Friday, June 27, 2014

Running Films - Volume 2

As previously promised, here is the second part of my blog dedicated to running films just in time before June is up and our local running community ends its 2nd annual #30daysofrunning movement. Depending on how long I ramble on in this entry, I may sneak in two quick bonus reviews at the end, so here goes nothing.

First off I am covering Unbreakable: The Western States 100 (trailer). It is the first running film I have watched that covers an ultramarathon, with the 2010 Western States 100 mile race being the featured event. It highlights four of the top ranked elite runners coming into this race. This is also a trail running event, and adds a whole new dynamic to your average marathon race. Last year, I competed in a 'run as many 10k laps in 12 hours' race on a local state park trail running course, and I had to throw in the towel after four laps, which was close to 25 miles. So to see these runners do quadruple that distance over all kinds of brutal trail running terrain made it the intense watch.

I thought this was wonderfully shot, as the first act introduces you to the runners, gets you to know them and meeting up with each other the day before the race and get you into their mindset with their gameplan and what one has to do mentally and physically to prepare for this beast of a run. About a half hour in the race starts and it jumps from checkpoint to checkpoint, and four times in it breaks from the race coverage with another in depth look at one of the four featured racers as it profiles their running career and personal life. There is also a consistent check in with the race founder, Gordy Ainsleigh every few chapters who has many words of wisdom to share on his first time attempting the run.

Besides doing a tremendous job profiling all four featured runners, I think the overall race coverage was put together quite nicely. The crew constantly checks in with each runner's crew for frequent updates and how each competitor is holding up to get me really feeling for each and every runner. Things get especially intense when the competition really lights up in the final 20 miles, and my hat is off to the filmmakers for keeping me on my toes and cramming all this in under two hours. After some thought after watching this a few days ago, this gets my nod as my favorite of the six documentaries I am covering this month.

Next up is the sequel I was highly anticipating with Spirit of the Marathon II (trailer). This one focuses on several runners journey to the 2012 Rome Marathon. Like its predecessor, it highlights both one elite male and female runner, and several everyday runners on top of that. This one is paced a little differently than before. Instead of gradually starting on the near yearlong training and building up to the race in the last act, it has the race start off right at the beginning, and similar to Unbreakable, profiles each runner throughout the race and dives into their background and what lead them into running the marathon. Also like last time, it sprinkles in minor factoids about the history of the marathon in Rome and other pivotal moments of the sport throughout the film which I dug and provided a nice way to mix up the coverage.

Each runner has their unique story to tell, I was probably captivated the most by the pair of local Italian pizzeria owners and their love for the sport. Also you cannot help but feel for the runner who was running 52 marathons in 52 weeks for fundraising Pancreatic Cancer awareness. The first Spirit of the Marathon had the happy ending where both of their male and female elite runners they profile had podium finishes, and while both finish strong here, it is not quite a podium for either. I can appreciate the different approach the sequel takes pacing the structure of the film around a bit as it feels it gives equal attention to each runner's story this time around, both on and off the course. It also has another great orchestral score accompanying the feature and just under a half hour of bonus features with deleted scenes, bonus interviews and a mini short film highlighting runners fundraising for clean water in Africa.

Bonus coverage time. In the last couple of months I rented a couple movies from Netflix that circled around running. Not documentaries mind you, but actual films. The first I discovered in a recent interview with Bruce Dern in an issue of Runner's World. He was promoting his recent film Nebraska, and when going into his history of running they referenced the movie he did about running a marathon mountain trail race in 1986 called On the Edge (trailer). Bruce Dern plays Wes Holman, who is banned from running competition for speaking out against the ruling board 20 years earlier. Now he stealthily makes his return to racing, dodging officials and family and friends urging him to avoid the local acclaimed mountain race.

Dern admits in the interview the film was not a smash hit, and I can see why. Maybe it is watching it for the first time nearly 30 years after its initial release, but parts of it just do not hold up well. The way the story bounces around all over the place make it a little hard to follow the big picture on how he got barred from the sport and the internal struggles he is trying to overcome. I did enjoy the main race coverage at the end of the film for what it is worth, as fellow runners and spectators rally around Holman and interfere with race officials trying to pull him out of the race. A strong final act helps redeem a bouncy initial two acts.

Billy Crudup stars as Oregon racing legend Steve Prefountaine in this 1998 biopic, Without Limits (trailer). It starts off with various universities vying for his affection before he settles on the University of Oregon where he gets the wise tutelage of Coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland). The feature covers his short, but illustrious career by setting many local records and key victories to his ultimate showdown in the Munich Olympics. Prefountaine had a huge impact on the sport in America, especially in the midst of the running boom in the 1970s, and Without Limits perfectly encapsulates that here. This is shot and paced far better than On the Edge, and worth going well out of your way to check out. Unfortunately none of these films are available on Netflix streaming as of yet, but most do have the disc available for rent if you have that option.

That does it for my #30daysofrunning coverage for running movies. Hopefully I helped persuade you to check out one or two of the eight I spotlighted here. As far as a top three would go, I would have to go with Unbreakable first, then the first Spirit of the Marathon before winding down with Without Limits. I am always trying to look out for other running movies too, so if you have any to point in my direction tweet me @Gruel or email to

Other Random Backlog Movie Blogs

21 Jump Street
Bounty Hunters
Captain America: The First Avenger
Field of Dreams
The Fighter
Running Films Part 1
Veronica Mars

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