Sunday, March 1, 2015


I love to watch movies, so much so that I usually watch several of them every week. There has just been something about movies that appeal to me, not only do I love going to the theater, I enjoy watching them at home too.

There are a lot of good running movies out there, and since I haven't seen two recent ones, McFarland USA and Unbroken, I thought I'd write about a couple of favorites I have watched in the last few days. With my balky back and crappy weather sucking up my motivation, they were just what I needed to get back on track.

The first one is The Long Green Line, a documentary about the 2005 York High School cross country program and their quest to win the 25th state championship in school history. Yes, you read that right, York is a cross country powerhouse in Illinois, and under coach Joe Newton have made 52 appearances at the state meet, winning 28 titles while capturing 44 top-three trophies.

Newton has created an amazing program centered around a roster of close to 200 runners. Despite having a team that large, he has a personal relationship with all of them, checking them in before practice, shaking hands with everyone as they leave the track and giving ownership of the program to them. It's an amazing thing, 80 percent of the kids will go through the program never running in a varsity race (they do race in most meets and invitationals in open and class races), but they stay with the program because they love coach Newton, they enjoy being part of the team and do feel a part of any success the Top 7 runners achieve.

York is located in Elmhurst, Ill., a city of 50,000 people about 15 miles west of Chicago. Entering the 2005 season the Dukes had won three consecutive state titles and five of the last six. Led by twins Matt and Eric Dettman, the team had an unusual depth of runners to choose from on the varsity squad, and looked almost unbeatable in November.

Of course, it's never that easy. One top 7 runner is kicked off the team for drinking, then is arrested -- and expelled from school -- along with another top 7 guy for setting a house on fire. Injuries and a viral infection with the twins made York look human mid-season, but by the state meet in November they posted all five of their scoring runners in the top 26 finishers to claim the championship by 83 points over the next closest finisher.

While I enjoy following the top runners, one of the things I liked about the movie is it showed the impact cross country has on every kid who runs on a team. One runner on the team was born with cerebral palsy and didn't run an entire 3-mile race without stopping until he was a sophomore, but being on the team gave him confidence, self-esteem and acceptance from the team. When he raced the entire team would line up near the finishing area and cheer him in.

There are all sorts of stories like that in the movie, and as a fan of cross country -- I usually attend the state meet and was there to watch York run in 2005 -- I thought it was a great advertisement for the sport, which I think is the best high school sport there is.

I finished watching this movie at about 1:15 in the morning, and it took everything I had to not go out for a run!

The other movie I love is Spirit of the Marathon, which follows the journey of six runners, including elites Deena Kastor and Daniel Njenga, as they prepare for the 2005 Chicago Marathon.

Of the four amateur runners, two of them are newbies running their first marathon (Leah Caille and Lori O'Connor), one is an experienced runner hoping to someday qualify for the Boston Marathon (Ryan Bradley), and the other is a 70-year-old man named Jerry Meyers who took up marathoning at age 65 and runs because he likes collecting shirts and medals! He is also guiding his daughter through her first marathon.

The movie picks up just as training is starting in June. The newer runners are getting used to the training, and figuring out how to juggle running with their lives in the process, while the more experienced runners are getting back to the 18-week routine.

By the end of July, Bradley learns he has a torn meniscus and is out of the race, while Kastor is dealing with a foot injury caused by stepping on a pine cone while playing with her dog. Njenga is splitting his time between his native Kenya and Japan, where he lives while working for the corporation that sponsors his training.

The middle of the movie focuses on the training and lives of Njenga and Kastor. Njenga, who finished second or third at Chicago for six straight years without winning, goes home to spend time with his family and dedicate a home that was built for his family using his marathon earnings. You get a great glimpse at Kenya and its culture here, and how running changes the lives of entire communities.

Kastor lives with her husband and trains at altitude in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Unable to run for several weeks, she instead cross trains and runs on a zero gravity treadmill, but once cleared to run she gets back to her routine of 100-plus mile weeks of punishing runs in the thin mountain air. Buoyed by her performance at the 2004 Olympics where she won a bronze medal in the marathon, Kastor still thinks she can win the Chicago Marathon if she stays healthy.

Once race weekend arrives, the runners converge on Chicago and begin the weekend of activities. Kastor and Njenga go to the elite athlete's press conference (where you can see me for about a second when they pan the audience) while the other runners take in the expo.

(Sidebar: I interviewed Deena earlier that summer and she is one of the sweetest people you could possibly meet. She seemed genuinely excited to hear that I was running the marathon that year as well.)

Up to this point, the movie is great, but the way it captures race day takes it to another level. The morning of a marathon is such an intense experience, one that has to be experienced to be truly believed. The mixture of emotions like confidence, fear and excitement are felt at a level that is so hard to describe. What is interesting to note is that those feelings are the same in all of the runners. That's the marathon!

Then the race goes off. Njenga and Kastor form up in their respective lead packs, while the others go on their own journeys. Kastor has to fight off fatigue and another runner to win the race, while Njenga finishes third. O'Connor, who is very analytical and focused, has a smooth race, while Caille has to fight through IT band issues but grinds her way to the finish. Meyers, who was a breath of fresh air the entire movie thanks to his outlook on life and wonderful personality, finished hand-in-hand with his daughter.

I feel a connection to all of these people, and not just because I ran that day too (I set my personal best of 4:07!). There was something in every one of them that I could relate to, from the struggles of personal hardship to figuring out why I run and what I want to get out of it. When I was training for the 2013 Chicago Marathon I watched this movie every couple of weeks to keep me going. If you are looking for some "pump up" material before your next big race, you can't go wrong with this one.

Here are the trailers to both movies. Enjoy!


  1. I LOVE The Spirit of the Marathon. Your recap of the movie is spot on, and I couldn't agree more about the feelings of marathon morning.

  2. I was supposed to go to the premier a few years ago for the Spirit of the Marathon, but my flight was delayed so I didn't make it. I really need to watch that one, like you everyone who's seen it says great things about it!
    I also want to watch the new Kevin Costner running movie McFarland, everyone says that is one of the best running movies. I know the orginal true story, so I am sure I will love it, maybe next week:)