What to watch: Cinematic inspiration during your taper

Ending at the beginning – this is a long post! I’ve been working on it for a few weeks now.

When I’m in the taper period before a goal race, I like to combine my love of running with my love of cinema. Since I’m not supposed to run as much, I sublimate that into watching others run. I find it motivational, even if the particular movie doesn’t have a runner’s happy ending. So, I like to watch at least one running movie in the weeks or days before a goal race.

So, in no particular order, here are several movies that have running as their central focus. I’ve also tossed in a few that aren’t primarily about running, but feature it as a key plot element. Sorry, my quick takes on each may contain a spoiler or two, but these are mostly true stories anyway. I include my personal Netflix rating (I know, they are mostly positive, but hey, I like running movies!) If you have other favorites I haven’t seen or remembered to include here – please chime in with a comment!

Another tip: the “real thing” is often available on YouTube. A favorite is the “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” call – every bit as thrilling as “Do you believe in miracles!”

Chariots of Fire – A mostly true story focusing on British and American runners at the 1924 Olympics. Fantastic acting. Great story. Epic theme from Vangelis. Don’t miss: the Trinity Great Court Run – circumnavigating the courtyard during the twelve strikes of the clock. Who needs stopwatches? 4/5 stars.

Spirit of the Marathon – This documentary is about the 2005 Chicago Marathon. Six runners are profiled – including both elites (Deena Castor, e.g.) and mortals chasing both BQs and the finish line. Tons of great input from a who’s who of marathoners: Beardsley, Radcliffe, Rodgers, Salazar, Shorter, Waitz. 4/5 stars.

Without Limits – The better “Pre” movie, in my opinion. Both are good, but on balance WL has the better cast with Donald Sutherland as Bowerman of Oregon/Nike fame. Another reason I prefer this version is its focus on Munich ’72 and the Frank Shorter character. 4/5 stars.

Prefontaine – The earlier of the two Pre movies. If you don’t know who “Pre” (Steve Prefontaine) is, check these two out. Is there anything more tragic than unrealized potential? Dream race: Pre was a front-runner. Billy Mills liked to come from behind. Wouldn’t you like to see that 10,000m? 3/5 stars.

Running Brave – In case you didn’t get that Billy Mills reference, 8 years before Pre, Billy Mills came out of nowhere to win the 10,000m at the Tokyo Olympics. Robby Benson plays the lead. The movie is more superficial than it might have been, but does touch on some of the prejudice and cultural conflict Mills rose above. Local flavor: Mills attended Haskell and graduated from KU where he starred. 4/5 stars.

Running on the Sun – Before there was Karnazes or Jurek or big-time corporate sponsorship, there was this documentary about the Badwater Ultramarathon. As if the setting (Death Valley) and elevation gain (partway up Mt. Whitney) wasn’t bad enough, it’s not a 50M or 100M Ultra. Try 135M. Fascinating. It’s almost terrifying to watch the participants attempt this. 4/5 stars.

Run for Your Life – This documentary chronicles the birth of the NYC Marathon primarily through the eyes of its “parent” – Fred Lebow. The NYC marathon is exactly as old as I am – I’d love to run it some day. The film pays homage to the early “stars” of this race, especially and deservedly Grete Waitz. A consummate marketer, Lebow was one of the first to see a race as a social event – even a party. Runners will especially enjoy the telling of Lebow squeezing in one last run on New Year’s Eve in order to hit a mileage goal while his date waits, and waits… 3/5 stars.

Ultramarathon Man – This list is getting into a documentary rut. Here, Dean Karnazes runs 50 marathons in 50 days. Whew. You come to the film expecting perhaps a “look at me!” extravaganza, and some of that is certainly unavoidable. However, the way in which Dean engages other runners, his enthusiasm for his sport, and the way in which the filmmakers focus on the unique individuals that Dean meets during his quest mitigates this somewhat. There are a couple of ways to watch the film. Stat junkies can pause after each state – but this seriously interrupts the flow of the film. P.S. – There is an excellent demonstration of why you should always look in the direction you are running! 3/5 stars.

Marathon Man – This feature thriller isn’t really about running, but Dustin Hoffman’s marathon training is a central plot element. Squirm alert: two words – “Nazi dentist.” It takes Laurence Olivier to pull that off. 3/5 stars.

Forrest Gump – Run Forrest, run! From the braces-shedding plantation sprint to the ‘Bama backfield to cross-country ultrarunner, running is woven through the plot of this modern classic. 4/5 stars.

Running the Sahara – This is what could have gone horribly wrong with Ultramarathon Man. It follows three men in a quest to run across the Sahara desert. I can imagine how frustrating it must be as a documentary filmmaker to have an opportunity to follow what promises to be a compelling feat of human endurance and cultural interaction, only to have your film dominated by an egomaniac. Sigh. 2/5 stars.

Marathon – This film is based on the true story of Bae Hyeong-jin, an autistic Korean young adult who wants to run a marathon – or does his mother want him to? Other interesting elements: his goal pace is sub-3 hours, and his coach is a former Boston marathon champion who hasn’t run in a decade and sits around eating junk food and smoking cigarettes during their early training sessions. Moreover, he’s only coaching him to fulfill court-ordered community service for a DUI conviction. The only Korean Boston champion in the last 50 years was Lee Bong-Ju (2001), but he doesn’t match up with the timing of the real life character since he was at his peak at the time the real life events of the film were occurring. Thus, it is probably just an interesting embellishment, but a curious one to make in a Korean film that came out just 4 years after Lee triumphed at Boston. I think I am fixated on Lee since he is exactly 2 months younger than me! That tangent aside, the film weaves family dynamics, athletic achievement, and the disability of autism together brilliantly. It manages to be touching without becoming overly syrupy or mocking. 5/5 stars.

Updated 7/16/13:

Saint Ralph – I reviewed this recently in its own post:


Updated 3/21/14:

On the Edge – This has its own post too:


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