VIFF 2013: Desert Runners 500
Marathons are old hat now. For those with extreme drive, the next step is ultramarathons which are longer and more demanding. To take it one step further, why not try desert ultramarathons in which competitors race 250 kilometers over seven days?
This is the world of Jennifer Steinman’s compelling and entertaining documentary. She follows four amateur runners who are attempting one of the most difficult feats in sport – to complete all legs of the 4 Deserts ultramarathon series in one calendar year. Her subjects are Dave, an Irishman in his fifties; Ricky, an American living in London who once played minor league baseball; Tremaine, a British alumni of the military elite Special Forces; and Samantha, a young Australian student.
The first desert is the gorgeous Atacama in Chile, the world’s driest desert and a landscape comparable to Mars. The race doesn’t pose too many problems for our runners although it is a little shocking when you realize that the last day’s racing is about eighty kilometers. Each competitor carries their own pack with the provisions they need and there are camps to rest in overnight. Spirits are high. Things change dramatically when the runners get to the Gobi Desert. The terrain is more extreme, the temperatures hotter, the wind fiercer. Ricky vomits constantly for hours of racing. Samantha stumbles hand in hand with a female runner she has befriended, both of them crying and delusional as they make their way to one of the check points. The last leg is around one hundred kilometers and seems to take more than a day, including racing in the dark, guided only by little pink ribbons. And other even more serious circumstances bring the race to a somber end. The intense heat of the Sahara decimates the ranks and punishes each runner in unexpected ways while the final leg in the ice of the Antarctic brings satisfaction for all.
Steinman offers some background information on her subjects and what makes them interesting. Samantha describes her privileged background as being her inspiration to get out into the world and really see who she can be. Tremaine is running for a wife lost to cancer. Ricky wants to prove that he can get back in shape. Dave wants to stay young in body and soul. However, the focus of the film is on the experience of the races. In an interview, Steinman said what intrigued her was not why people would compete in such a race but what made these particular competitors believe that success was possible, when others would see it as an impossible task. It is indeed an interesting question and one which deserves scrutiny.
A story of individuals caught up in an unusual and grueling task is my favourite kind of documentary and in Desert Runners it is executed to perfection. Watch the trailer on the official website.
Showtimes: Sep 26 4:45 pm at The Cinematheque, Oct 1 6:30 pm at the Vancouver Playhouse and Oct 3 4:00 pm at the Vancouver Playhouse.