3/100 — I'm currently obsessed with ... movies about running

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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:

1) Nature.

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

Hot, Hotter, Oberelbe Half Marathon

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I can’t believe it’s only been a bit over a year since I started running. It was in March 2017 when my coworker showed me the route of a half marathon he was thinking of doing. It was in Winchester, a city I’d long heard of as being beautiful, and the course looked so green and lovely. This is my chance, I thought, and signed up. For years I’d been trying to start running, gotten injured a few weeks later, and given up again. This would force me to train properly, and actually get into running.

And it did. Winchester was beautiful, a beautiful hell of hills, with great weather and a sense of accomplishment that’s hard to replicate. (I’ve also never felt so entitled to a roast dinner before.)

So in December, I signed up for another one. This one in my hometown of Dresden, Germany. I was going to take my stepdad with me.

The Oberelbe Half Marathon at the end of April runs over the second half of the Oberelbe Marathon, which starts in the mountains of the Saxon Switzerland and follows the river into Dresden’s historical city centre. It’s a damn pretty course, and doing even half of it seemed like the thing to do in April, if it would keep me running through the winter months.

Reader, it did not keep me running through the winter months.

Well, it did, but not nearly with the same kind of motivation I’d had before my first race. I had no time to do the yoga that had served as my cross training last year. The weather was miserable, and so was I. I battled colds, aching feet and hips and mostly, my own laziness.

But hey, this was a completely flat course! I train on hills! This should be easy, right?

Reader, it was not easy.

As race day started to appear on the weather forecasts, it changed every time I checked. From a rainy 17 degrees it went to sunny intervals at 19, and then changed to a sunny 26. It did not change after that.

I’d trained in winter. I’d trained in rain and ice. I had literally tip-toed my way over icy sidewalks and slipped in puddles. Also, I cannot with heat. I’m not made for it. My body crumbles in the heat. If I’m ever out in the hot sun, I start walking faster just to get into the shade, and then sit there contemplating my life and my choices not to have moved to Norway.

Still, on Sunday 29th April, 2018 at 9.50am, we ran. The first 5k were a lovely breeze mostly under trees, and I went past the first water station taking a dainty sip and nothing else. At 6km, I regretted it. By then the sun was upon us. My legs felt heavy. My head was too hot. People around me were wheezing already.

After this, each time I got hold of a cup of water, I threw it at my head and back until my top was soaked and I started to worry about drowning my timing chip. And still, I felt okay about things. The distance markers along the route were counting down the kilometres left, and they made me feel like this was possible. 8km left? Pfft. I can do 8km! No problem.

And then came the green.

There are stretches by the river that are just green. All the buildings are on the opposite bank, as are the trees. This goes on for miles. No music. No water. Almost no spectators. In the heat.

Thank heavens I had a water bottle with me so I could sprinkle some drops on my face every now and then, but this was the Big Test. These are the moments when our human strength is tested, we face our limits, our demons. This is where heroes are made.

I am not a hero. I walked.

Over the final 5km I walked repeatedly, arguing with myself that it’s inefficient to run when it takes so much more energy than walking, at barely increased speed! What madness, what foolishness to attempt running when walking is perfectly fine. So I walked, and sometimes I jogged again only for my heart to begin stuttering, and walked again. As I said, I’m not made for heat.

Happier times, at around 9km

Happier times, at around 9km

I finished at 2 hours and 28 minutes, which I’m not happy about admitting, but here we are. I didn’t get heatstroke, and I didn’t pass out. That in itself is something. I finished a thing. I don’t do that often enough.

Despite what my Nike app guided audio runs say, I don’t consider myself an athlete. I don’t feed myself properly, I don’t cross train properly, and mostly I’m still wearing my 5-year old H&M gear (which is surprisingly good quality). I don’t think any of my times are worth writing home about.

But I run 3 times a week, and I can make it through 21km in the heat without collapsing. Running, if nothing else, has taught me that sticking with something will get you results, and if it doesn’t necessarily make me faster, I know it makes me stronger.