Enlightening documentary about the amateur athletes attempting ultramarathons in hostile environments
Have you ever finished a marathon and thought, ‘that’s not quite the challenge I hoped it would be’? Of course you haven’t. No sane person would. But for a select group of people, there needs to be something more: the ultramarathon, a 250km-plus jaunt through some of the harshest terrain the world has to offer. And for an even more select few, just one of these ordeals is not enough: they have to pack four of them into a single year.
Desert Runners follows four amateur athletes as they attempt to complete the 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series challenge. There’s Dave, a 56-year-old Irishman who discovered running fairly late in life; Samantha, a 25-year-old law student who wants to experience challenges beyond her privileged upbringing; Ricky, a 33-year-old American ex-pat living in London, looking to recapture his youthful promise as a sportsman; and 41-year-old Tremaine, an ex-squaddie looking for a way to channel his grief (and raise money for charity) following the death of his wife.
Director Jennifer Steinman is less interested in the races than those running it: there’s no discussion of leader boards, finishing times or competitiveness, but rather an emphasis on camaraderie and companionship, with other runners jogging in and out of the film when they have a personal note to add. This focus on the personal sometimes results in lapses of judgement – Tremaine’s arc in particular occasionally slips into sentimentality – but by and large Steinman’s shooting style is both sympathetic and unobtrusive, complemented by cinematographer Sevan Matossian’s eye for humanity among these vast, unforgiving landscapes.
If there’s one flaw, it’s that the film doesn’t connect as much with non-runners as well as it might hope: while fellow fitness enthusiasts are likely to sympathise with the cast as they complain about blisters, sunstroke and dehydration, cynics in the audience will be thinking that they’re bringing it all on themselves.
Desert Runners premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2013.