It started a few years ago with a Netflix recommendation that I decided to watch: The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a fascinating 2014 documentary about one of the hardest races in the world – an ultra marathon in Tennessee that spans five 20-mile (or so) loops through Frozen Head State Park, with a 16,500m accumulated elevation gain, no aid stations, and a 60-hour time frame. So far, only 15 men have finished it. I’ve seen this film a few times now, but for some time, that was all.
My interest in movies about people doing extreme things in extreme conditions was renewed earlier this year at the cinema, with this year’s documentary Oscar winner Free Solo. I went home and, over the next week, watched the makers’ previous movie Meru (2015), and from there worked my way through every documentary on free climbing and alpine climbing I could find on Netflix and Amazon and that looked worth renting (hint: there aren’t enough). By now, Youtube’s algorithm has picked up my interest, and my recommendations feature more and more running vlogs, running tips and running motivation videos.
Sports documentaries (or movies) aren’t usually my thing (unless we’re talking about the Netflix doc Losers, which you should go and see right now if you want to be told some capital-S Stories). So what is it about long distance running and climbing that glues me to a screen and makes me hit play again and again?
I think there are 3 aspects to it:
I love the woods, and I love mountains. I don’t live near either, and so deep down, there’s an empty little space inside me that wants to be filled with the smell of wet leaves and the sensation of rocky, uneven ground under my feet. Movies about walking and hiking actually make me sad for that very reason, and I’m not ready to face that reality. By watching people take our shared love for the outdoors to their own extremes, I get my vicarious fix of scenery and wilderness without having to feel jealous. I’m not going to run an ultra anytime soon, and I will probably never climb Everest, so there is no danger of me feeling bad about the view you get from Everest.
2) Humans, the most fascinating of all beings*
The Badwater 135 is a 135-mile race that leads from the lowest elevation in North America to its highest, starting in Death Valley and finishing on top of Mt. Whitney. In July, with temperatures going over 50°C. The 6633 Arctic Ultra takes its participants hundreds of miles, well north of the Arctic Circle. A portaledge is a tent that hangs off the side of a mountain. THIS GUY. People do all of these things not for competition, but because they can and they want to. Humans are nuts, and I can’t stop watching them.
3) Plain old fitspo (with a hint of existentialism)
I’m currently training for my third half-marathon and forever teetering on the edge of injury. I’m only a month in and my legs hate me, so I’m having to do an unacceptable amount (read: more than none) of stretching, foam rolling and strength training to make sure I don’t get hurt. I hate doing all of these things. But watching Karl Meltzer try to set a record on the Appalachian Trail while I’m on the living room floor, cursing my calves over a black roll, reminds me why I love running. It reminds me what our bodies and minds are capable of, and most of all it reminds me that my sacrifices are nothing in comparison to theirs. And before I know it, my laziness is gone. I know I will only ever achieve the smallest fraction of what so many other people are able to push themselves to, but I too will do the best I can.
And before I finish today’s blog post, here is the movie that got me into this genre on Youtube: Where Dreams Go To Die, about the 2016/17 Barkley Marathons. It’s brilliantly done, and if this story doesn’t get you, I don’t know what will.
* I find bees super impressive as well, but I have a slight bias in favour of my own species
** The video running on my laptop in the photo above is THE SQUAMISH 50/50 | A Ginger Runner Film