Training on Top of the World

Close-up photograph of Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee in training gear outdoors

If a photographer shoots in Monaco one week and St. Moritz the next, one would be forgiven for assuming that they are there to photograph the Lamborghini set (if not jet set). The ski resort town of St. Moritz in Switzerland is known to be a favourite winter playground for the rich and famous. As such, it has something in common with Monaco; albeit with less oxygen, colder temperatures and fewer restrictions for photographers (Monaco photographer permits – read this blog post for more). However, I was there in summer and although the subjects of this St. Moritz portrait assignment are well-known in their sphere, champion triathletes Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee are true-blue Yorkshiremen, known for a particular brand of down-to-earth Britishness and understatement that make the polar opposite of the jet set mindset.

Swiss weather-forecasting

The road from Nice that led up to the high altitude mountain retreat where the brothers Alistair and Jonny were having their annual summer training camp was long and winding. My assistant and I left the South of France and drove through Northern Italy just as a heatwave was melting tarmac on the pavements there, yet on arriving at our Swiss B&B chalet the night before the shoot, we needed to unpack warm fleeces and raincoats pronto.

The next morning, la météo [forecast] was predicting all-day rain and, as we waited for the lads to finish training at lunchtime, I obsessively cloud-watched as dark mist swirled around the mountain peaks. Our Swiss host, however, stuck his nose out of the chalet and briefly scrutinised the mountains. “It will rain at 4.30 this afternoon” he stated, with such a quiet certainty that I wondered whether the Swiss reputation for timekeeping might be about more than just mechanical precision.


Triathletes Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee on a cross country training run by a lake near St Moritz

Rainclouds gathering as predicted

Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee took the London Olympics by storm last year, winning gold and bronze medals respectively and becoming household names overnight. The subsequent level of press interest in their lives has been at times a difficult adjustment for the brothers. Alec, their manager and my point of contact, wasn’t enormously forthcoming prior to the shoot. However, we did a recce together in the morning, and when I mentioned my friendship and work with world champion Ironman Chrissie Wellington (read my blog post about Chrissie here), the atmosphere immediately changed. As we traipsed up and down mountain paths, through anthills and nettles, he confided that “so often photographers just don’t care about the athletes and what they have to do.

The price of meat

Jonny’s the more serious of the two; Al likes to switch off from triathlon regularly to do other stuff like have a pint and a laugh with mates“. While each brother has their own personality, the Brownlees nonetheless both have their feet firmly on the ground. Inconspicuous, apparently not liking attention or flashy spending, they were an incongruous team in St Moritz. “Don’t worry, this isn’t actually our car” said Alec, as their shiny new BMW estate pulled up next to my less shiny Nissan Micra. “St Moritz is such a weird place. Ludicrously expensive. We do a big meat run over the border in Italy on the other side of those mountains at the start of the training camp – supermarkets there are so much cheaper“.

Uphill, downhill, races and drills

During the shoot, the brothers were patient and willing, additionally volunteering to carry equipment up and down the mountain paths. Without complaint, they did all the mini bursts of uphill, flat, downhill, off-road, on-road and track running that I asked of them, in addition to the portraits, in order to fulfil the (lengthy) brief prepared by my client, a leading UK triathlon magazine. Alistair has most often crossed the finishing line before Jonny, but not always, and I suspected some pragmatism on the editor’s side, requesting that many shots be repeated, one with Jonny in front, one Alistair.

All of this must have been most unwelcome on their lunch-break after a full morning’s training. Alistair and Jonny do between 6 and 7 hours training a day, which might consist of a 3.5 hour bike ride, a hefty swim and not one run, but two, morning and evening. Small in stature and lithe, they looked thoroughly in their element in the forests and mountains though, springing easily along the off-road tracks where they choose to do the majority of their run training. We had to finish with series of technical exercise drills back in St. Moritz on the outdoor running track, and doing these slow, specific exercises on an artificial surface with other people training alongside or just watching, there was a definite dulling of the spark in their eyes.

As they walked away, back to their apartment, I noticed that the sky had suddenly become dark. A breeze whipped my reflector out of my hand, trailing the scent of rain. I glanced at my watch – it was 4.15pm…

Jonathan (left) and Alistair Brownlee, brothers and British triathletes, laugh with their coach during an off-road training session

A presumably rare moment sitting down

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