Jason Suarez dreamt of going to the Olympics. He ran track in high school and college, but when he went to Tokyo in 2021, it wasn’t as a runner, but as a photographer. He shoots for major running brands, has published three collections of running photos and stories, and his handle, @notafraid2fail, is well-known in the running world. But as in demand as he is, Jason still takes time to give back to others.
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Jason was a multi-sport athlete growing up, even transferring high schools to play baseball. One day the head track coach approached him, and told him that he should try out for cross country. “I didn’t know what cross country was,” he recalls. “I literally thought we were running across the country.” They actually ran in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, where he and a teammate came in second to last. “But I had the most fun, and I kept showing up. Then we got into indoor season. That was my first time going to the Armory and that’s where I kind of fell in love with it. Going to a world class facility, as your first experience, you’re like, ‘’Oh, like, this is kind of cool.’”
The Armory may have been cool, but in 2002, the sport of running wasn’t. Jason found something special in the running community though. “We were here to compete, but the competition was just one part of it. You started making friends along the way because you would compete with them every single weekend. And it doesn’t turn into a traditional competition; it becomes like, ‘Let’s help each other get to the next level.’”
Jason and his friends had hoped to go to college together, but it didn’t work out that way. He made new friends though, and benefited from being exposed to different cultures. “I enjoyed my collegiate career, but once I got hurt, that’s where I was just like, ‘This isn’t as fun anymore.’ And you realize there’s a little bit of money on the line… But I wouldn’t change anything that I went through, because without all those lessons, I wouldn’t appreciate running as much as I do now.”
He shares his experiences at summer running camps. “I don’t want younger athletes to make the same mistakes or not know everything that can actually happen to you, because no one’s really telling you anything. They don’t tell you the realities of it. They don’t tell you if you get hurt they might take away your money. Or even when you’re in college, if you don’t really know what you’re doing, maybe don’t take an art class, maybe take a finance class. You know what I mean? Those are the things that I wish I was told, because in college their job is also to make sure that you graduate by a certain time, right?”
After graduating, Jason threw himself into pursuing his dream of going to the Olympics. “My entire career as a runner, as a photographer, was always to get to the Olympics. No matter how good or bad you are at running, your dream is to go to the Olympics, right? I knew as a runner, I couldn’t make it, but I used photography. Archery is the favorite example that I give. The bull’s eye is still the same. You can move a little bit to the left and a little bit to the right, just to adjust, but that bull’s eye is still the same. The bulls’ eye was going to the Olympics; it didn’t matter as a runner or whatever.”
In 2016 he watched the Rio Olympics not from the sidelines, but on TV, and was devastated not to be there in person. In retrospect, he says, it was arrogant of him to expect to be there at that stage of his career. “But I did channel that energy of being gutted and said, ‘Hey, remember this feeling because in the next four years, if you don’t do anything and if you’re still watching it at home, it’s on you. It’s not on anybody else but yourself.’
“It wasn’t easy. I would take jobs that were like $500, $600, just to continue building that portfolio. Shoots would go to 10 o’clock at night and then the photos had to be ready by seven o’clock in the morning. I remember editing through the night, falling asleep for like 10 minutes, edit another five photos, sleep for another 10, and then get ready to be at work at 6:30.
“I did that for two or three years and it all felt worth it. It all felt worth it because there was a bigger picture, there was something that I was working towards, and once Tokyo happened, it was like, ‘Holy crap, it finally happened.’ But I burnt myself out. Having the experience of being an Olympic photographer is great, is cool. But one of the things that you realize is, it’s not going to change your life. You go into it with this mentality of ‘I’m gonna get whatever projects I want to work on,’ and that’s not true.”
Having achieved his Olympic dream, Jason is working smarter, not harder, and finding fulfillment in highlighting the greater running community. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, he and his business partner reached out to their friends around the world and asked them what running in their cities looked like during lockdown. The result was Long Distance, a collection of stories and photographs. Now they’ve released BRXX: Bridge Runners, a look back on the 20-year history of the first run crew, New York City’s Bridge Runners.
“It was something really, really special that I really wanted to work on because if it wasn’t for this running community, this global running community, I wouldn’t have the career that I have. And highlighting the one crew that started it all, and that’s from New York,I felt like it was one of the ways I can give back to the community that gave me so much. Telling that origin story of Mike Saes, who has no real running background, other than running away because he was doing graffiti, and things like that. It just spoke to me so much because running doesn’t have to be for the top tier, anyone can be a runner, right?
“It just takes a little self-search in order for you to realize, ‘Oh, everybody can do this.’ And it’s a beautiful thing that someone of color can bring white, black, brown and all these different races together, just to be healthy.”
Even with all of his success, Jason says, “There are certain months where I’m just like, ‘I haven’t worked in 45 days, and how am I gonna pay rent and stuff like that?’ Things are not, whatever they say, rainbows and butterflies. There are certain struggles here and there, but whatever guardian angels are looking out for me, it’s never gotten to the point where I’m like, ‘Oh I’m in trouble.’ But what I do tell myself when things start getting a little rough is, ‘Do I really want to be in an office working for someone else’s dreams? Do I wanna work for my dreams and my goals or do I wanna make it easier for someone else?”
He’s also come to realize that while he may not have achieved all of his material goals yet, he’s been accumulating something much more valuable. “You can’t take the money with you to your grave, but you can take those experiences with you. I think as you start getting a little older, you focus more on the experiences in life with the people that you care about. And the simple fact that I can say I’ve been trackside at the Olympics or at gymnastics or at the final gold medal match for a soccer game, a football game, I can say that, you know what I mean? And I have that feeling of being giddy and like a little kid, and at 30-something years old, still feeling like a little child sometimes is really, really, really, really cool.”
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