Five Movies About Running
There’s a natural progression to human movement. We learn to crawl, then we walk, then we run. And whether we realize it or not, running is usually the first type of athletic competition we participate in. Before we learn anything about “sports,” we’ll race a sibling to the car, or race a friend to the end of the block or the other side of the playground.
We run when we’re young because it feels like the right thing to do. Unfortunately, as most people grow up they start to dislike (or hate) running. I suspect there are a lot of reasons why, but most are probably unrelated to the act of running itself. Maybe it’s a sports or PE coach who treats running as a punishment. Perhaps it’s someone making fun of how we look when we run, or friends convincing us that running isn’t cool. Or maybe we don’t like coming in last (or any place other than first) when we run against other people.
That’s too bad.
Steve Prefontaine never won an Olympic medal, and never won a major road race. But with the success he had in high school and college and, more importantly, the WAY he ran, he helped bring about the 1970’s running boom. And his aggressive racing style made him a hero and inspiration to countless runners since he died in 1975.
The two films are different enough that it’s easy for someone to choose their favorite. Without Limits focuses on Prefontaine the man, and his relationship with his coach, while Prefontaine give more screen time to Pre as an advocate for improving the rights of amateur athletes. I enjoyed Without Limits more than Prefontaine, but it wouldn’t be a waste of time to watch both.
What comes to mind when you think of high school cross country? A bunch of skinny geeky kids who aren’t athletic enough to play football or basketball? Maybe on some level that’s true; in fact, Steve Prefontaine unsuccessfully tried his hand at other sports before he discovered that he could succeed at running. They might not play football, but cross-country runners can also be some of the toughest prep athletes out there.
In McFarland, USA, a disgraced football coach is forced to uproot his family to take a new job at McFarland High School in California farm country. He discovers that some of the students are exceptional runners, so he tries to start a cross-country team.
But getting the team together is a challenge, because the students work before and after school, helping their farm laborer families. Eventually the team comes together, and as the runners start having success they begin to rethink the kinds of lives they can live as adults.
McFarland, USA suffers a bit from the “white savior” trope, and it conforms many standard sports underdog standards, but it’s still a great running movie for one reason; Niki Caro, the writer and director of Whale Rider (one of the most surprising movies of the 2000’s). Taking some artistic liberties with the true story of the McFarland runners, she brings genuine emotion and depth to each of the characters. Even though there’s not much new in their stories, you still care about their journey and cheer for them when they succeed.
Saint Ralph (2004) is another movie about a high school runner, with Ralph a ninth grader who sets out to win the 1954 Boston Marathon. He hopes that a victory would be just kind of miracle that would jolt his mother out of her coma. As you might expect, Saint Ralph is all about ticking off the list of cliches, and seems to hit them all — including a training montage, and a building slow-clap at the end. Go watch McFarland, U.S.A. instead.
Michael Andropolis (Michael Douglas) has a bit of a problem when it comes to seeing things through. He dropped out of medical school, dropped out of law school, has a number of failed businesses behind him, and is putting off the divorce his estranged wife is asking for. As a competitive marathoner he literally failed to show up at the Pan Am games, paralyzed with a bad case of nerves and self-doubt. With everything around him falling apart, he decides to give racing one more try, and sets off to qualify for and then run in the Olympics.
Like other movies released around the height of the 1970’s running boom (including the Susan Anton star-making vehicle Goldengirl (1979) and the justifiably obscure Second Wind (1976)), Running is not a particularly good film. The racing scenes are stilted, and the script is on par with a second rate made-for-TV movie. There really hasn’t been a good “running as a cure for bad decisions or a mid-life crisis” movie; Second Wind is flat, Run, Fatboy, Run (2007) is unoriginal, and On the Edge (1986) has been edited down to a one dimensional story.
On the Edge WAS a decent running movie about Wes Holman a middle-aged runner (played by Bruce Dern) looking for something significant in a fictionalized version of the Dipsea trail race. Unfortunately, if you can find a copy of it these days, it’s likely the pared down version that completely removes a romantic subplot between Wes and Cora (played by Pam Grier). According to the American Film Institute, “Articles in the 16 Jun 1985 LAT and 23 Apr 1986 Var reported that actress Pam Grier’s role as Dern’s lover was cut from the film. Grier claimed it was done at her request, but (Rob) Nilsson (the Director) noted that after feedback from test screenings, he eliminated the romantic subplot so as not to detract from the story action.”]
Unfortunately, those edits make Wes a heck of a lot less interesting. On the Edge might be worth watching for the impressive and inspring race scenes, but Running is the unspectacular winner of the “Old Guy has one last shot at Running Glory” genre.
Over the past 60+ years, the United States has had minimal success in Olympic running distance events, particularly when it comes to gold medals. On the men’s side, the U.S. has won one gold in the 1,500 meters, none in the steeplechase, one in the 5,000, one in the 10,000, and one in the marathon. On the women’s side (which has only held the 1,500 since 1972, the steeplechase since 2008, the 5,000 since 1996, the 10,000 since 1988, and the marathon since 1984), only Joan Benoit’s inaugural marathon performance won the gold.
Perhaps the most impressive of those gold medal performances is Billy Mills’ 10,000 meter win. Though an accomplished collegiate runner at the University of Kansas, Mills wasn’t on anyone’s radar going into the 1964 Olympics. Running Brave focuses on Mills’ time at KU, and all the doubt and bigotry he had to endure as a Sioux in late-1950’s middle America — even from his own teammates. Despite all the hate he faced, Mills chose to serve in the Marines, and ran for his country in Tokyo.
Mill’s kick to the finish of the 10,000 meter final is legendary, and, quite frankly, it’s the payoff of the film. This isn’t a drama to enjoy because you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to see what happens next. It’s something to enjoy because you want to feel good when you get to the ending that you already know.
I don’t like to include documentaries in my lists, but in the case of Unbreakable: The Western States 100, the story and the drama surrounding the 2012 edition of the Western States Endurance Run is better than the other movies on the list. As an added bonus, rather than watch runners race around a 400 meter track, we’re treated to 100 miles of footage shot in the Sierra Nevada range of California.
Unbreakable follows four top ultramarathon runners as they come together to compete at one of the premier races in the sport. There’s a genuine tension in watching and waiting for the outcome — because the story actually happened. And if the idea of running 100 miles on those trails doesn’t seem crazy enough, then check out The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (2014).