Educated Guesswork

So you want to watch people run

I'll be the first to admit it, running is boring, especially when it's ultramarathons. What's more interesting, however, especially if you're a runner, and maybe if you're not, is watching really good people run. Thanks in part to GoPros and YouTube, there's now an enormous amount of relatively high quality running film, ranging from just condensed race footage to well-produced quasi-documentaries. The pleasure here is mostly just watching amazing athletes doing their thing, but filmmakers have sort of figured out how to capture the cool bits and filter out the 5-15 hours of people just covering mile after mile. Most of the stuff below is trail running which seems to translate better, but there still is some great road running footage.[1]

Warning: there are some spoilers here. Some of the fun is watching the race for yourself, in which case, well, skip over the rest.

Unbreakable (YouTube) #

Probably the best overall trail running film, documenting the 2010 Western States 100, by far the most prestigious American ultra. That year had an incredibly stacked men's field and Unbreakable focuses on the top four contenders, returning champion Hal Koerner, Anton Krupicka, Geoff Roes, and a 22 year old Killian Jornet before he became such a dominant figure in ultrarunning. Unbreakable really sets the template for future ultra films, intercutting background on the four, the history of Western States (feel free to skip over the parts with Gordy Ainsleigh[2]), footage of the race itself, and post-race interviews with the athletes.

Unbreakable is really a great example of how ultras are different from shorter races. About halfway through Roes starts to fade in the heat, Jornet and Krupicka taking the lead (Koerner had fallen back earlier and eventually dropped out with an injury). Jornet and Krupicka eventually put almost 20 minutes on Roes. Jornet fades badly at mile 20, leaving only Krupicka and Roes, with Roes eventually running Krupicka down around mile 90 and going on to finish in course record time. This is something you don't see a lot in a road race, where it's much less common to recover from a bad patch. I think part of it is just that over a longer event anything can happen, but also the greater variety in terrain and pace leaves a lot more room to recover from a bad position -- or to fall apart.

Don't miss: Killian just tearing past Krupicka on a single track descent early in the race; really gives you a sense of how he would go on to become the best mountain runner in the world.

Life in a Day (YouTube) #

The womens counterpart to Unbreakable, this time documenting the 2016 women's race, focusing on Magda Boulet, Ann Mae Flynn, Kaci Lickteig, and Devon Yanko. Follows pretty much the same template of racer bios mixed with race footage. At the time, Boulet, Lickteig, and Yanko were known quantities but Flynn was a relative newcomer, earning entry to Western by finishing third at the difficult Lake Sonoma 50 (behind Kaci Lickteig and YiOu Wang). This is a solid film, with a bunch of backstory on some great athletes, but there's less drama because Lickteig takes the lead pretty early and never gives it up.

Don't miss: Jim Walmsley running by about 35 seconds in, en route to his famous detour at mile 90, where he was so far in the lead he went off course and ended up finishing 20th.

Miller vs. Hawks: TNF Endurance Challenge 50 2016 (YouTube) #

What it says on the tin: covers the duel between returning champion Zach Miller and 50 mile first-timer Hayden Hawks at the now defunct North Face 50 miler in the Marin Headlands. Notable principally for how amazingly fast they're pushing from the gun. Of special interest here for Norcal runners because these are trails you can run -- and race -- on regularly, and it's amazing to see how much faster the pros can go. A lot of this is filmed on what looks like a GoPro (by, I suspect, well-known ultrarunner Jamil Coury), so you really get the runner's perspective. Both of these guys are still racing hard today (Hawks just set the course record at JFK 50 2020), so you're what you're seeing here is two of the current top male stars).

Don't miss: Miller huffing and puffing up Tennessee Valley at what looks for all the world like half marathon effort.

Golden Trail Series 2019 and 2020 (YouTube) #

Golden Trail is a mostly European race series consisting of comparatively shorter mountain runs like Sierre-Zinal, Marathon du Mont-Blanc and Pike's Peak Marathon. It draws some of the best mountain runners in the world, including Killian Jornet, Maude Mathys, Remi Bonnet, etc.[3] Aside: people often lump all the longish distance trail races into "Mountain Ultra Trail" and it's certainly a lot of the same people, but just watching some European races gives you a sense of the variation here. Most North American races, especially on the West Coast[4] are on comparatively easy terrain, whether single track or fire roads, with a lot of the difficulty coming from being really long with large amounts of climbing, high elevation, or both. European races are often shorter -- though there are plenty of long distance races such as UTMB -- with much more difficult footing (the term here is "technical") due to rocks, roots, etc. and frequently include really steep descents, sections that are poorly marked, not really trail, etc. This is an opportunity to see the best European runners including a number you don't see in US ultras.

In 2020, due to COVID, they turned Golden Trail into a stage race, with four races, one each day. This is a totally different challenge from one long day or a stage race and you can see really the difficulty of trying to race day after day on extraordinary tricky terrain, including a number of seriously muddy and steep descents. The 2019 and 2020 races are both available on YouTube, as well as the first race of 2021.

Don't miss: Tove Alexandersson just tear down this near vertical mud slope in stage 2 at about 16:00. Also, the Salomon coach saying "If you are all together at the bottom of the climb, then Jim [Walmsley] will arrive alone at the top."

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (Amazon Prime) #

Perhaps the most accessible watching here is this documentary about the notoriously difficult and inaccessible (not to mention, misnamed) "Barkley Marathons". Designed by the Race Director, "Lazarus Lake" (real name, Gary Cantrell)[5] to be basically at the limit of human endurance, Barkley is a 100+ mile "course" with a 60 hour limit that still has approximately a 1% finish rate (this is partly due to Lake regularly making it harder). It's barely a trail race: unmarked with lots of difficult cross country travel and with GPS explicitly forbidden.

Unlike normal events, Barkley is full of small details designed to mess with the runners: the start time isn't announced beyond a 12 hour window, with Lazarus just giving an hour warning; you demonstrate that you've run the course by taking pages out of books at various checkpoints along the course (the pages being dictated by your race number); runners don't even get maps, but instead are required to copy the course off of Lake's master map, etc.

Unlike much of the stuff here, this was clearly filmed for a general audience and is more a documentary than race footage -- though there's plenty of that -- but more an exploration of what would make someone want to do something like this. Kind of like Free Solo but without the feeling that you're encouraging someone to risk their life.

Don't miss: John Fegyveresi running under the prison.

Breaking 2 (Disney+) #

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the chaos of Barkley is is this slickly produced documentary about Nike's attempt on the sub two hour marathon. Everything about this is carefully calibrated, from the new Nike shoes (prototype Vaporflys) to the pacing and drafting strategy, the fueling, etc. and it leans a bit hard on the idea that what really matters is the sports science and the technology (after all, it's basically a commercial for Nike) but at the end of the day you still get a sense of what an amazing athlete Eliud Kipchoge is, and even though he doesn't quite make it, finishing in 2:00:25, it's an unbelievable performance. Two years later, Kipchoge would in fact run 1:59:40.2 in Vienna.[6] As I've written about earlier, this isn't a world record because of the pacing and fueling strategy, but that doesn't diminish the experience of watching someone clock out mile after mile at a pace most of us can barely do flat out.[7]

Don't miss: Essentially every minute Kipchoge is on screen.

  1. Even I won't watch triathlon, though. ↩︎

  2. The history here is actually quite cool. Western States is run on the Tevis Cup horse race course, but one year Gordy Ainsleigh decided to run it on foot. I just didn't find him telling the story that interesting. ↩︎

  3. If you watch these races, it's truly amazing how many of the best European mountain runners are sponsored by Salomon. In the recent Olla de Nuria, the first three men and first two women were all Salomon sponsored ↩︎

  4. With some notable exceptions like Barkley, see below ↩︎

  5. Also responsible for the sadistic "Backyard Ultra", a last-man standing style event in which runners have to do a 4ish mile loop every hour, with the runners all starting together at the same time and the winner being the last person to give up (who still has to run the last lap on their own). This format guarantees that you can't get much rest: even if you run the loop comparatively fast in say, 30 minutes, you just have to start again in 30. ↩︎

  6. You can find video of that here; while less accessible it really focuses on Kipchoge rather than the shoes. ↩︎

  7. Seriously. Check out this video of people trying to run Kipchoge's world record pace of 2:01:39 on a treadmill at the Chicago Marathon expo. ↩︎

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