Ultra screen break
In which I watch lots of films about running ...
I’ve been watching a lot of running films recently. A bit like running books, I’ve found that most of them, no matter how badly they’re made, end up becoming gripping, as the narrative builds to the final race or effort and you begin to wonder, will he or won’t he, or who will win, or how will they do after all the preparations, all the hopes, all the build up?
I guess all sport has this element of an unknown outcome, which is partly what drives the drama and makes sport in general such a fascinating and compelling thing to follow. But in running it’s so beautifully simple, and the effort of the competitors is so pure and genuine (usually). Take Adrian in the film Chasing Pounamu, for example, a back-of-the-pack runner in his 50s striving to complete a 100-mile race in New Zealand. The film follows him as he makes his second attempt at the race, having failed to make the cut-off times the year before.
The drama builds as he struggles along, just about sneaking in at each check-point a few minutes ahead of the cut-offs. His daughters and his wife are out on the course at every turn, doing everything they can to help him. He isn’t running for charity, or in memory of anyone, and at one point he admits that in some ways the whole endeavour is a selfish act. His wife thinks he’s mad and, at least initially, doesn’t seem particularly happy that he’s doing it.
But as the race wears on and the emotions get ratcheted up and up, as they always seem to in any 100-mile race, the whole family pulls together, working to help Dad find meaning in his life, helping him to do something for himself for once. When such an honest, kind man, who has given his life to looking after other people, to always doing what was expected of him, suddenly gets up and decides to do something as selfish as run 100 miles, well, there’s something almost poetic about that.
Next up on my watchlist was a cult classic of the running film genre, a film about the Western States 100 called Unbreakable. It features a fresh-faced and relatively unknown Kilian Jornet and ultra legend Anton Krupicka going head-to-head, along with two other as-yet undefeated ultra runners Geoff Roes and the two-time defending champion Hal Koerner.
The Western States 100 is one of the most prestigious and oldest ultras in the world, and the film is based around these four “big guns” going head to head. That’s the set up, but what drags you in, and makes the film so fascinating, is their contrasting personalities, from the long-haired Krupicka, who runs the entire race without his top on, and pairs back the soles of his shoes with a knife to make them as minimal as possible, to Jornet, who is shy, Spanish and clearly incredibly talented, to Roes, the nervous, self-deprecating Alaskan a long way from home, to the local favourite, Koerner, who is all smiles, but who underneath seems to know he doesn’t stand a chance against these other guys.
Most ultra running films these days are short - usually under 30 minutes - to cater for the online viewing world, but, made over 10 years ago, Unbreakable is 1 hr 45 mins, and so it gives the drama of such a long race the time it needs to fully play out. The race ebbs and flows, as does the condition of the runners, the landscape, the time of day, with the emotions bubbling away the whole time, and as a viewer you find yourself rooting for all four of them in one way or another. The sheer intensity of four men racing hard over 100 miles is enthralling, while the sportsmanship and the good humour in which they do it is a joy to behold.
Both films are lucky to get a nail-biting climax, which helps, but there is just something so raw about ultra running that pulls at the heartstrings, and makes you want to get out and run.
So if you’re ever struggling for motivation, I would recommend either of these films to help rekindle that urge to hit the trails. And while I’m here, a few of my other favourite running films are:
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young - a film about a race so tough that in its 35-year history only 15 people have ever finished it.
Gun Runners - A film about a project in Kenya to get gang members to swap their guns for running shoes, with some intriguing results.
Mt Marathon - A short, little film from Salomon that captures this eccentric race in Alaska beautifully, with yet another cameo from the imperious Kilian Jornet.
What other films about running do I need to watch, or would you recommend? What are your favourites?