There’s always more than a touch of the absurd in the world of extreme sports, but for ultramarathon runners who brave the hottest and driest places on the planet, those absurdities are magnified by the incredible endurance required to engage in a sport that doesn’t involve any fancy footwork or visually death-defying feats. They just run and run, in heat that can top 130 degrees, until they drop of exhaustion or reach the finish line. Then they get up and do the same thing the next day, and the next.
But “Desert Runners,” the documentary by Jennifer Steinman that won the audience award at the Hamptons International Film Festival on Monday, even bumps the idea of desert ultramarathoning up a notch: the film follows four runners from around the world who intend to race across not one but four deserts over the course of the year 2010.
The “4 Deserts” racing series, also known as RacingthePlanet, was started by American runner Mary K. Gadams in 2002, and it’s been referred to as the world’s ultimate test of human endurance.
That’s all well and good, but the sense of the foolhardiness of the expeditions can’t help but come across in the film. The series begins in the spring with a race across Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest on earth, which is described in the film as comparable to the climate on Mars. A local flute band hired to play at the starting line looks bewildered by the scene of the runners take off into the dry heat, and throughout the film, villagers in China’s Gobi Desert and the Egyptian Sahara are shown watching the runners with a gleam of either bewilderment or judgement in their eyes. But the filmmakers never stop to ask what the locals think of the runners. Indeed, it seems the penguins of Antarctica are the most welcoming denizens of the environments where the runs are held.
One of the biggest struggles for any documentary filmmaker is to find the best subjects to follow, in order to ensure the film doesn’t turn into a bust if any of the participants suddenly decide to back out. The strength of such a film can depend on sheer luck.
In this case, Ms. Steinman’s picks did pan out. Initially, a 41-year-old British soldier-turned-self defense guru named Tremaine Kent appears to be the strongest of her subjects. He’s a man who’s spent his whole life training to be as tough as they come, but he’s racing to help stanch the pain of the death of his wife, Carla, to cancer less than a year before the race began. Dave O’Brien, 56, from Ireland, who grew up without a father, is racing to prove to himself that he is worth something. Ricky Paugh, 33, a former professional baseball player in the U.S., says he never got a chance to be an astronaut and he now hopes to be known as a desert runner. Samantha Gash, 25, a law student from Australia, wants to prove she’s a person of more depth than her privileged upper middle class upbringing provided.
In the early stages of the film, the two older men are working to make sense of the life events that have shaped their characters, while the two young runners seem almost gratingly focused on how the world perceives them. But after a fellow runner dies on an extraordinarily hot day in the Gobi Desert, the film takes on a more somber tone, as all the runners realize they are not playing a game. They are running for their lives.
That same day, Ricky gets sick, and we’re treated to more on-screen vomiting than should be permitted by the Hollywood censors [there are also a few gratuitous blister shots throughout, but those can be forgiven because they advance the storyline]. Ricky later drops out of the Sahara run.
Tremaine also quits and goes home just two days into the Sahara, after realizing he can’t compete on a leg he’d injured in a self defense class at work just before leaving for the race. His kids are waiting for him at home, he says, and they don’t really want him running all over the earth trying to prove something to himself. They want him to be their dad. It’s one of the most redeeming and real moments in the film.
Samantha has a rude scare in the Sahara, when an Egyptian villager jumps out of the bushes and attempts to sexually assault her while she’s running alone along the race course. She manages to escape and briefly considers dropping out, but after resting and building up her courage decides to go back to where she left off and finish the race. The scene seems like it’s begging to be seen as a heartwarming tale of a woman’s triumph over fear, but it’s difficult for viewers to not wonder why on earth a woman would be running alone across the Sahara Desert in the first place.
The film concludes in Antarctica, which is defined as a desert because it receives so little rainfall. But environmental regulations in Antarctica are so strict that runners are only permitted to race over a small area, and must walk part of the way. The closing scene of them racing back and forth across the frozen landscape in what amounts to a 250 kilometer time trial loop, is a useful one for providing an interior narrative of the runners’ thoughts, but if you zoom back and get some perspective take a look at what’s actually happening, it’s difficult to not see the entire exercise as one in the futile arrogance of human beings’ perceptions of their own place in the world.
That’s rich material, but it’s difficult to tell from the way this film is executed whether that was any small part of the filmmakers’ intent. There’s no doubt the runners all learned something about themselves and their limits during the process of the races, but there’s little to be learned about the human condition from a film that seems to celebrate the triumph of Western willpower over landscapes that are well understood by native people whose voices are never heard.