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Desert Runners: Review.

 

Title: Desert Runners: 1000km Across the World’s Most Treacherous Terrain.

Run time: 99mins.

Director: Jennifer Steinman.

Imagine you’ve been dropped off in the middle of one of the largest, driest deserts in the World. Over the next six days you will have to run, jog, walk or crawl 155 miles through the incessant heat (up to 120 degrees), across soft sand and hard-packed gravel, over sand dunes multiple stories high and down razor-sharp rocky cliffs. You must do this carrying everything you need to survive — clothes, food, sunscreen, emergency medical supplies, sleeping bag — in a 20-pound pack on your back.

Now imagine doing this not just once, but four times in one calendar year, through the four most treacherous deserts in the world: the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Gobi Desert in China, the Sahara in Egypt… and then, the final stage, a 150-mile footrace across the single most inhospitable landscape in the world: Antarctica. The race organizers have strategically chosen these four deserts because they are (respectively) the driest, windiest, hottest and coldest places on Earth.

Any single race in RacingThePlanet’s 4Desert Ultramarathon Series is an extraordinary, life-threatening challenge– something we would only expect the most accomplished, elite athletes on the planet to try. But most of the courageous men and women who come from all over the world to compete in these Herculean events are not professional athletes at all, they’re ordinary people—people with families and day jobs and mortgage payments– people like you and me who have decided, for a variety of personal reasons, to take on this extreme physical challenge.

Why do they do it? Are they crazy? Perhaps…

——

Desert Runners, a Documentary charting an attempt to complete a Multi-Day Ultra Distance Race across 4 of the world’s great deserts within the same year, is an experience quite unlike any run film I’ve seen before.  Director Jennifer Steinman and her production team capture the drama as it unfolds.  There’s plenty to take in.

Life's a beach.

Life’s a beach.

If you’re used to the aerial splendour most recently employed in films such as ‘Summits of My Life’, you’re in for a shock.  This is desert running.  Deserts are bland.  They’re endless in their consistency.  Pale, dry, often featureless.  This is the challenge.  When the cameras do show us the field from above, it only serves to highlight the remoteness and never ending sprawl.  This however, is where the lack of excitement proves to be a blessing rather than a curse.

The film scores massively for getting up close and personal with the runners.  There’s a sense that the cameras followed each participant for almost the entire time, between pre race training and post event reflection.  We see these runners taking to their local streets in what struck me as insufficient practice where deserts are concerned.  We follow their progress and hard effort as they struggle day after day, through the endless dunes and we watch as they break down.  As you might expect, there are moments of hilarity, awe inspiring physical and mental achievement, and just the right dollop of back story to fill us in on why these folk thought it might be worth trying such a life threatening trip in the first place.

What struck me as different from many other run films I’ve seen is the balance struck between the running itself and the fallout generated.  Families and the effects of leaving them behind are for once touched upon, when many films focus entirely on the athletes and gloss over the ugly side of this sport.  There are nasty blisters, temper tantrums, sweat and tears.  It’s all here, but there are also sections where we see these people overcoming problems that any of us might face ourselves.  From logistical nightmares to the hidden dangers of venturing through foreign lands on foot.  There’s an enormous amount of detail concerning the health of each runner, both during the run and back at home while preparing to take on yet another desert, though barely recovered from the previous trip.

Still running a good 11 or more Hours into the day.

Still running a good 11 or more Hours into the day.

At times you feel as if you know exactly what it must be like to go through this type of event, yet just when it looks as if it might be fun to have a go yourself, there’s a shocking detour that once again proves, when you head into certain parts of the world, with only yourself for company – you’re only ever one step from potential disaster.

Since at the time of filming, only one man (Ultra Endurance Runner Dean Karnazes) had ever completed the ‘Desert Grand Slam’ before, most of the participants are looking at entry into the record books for a variety of reasons, as long as they can finish.

While the final  Antarctica section let me down for being less expansive than the rest, it at least added a real contrast.  For those having already raced in the blistering heat and for me the viewer, it was a welcome change of pace.  Three baking deserts gave way to the frozen expanses and a course more like a 24hr Marathon than straight forward A to B route.  Runners who’d been dripping with sweat, now bundled into thick warm layers and waterproofs.  As I have more experience of running in snow than I do desert, this part amused me the most.  There’s no fun in slipping every other step.  A cruel finale to a really tough challenge.

If I were to throw any criticism at this film, it would be for showing several runners at the beginning who never really get their ’15 minutes’.  I was particularly keen to see how the slightly less athletic looking among the field were doing.  It appeared they were breezing through without issue, yet never got so much as a word to camera the entire time.  Those we spend time with are likeable and provide some genuine inspiration, but I hoped to see more from the rest, to see how their styles varied, their training and results.  Shame.

Without giving anything away, the thing I enjoyed most about Desert Runners was having my assumptions about each runner flipped upside down by the end.  I couldn’t have been more surprised by the events on screen.  Just goes to prove, you can’t judge etc.  There are points in this film when it’s less about the running than the character of the runners themselves.  Not quite what I expected going in.  Not quite the blow by blow account of how best to tackle a race of this kind, but very rewarding nonetheless.

A very human story then, full of character and emotion.  Not so much a thrill ride, as a journey through people’s toughest year. 4.5 out of 5.

Definitely worth a look if you’re able to attend our Scott Shoe test/Head Torch Run/Screening on the 22nd Jan, in conjunction with Heason Events or perhaps via http://buy.desertrunnersmovie.com/ if not.

 

About Houghboy

Running. Films. Films about running. It's all good.
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