The Spirit of the Marathon is the first ever non-fiction feature film to capture the drama and essence of the famed 26.2 mile running event. It is a labor of love brought to the screen by three-time Academy Award winner Mark Jonathan Harris, Telly Award winner and marathon runner Jon Dunham, and producer/marathoner Gwendolen Twist.
Filmed on four continents over four years, the film stars two elite runners, Kenyan Daniel Njenga and American Deena Castor, running to win, and four normal runners, Lori O’Conner, Ryan Bradley, Leah Caille, and Jerry Meyers, running for their own personal reasons.
Ryan Bradley is an experienced marathoner wanting to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Lori O’Conner is a first timer wanting to finish as well as raise money for a charity. Leah Caille is a single mom who started running as her marriage crumbled. Her goal was to finish and put all that behind her. Jerry Meyers, easily the most engaging of the group, is a septuagenarian marathon veteran running with his daughter Rona for her first time.
Woven into their training sagas are archival footage, historical background on the marathon, and interviews with legends such as Dick Beardsley, Frank Shorter, Katherine Switzer, Paula Radcliffe, Bill Rodgers, Toshihiko Seko, and Grete Waitz.
The historical background and footage made the movie much more interesting than if it were just a documentary on the training involved. Hearing the stories, such as how women were banned because it was believed their uterus would fall out was amazing. Katherine Switzer filled out her application for the 1967 Boston Marathon as K Switzer. It was accepted and she started the race but part way through the race, an official tried to forcibly remove her number and remove her from the race. Only a shoulder charge from her boyfriend at the time kept her in the race.
What makes the movie sing is the day of the race. By the time it comes, you are feeling the nerves of the athletes as they stress over making sure they have all their gear for the day. Building up to the start, when the gun goes off and the crowd surges to the line, the camera angle raises up over the masses and it is then that it really hits you how huge this event really is and how powerful the emotions are that rise in you. That and the thought of how the heck are 40,000 people going to make it through there all at once?
By the time the movie ends, one hour and 40 minutes later – the time it would take for an elite runner to get to mile 20 of the marathon – you have seen how the marathon affects a person. Everyone has peaks and valleys; times when they are smooth and flowing to the times it is a struggle to take another step. A spectator has a sign that says “You’re All Crazy” and even though it is funny, it has a note of truth to it. It is crazy to do this. No one ever said it wasn’t, but no one ever said it wasn’t worth it, either.
If I had one complaint, it would be that not enough time was spent with each of the athletes. I would have loved to hear more about how Daniel Njenga went from Kenya to living and training in Japan, for example, or how Leah Caille managed to juggle single motherhood with the massive amount of time required to train for this. How did Ryan Bradley and his wife end up in Europe running so many marathons? All things that were touched on lightly but just made me want to learn more about them. The problem, of course, is the time required. To get into such depth with every athlete would have made the movie at least another hour long.
On a personal note, I am currently training for my first marathon in May. After seeing this movie, those long runs on a Sunday morning in the dark don’t seem so crazy anymore.
The film is currently in limited release in select theaters. For more information on upcoming showtimes, visit the film's official website.