(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from May 2000.)
Rich Benyo, my partner on the Running Encyclopedia book being written this year, noticed that the master list I’d compiled had reached thousands of entries but never once mentioned running movies. I blame the oversight on being a word guy. I’ve never had anything to do with the illustrations and layout of my work, only with the words, so my thoughts on the visual media are few.
Now the films are in the book, and the list of those that fit within its scope – road events, 5K to marathon – is short. Outside these boundaries lie those with running titles (“The Running Man,” an Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller, and “Marathon Man,” a look at sadistic dentistry) but which are about this sport in name only.
Also missing from the book are the “Without Limits” and “Prefontaine,” since Pre was never a road racer. “Personal Best” is a track film with marathoner Kenny Moore playing another brand of athlete, a swimmer. The 1960s classic “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” is only marginally about running, and not very long runs at that.
In the maybe category fall “On the Edge,” whose Dipsea-like race runs partly on the roads and whose cast includes several road racers. “Running Brave” has no footage of Billy Mills’s anticlimactic Olympic Marathon, which he ran after winning the 10,000.
The fictional movies with road racing at their heart are mostly forgettable. Joanne Woodward in “See How She Runs,” Michael Douglas in “Running,” Ryan O’Neal in “The Games” – come across as actors trying and failing to look like runners. They lack The Look.
The videos I like best are the real ones. I much prefer the Steve Prefontaine documentary that Kenny Moore co-authored, “Fire on the Track,” to either of the theatrical productions.
“Endurance” is a true story, with Haile Gebrselassie playing himself. In an unintentionally comical scene he pretends to be a novice marathoner and almost trips over his feet at six-minute-mile pace.
Best of the lot are the various Olympic films, as real runners run real races. Setting a high early standard was director Leni Reifenstahl with her “Olympia,” an almost-four-hour look at the 1936 Games.
Bud Greenspan directed the 1984 Olympic summary, “Sixteen Days of Glory.” The Munich Games report, “Visions of Eight” (the combined effort of eight directors), carries memorable footage of Frank Shorter’s marathon victory.
Nothing I’ve ever watched on screen was as memorable as the marathon in “Tokyo Olympiad” by Kon Ichikawa. The late-race, slow-motion closeups of an apparently tireless Abebe Bikila give a look into the face of this sport’s African future.
UPDATE FROM 2014
Since this writing, runners-on-film (or videotape, or DVD) have found their best friend ever in Mark Hale-Brown. He manages the website runningmovies.com, which identifies and describes hundreds of titles.
The most notable additions in recent years are Jon Dunham’s “Spirit of the Marathon,” versions I and II. Another sequel in the works, centered on Boston.
[Hundreds of previous articles, dating back to 1998, can be found at joehenderson.com/archive/. Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in as many as three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Latest released was Going Far. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]