“Spirit of the Marathon” (Directed by Jon Dunham, 2007)
Even though less than 1% of the American population has had the desire to complete a marathon, (Running USA, 2013,) that doesn’t mean a documentary dedicated to the sport of long-distance running is irrelevant. Quite the opposite, actually. “Spirit of the Marathon” is an emotional, inspiring, and well-executed documentary that weaves together six very different lives all going for the same goal; to complete the 2005 LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon. Directed by Jon Dunham (“Bound by Flesh,”) this is achieved with smart composition, selecting diverse – yet relatable – runners, giving viewers some historical background of the marathon, and including current, major players in the distance running game. “There’s people competing in marathons, and people completing marathons,” Dick Beardsley (American long-distance runner, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010,) says in an interview in the film. “What’s beautiful is that the sport’s big enough for all of us.”
“Spirit of the Marathon” follows four amateur runners and two elites all training for the Chicago Marathon in 2005. The trainees include Deena Kastor (2004 Bronze Medalist for the marathon at the Summer Olympics,) Daniel Njenga (Kenyan long-distance runner,) Leah Callié (a single mom training for her first marathon through the Chicago Area Runner’s Association,) Lori O’Connor (a grad student at Northwestern, also training for her first marathon,) Jerry Meyers (the 70-year-old group leader for the 12 minute pace group, and multiple marathon finisher,) and Ryan Bradley (veteran marathoner, training to qualify for the highly competitive and selective Boston Marathon.) All six end up being relatable to the audience in some way – Kastor gets sidelined for six weeks early on with an injury that almost knocks her out of the game completely; Njenga has family troubles back at home; Callié works hard to balance her duties as a mother and her training schedule; O’Connor is a student and self-trainee; and Bradley is pursuing his dreams to become a Boston-qualifier. Even if the an audience member may not connect with one of the runners on an athletic level, the fact that Dunham pulled in “real people” makes the film more relatable to anyone working towards a goal.
Following so many athletes could have easily been a flaw, but the editing helped the “spotlight time” and placement make sense for each person. Dunham focuses on the amateur-slash-recreational runners more during the training process, and the elite athletes during the race. More kudos for the usage of B-roll; because – let’s be honest – long-distance running is probably one of the most boring sports to watch, but Dunham was easily able to keep the audience engaged throughout the film. Even non-runners. What helped him achieve this is providing some historical context for the marathon throughout the first half of the documentary, so non-runners and beginners are given a better understanding of why the distance is 26 miles, 385 yards (or, 26.2.)
Dunham also makes the documentary relevant by including commentary and supporting evidence from major players in the long-distance game, such as Paula Radcliffe (current Women’s World Record holder for the Marathon,) Frank Shorter (1972 Gold medalist for the marathon at the Summer Olympics,) Joan Benoit Samuelson (1984 Gold medalist for the marathon at the Summer Olympics,) and Katherine Switzer (first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon.) These elite runners not only give the documentary more credibility, but they are able to be more vocal about training, and the mentality it takes to run this particular long-distance race; which benefits not only the running audience, but those viewers who might not be as familiar with the physical and emotional toll training takes on a person.
“Spirit of the Marathon” is an inspiring and entertaining documentary that mirrors how Fred Lebow (New York City Marathon co-founder) describes the event it follows: “The marathon is a charismatic event. It has everything. It has drama. It has competition. It has camaraderie. It has heroism. Every jogger can’t dream of being an Olympic champion, but they can dream of finishing a marathon.”