aircraft performs a routine at sunset during the Sound of Speed Air Show above Rosecrans Memorial Airport, St. Joseph, Mo., August 26, 2016. The air show was hosted by the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard to the thank the community for its support. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Patrick P. Evenson)
I didn't mention this earlier, but I actually won two awards. This is the photo that won first place in the Pictorial category. There isn't much to be said for this image. People like sunsets and people like air shows. Put them together and you get a great photo.
It’s been a good year for my photography over-all. From the Pioneer Building fire collection to the Christmas lights at Krug Park, it’s nice to do something that gain emotional responses from people. I might just be a Guardsman 12 weekends of the year, but I’m glad my passion and enjoyment of photography can be exploited there as well.
“Paradox Coffee and Theatre” is situated in the heart of downtown St. Joseph, occupying part of the first floor of the five-story restored late 19th century furniture store from the heyday of St. Joseph historic economic era. Since then it has been many things from a toy store, indoor archery range, laser tag arena and up to four years ago a nightclub. The top four floors are currently being remodeled into lofts, while the ground floor has been operating as an art gallery and multipurpose venue for the past two years.
The coffee shop side has been a long awaited completion to the “Coffeeshop and Theatre” title. What was once a conspicuously empty corner where a few paintings were randomly hung, is now a site of activity as baristas perform a ballet of sorts around each other amidst raising steam and sounds of coffee beans grinding.
The works of local artists are still on the wall, but now with a sense of purpose as mugs of lattes and plates of homemade pastries slowly stroll with intent by them. The original brick wall of the old furniture store creates a natural backdrop for the art, with decades of imperfection and modifications to garner it as an art piece of its own. If asked it might speak about the frailty of man being the actual substance of their strength.
A curtain separates the coffee shop side from the theater area. Doing so has the obvious intent of creating a more intimate atmosphere with French café music lightly playing in the background and slightly dimmed lights to relax the eyes of the working patron on a coffee break.
Based on customer recommendations on Instagram, I ordered a local-honey latte with a homemade sausage galette. After I ordered I had a pleasant conversation with manager Brean Rieley about world travels while she was crafting my coffee.
Brean was operating a Londinium II lever pulled espresso machine. The caffeine producing instrument has a perfectly reflected chrome surface and two wooden handles rising high above. It is an unusual sight to the coffee shops of the area toting automatic machines that fashion morning enriching beverages by a press of a button. Immediately it seemed, like the decorations on the wall, that this coffee was more art than science.
Everything they do is hand crafted. The honey for my latte was sourced through another downtown local business Goode-Food Delivered, a supplier of organic produce. Paradox’s baker is making everything from scratch, like their sauces. They even have homemade chocolate.
Paradox might get some criticism for not using beans from “St. Joseph Express Coffee Roasters” in town, however I can’t blame them. Paradox brews beans from Kansas City’s esteemed roaster “Oddly Correct.” “Oddly Correct” is a family owned single-origin coffee roaster that was voted one of the top 25 best coffee shops in the nation by epicurious.com.
To my delight my local-honey latte came with a latte art leaf on top. I struggled with the decision to preserve the foam leaf or selfishly satisfy my thirst. I chose the latter. From the first sip my taste buds felt as if they were expanding from the anticipation of farther pleasure. The honey was distinct but performed like a handshake to start a conversation. I had to consciously will myself to lower the cup from my lips because I was drinking it like a beer at a tailgate party.
The freshly made sausage galette came out looking like sausage and cheese blooming from a pastry flower. Sausage and cheese was an odd visitor to my morning pallet, but since it was 10 in the morning I passed it off as brunch. The sausage and cheese made a great combination with the honey and milk. The collective flavors slide across my tongue like a jazz quartet. If my mouth had fingers, they would be snapping.
As I was leaving Brean stopped what she was doing and said, “tell your friends about us.” I did even better – I wrote an article.
Written August 4, 2015 for the St. Joseph Convention and Visitors Bureau:
I’m sitting in a new St. Joseph storefront on Felix Street. Tiger’s Den Bookstore and Bar is a unique downtown spot in St. Joe, with a chill library atmosphere, books on shelves lining the perimeter of the space, and the added luxury of having a beer instead of coffee. I can hear the calm rhythm of air blowing regularly out of the vents. The crisp turn of a page echoes through the long, deep room as another patron reaches closer to the end of a chapter. I’m reclining in an odd wooden chair that is surprisingly comfortable as shimmering natural light from the windows reflects off my keyboard through my glass of Founders IPA.
Outside perched on a cement block, looking smugly down the street is Humpty Dumpty. I’m not worried about “HD” having a great fall though, because he is one of 17 new sculptures scattered through the downtown area. He is safe and sound for the next year until new sculptures get rotated in next summer.
This is the second year of the St. Joseph Sculpture Walk, a program of the Allied Arts Council that gives the community and visitors a chance to interact with public art. Just shy of one mile the entire walk to visit those 17 art pieces takes one around the architectural beauty that downtown St. Joseph is famous for and the revitalization that is taking place. Some might say the buildings are art in their own right.
Prior to my trip for beer over the view of “HD’s” profile, I stopped by Allied Arts office and talked to Teresa Fankhauser, executive director of the Allied Arts Council.
Teresa explained how St. Joseph is already a great place to enjoy different forms of art. For performance art people have the amazing work that Robidoux Resident Theater produces. For visual art people have the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art or smaller galleries scattered around. What Allied Arts set out last year for, was giving the community a chance to experience the art up close and personal. “Art creates conversation”.
Rumor has it that if one rubs “HD’s” nose, they will have good luck. Apparently that is a common thing for the sculptures of Minnesota artist Kimber Fiebiger. She actually has two of her Humpty-like sculptures displayed in the downtown area, which so far have been a popular one for social media selfies. … I may or may not have taken one myself…
That’s the unique benefit of the Sculpture Walk. Apart from the impressive skill that these sculptures show from the artist, it is completely encouraged to touch, pose and for some, even climb.
Across from Coleman Hawkins Park is a massive sculpture of a bike, “Fat Tire #3” from Washington state artist Lance H. Carleton. A bike in which a pedal protrudes slightly from the right side, begging the foot of a traveler to swing their body over the mass and grip the handle bars with glee.
Public art such as the Sculpture Walk seems to be a win-win for everyone. The artists get the chance to display their work for an audience that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. This year, nine states are being represented. The art also boosts the natural and cultural environment giving the community something to admire and talk about, not to mention introducing them to local businesses they might not have known were there.
“Art creates conversation”. Those are the three words from Teresa that I steal to best describe the Sculpture Walk. It describes the conversation that children will have with their folks after their grandparents took them around downtown and let the climb and jump through an eight-foot high cedar and corten steel ring.
It describes the conversation when a group of friends stops outside of Ground Round restaurant to admire a life sized “Cherry Tree” formed completely with silverware.
It’s the conversation that people have when they decide not to go to a movie but instead wander around St. Joe discovering not only interesting sculptures, but also the Pony Espresso for a cup of coffee or the profile of Humpty through a comfortable bookbars window.
A truck delivering some craft beer just pulled up behind “HD”. I might have another, and then on the way out rub his nose as I ride my bike to grab something to eat. Today I feel like hitting up Geneo’s Pizza for a pineapple and jalapeno peperoni calzone.
In downtown St. Joseph, Mo., you will find the Café Pony Espresso. This quaint coffee shop is a short distance from the Missouri Theater, an original movie palace built in 1926, which still exhibits the charm of old downtown. There is a door next to the entrance of my familiar coffee shop, but one that I have never entered…until tonight. I’m slowly and cautiously creeping up the steep stairs to the Robidoux Resident Theater rehearsal hall, with the script of “A Streetcar Named Desire” under my arm and a camera bag slung across my body as if I had just rushed from work. I hadn’t. The truth is the camera in its tote holster at my side makes me feel more comfortable in this unknown world of performance arts that I was about to embark into.
A few years ago, after serving as a combat photographer for five years in the Marine Corps, I moved back to St. Joseph to attend a local university. I free-lanced for the local music magazine Tuning Fork. I also started taking photos for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Both of these opportunities gave me an amazing appreciation for the unique identity and culture of the town. From music, to history, to an array of local events, to performance arts, and specifically the amazing people that have the passion and ambition to conduct this tapestry of art for the enrichment and enjoyment of the community.
There are two things that would attract people to St. Joseph: the glory that once made it the hub of transit into the unknown west, and the arising passionate energy that it’s experiencing now. I love imagining what past lives were being lived in the exact footsteps that I walk and how the decisions which were made a hundred and fifty years ago brought us to where we are today.
The slogan that I’ve seen to describe St. Joseph many times is, “Where the Pony Express started and Jesse James ended.” As clever as that is, I think it limits how St. Joseph should be seen. Let’s put this in perspective. A mere 20 years after Joseph Robidoux founded the town as a fur-trading outpost in 1943 the town had grown by nearly 10,000. Every decade afterwards the population doubled until the early 20th century. This was the town where the quintessential American dream was alive and where thousands of people from the east congregated to take their last breath before they ventured into the unknown and untamed wild of the west.
The railroads of the nation at that time only went as far as St. Joseph. In order to continue communications with California, a 2,000-mile route on horseback, comprised of 80 riders and 100 stations was devised to deliver mail. Imagine the logistics of that endeavor. Isn’t that ingenuity the same substance that we always are told that America is infused with? St. Joe is not only about the Pony Express, it’s about people overcoming struggle and moving forward.
And the list goes on. St. Joseph is the home of Aunt Jemina pancake mix, saltine crackers, Big Chief Tablets and Cherry Mash. It was one of the earliest cities in the nation to have electric streetcars, electric telephone service, and 26-miles of a beautiful parkway system that people still run and ride bikes along to escape the stressful image of urban life.
The attraction to St. Joseph from as far away as Eastern Europe, made this town explode in the early 20th century as a major manufacturing center of the nation. This economic boom launched the creation of some of the most impressive pieces of architectural beauty found in the entire country. An impressive 17 historic districts include over 1700 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That’s precisely what attracted Jim Pallone and Jeff Keyasko to St. Joe from New York City after 2001. Jim and Jeff both had a successful career working in some of the nicest restaurants in New York where Jim managed and Jeff cooked. However they always wanted to own a Victorian-style house. When they came across St. Joe they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be in the middle of such an architecturally rich city. They are now proud owners of the JC Wyatt House, a pristinely restored Victorian home built in 1891, and have made it into a fine-dining by reservation experience ranked #1 on TripAdvisor.
“It’s an outdoor museum of Victorian architecture”, explained Jeff. “Very few places can you find a Queen Anne next to a Georgian, next to a Victorian. It really is an interesting place.”
“You look at things like the Missouri Theater. How many buildings like that are left in this country,” added Jim. He described discovering this town like “a diamond in the rough” seeing much potential in the reemerging historic district.
Jim and Jeff aren’t the only ones that have passion for the culture of St. Joe. Spend 10-minutes at Café Pony Espresso with a latte and you are bound to run into a local musician heading to practice or community members planning a First Saturday event where bands, artists, street performers and food vendors gather to show off downtown.
Local artist, coffee lover and owner of the organic food market, Goode Food-Delivered, Json Myers studied sculpting at Kansas City Institute of Art. He experienced first-hand the renaissance of the West Bottoms Business District in Kansas City, in the 1990’s. One of the reasons he is excited to be involved in the downtown community of St. Joe is because he sees the same passion here that he saw at the beginning phases of the KC cultural transformation.
It was another person’s passions for theater that inspired me to wander into the “A Streetcar Named Desire” audition with absolutely no experience. Lindsay Prawitz is the service manager for the Robidoux Resident Theater, which puts on a myriad of productions at not only the historic Missouri Theater, but also the Robidoux Landing Playhouse, a smaller dinner theatre venue. Lindsay, having graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a BFA in Theatre Acting and Directing, can’t help but have a charming smile when talking about theater and how the quality of local performance arts has increased in the past few years.
“The most beautiful thing about RRT and what we give to St. Joe, is something that without us, they wouldn’t have,” Lindsay says. “Live theater that their community can be a part of.”
“Instead of artists and productions being brought in from the outside, everything we do is in house.” Lindsay described how the local theater community has such strong camaraderie with everyone involved from beginning to end. She said that it isn’t so much about the performance, but the entire process that is constructed piece-by-piece and cumulates into the actual performance.
Walking up those stairs I felt like an outsider. Sitting in the rehearsal hall on those long wooden benches, surrounded by seasoned performers who took that audition stage with conviction, I felt like a stranger. However, when it was my turn to audition, I was utterly surprised by the welcoming reassurance they showed me. The “community” that Lindsay spoke clicked with me at that moment.
There was a reason all of these people smiled when describing St. Joseph. Whether they are from here, or moved here, they are all excited about what they do for the community. They are happy that people in the community are getting excited with them. They are excited because they feel they are at the beginning creating something special in St. Joseph. And they welcome you along for the ride.
Every step is a tender struggle. Every sensation centered on the uncomfortably naked feet boldly going where feet never thought to go. Most would not even think about braving a cold winter’s day without a coat, or taking an evening stroll around the block barefoot. So, naturally it would be ridiculous to take it one step farther, at a faster pace -- Ridiculous to everybody BUT Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. C. Nuntavong who for close to a year has been running with nothing between his own two feet and the ground but a thin layer of conditioned skin.
It’s called minimalist running or forefoot running, and it closely parallels the modest character of Nuntavong . The style relies on, uses, and more importantly trusts the natural design of the foot to do the work of running without the added padding that shoes are designed to provide. The logic of it is simple – when running directly on the balls of the feet, they absorb the shock of your running, rather than landing on the heels, when wearing running shoes translating that shock all the way up the legs.
“I prefer to run barefoot, completely without shoes, because I feel it’s healthier for my body,” Nuntavong said. He said he needed something new to take him away from the monotony of running; the kind of running that he has become all too familiar with during his 15 years in the Marine Corps.
Even before he joined the Marines he swam varsity all four years in high school, so when a friend joined the Navy, Nuntavong figured it would be a good fit for him. One evening after school he went to the Navy Recruitment office in Pacifica, Calif., but discovered an empty room. Disappointed, he turned to leave and ran into a Marine recruiter who asked, “Why do you want to join the Navy?” When Nuntavong answered, the recruiter said, “Marines do that too. We do it all.”
So began his long journey out of the water, and on the hard surface of the world, as a Marine and runner, one heel strike after another, left followed by right, stride after longer determined stride.
“Up in the morning with in the Maryland sun,
We run all day until the day is done,
We love to double time,
We do it all the time,
In San Diego he ran. In Yuma, Ariz., he ran. In Garden City, New York, Miramar, Calif., Iraq, Okinawa, Japan, Denver, and Washington, he also ran.
And today, he is running, on a track at Fort Meade. Nuntavong nonchalantly strips his shoes and socks from his feet and takes off running in a silent rhythm being barefoot can only bring. The track is still damp from last week’s snow, and just an hour earlier the sun peeked from the clouds for the first time in four days. The few other people running the quarter-mile loop steal quadruple-takes at the shoe-less athlete who passes them. He glides across the ground in short deliberate strides as if he was enjoying a soft run on a Florida beach.
The Thailand descendent is first generation American and stands at five feet, eight inches. He calmly composes himself with an unassuming confidence. He speaks in a relaxed manner and lets out a scent of humility, especially when talking about running.
“Running is a very individual sport, and it gives me time to think, or even not think. It kind of takes you to this mental plain where you can clear your thoughts,” he says. “I’ve never experienced, what’s called a ‘runners-high,’ but I do enjoy running.”
It shows. Now on his second pass around the track, he seems to find his stride and escapes from the chaos of life. In removing his shoes he has symbolically removed any pressures of responsibility he carries. He is a child with innocence and wonder, who can’t be contained by manufactured soles and laces.
At times it is hard to imagine that this calm, peaceful man is a Public Affairs chief in the Marine Corps who no doubt has encountered anything but calm situations. In August of 2009, he was part of the Social Media Team at Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington D.C., responsible for integrating the Corps into the world of social media.
He said it all started with a Twitter account and the question, “What do you think we can do with this Gunny?” From there and without any guidance from anybody, the team set out on the venture of liberating the Corps to the World Wide Web. Once the leadership realized that social media was a good way to communicate its mission to the masses, they expanded the strategies that Nuntavong helped plan.
“It was definitely hard,” Nuntavong said. “We had to work with different elements of the Marine Corps and work together.”
In May of 2010 the Public Relations Society of America asked the Marine Corps to be part of its Digital Impact Conference, along with Google and The New York Times.
It is the same ambition and discipline he displays in the Marines that led him to take on the unique endeavor of minimalist running.
His wife of ten years, Jennifer, a minimalist runner herself, introduced him to the style after he found himself in a “running slump.” He started by running three miles with shoes and added a half mile barefoot at the end. Every two weeks he would tact on another half mile.
He said, “The problem was I was running in the summer, and I was running on black top. It was like 120 degrees off the blacktop and my feet didn’t like that at all. So when you get moisture and heat together you get blisters.” He says he thinks there could have been a better time of year to start running, but he doesn’t regret the journey to his new found passion. “After two weeks your feet are fine. No more blisters.”
Depending on the weather Nuntavong runs as often as he can. The key of starting minimalist running is not to do too much, too fast, he says. “Bones, muscles, and tendons aren’t used to it. You didn’t learn to walk in one day; you can’t learn to run barefoot in just one day.”
After his second jaunt around the frigid track, he comes to a bouncing stop with a grin of refreshed relief on his face like someone who has just woke up from a power nap. He’s relaxed, at ease, but the glint in his eyes says at any moment he may spontaneously take off for a few more laps. His posture says he still craves the earth beneath his feet. He desires it. He needs it.
This past fall he competed in the New York City Barefoot Run and the Fort Belvoir Turkey Trot 10k. He says that in both races he could have keep running.
In any sport, pushing past physical and mental trials is part of the game, but for Nuntavong, the social struggle of running barefoot was the hardest part. He hears people whisper their judgments and sees their shocked looks as he speeds by. He says his wife has on an occasion been stopped and asked if she was in trouble. “I don’t have time to educate everybody who is out there. Hopefully they will get home, do some looking on the Internet and make a decision for themselves, whether or not barefoot running is good for them.”
It was his own research that led him to up-in-coming minimalist shoe company, Skora. According to its website, its mission is to, “Design footwear that encourages biomechanically correct performance with as little interference as possible.” Through its simple five-page site the message is clear - it isn’t shoes it’s trying to promote; it’s a healthy lifestyle.
For Nuntavong, the company sparked a marriage between his running and social networking passions. When he found on Twitter that Skora put out a request for a social media manager he jumped at the chance. This was right up his alley, and he was just the man they were looking for. So much so that CEO David Sypniewski personally called Nuntavong.
Moments like this have come throughout his life. Nuntavong has accepted challenge after challenge, and proven himself through his accomplishments and modest ambition. If history repeats itself, he will tackle any new future assignment with the same passion he has shown on and off the track.
Today’s welcomed rise in temperature is a mirror of Nuntavong’s post-run spirits. As he walks away from the track with his shoes and socks apathetically in his hands, he says just one thing with a smile on his face, “My feet are cold.”