Greetings again from the darkness. Director Pierre Morath seemingly had three good ideas for a movie: a history of long-distance running, the fight and final acceptance of women into the sport, and an analysis of holistic running vs. competitive running. Any of the topics would make a solid documentary, but when combined, the result is a bit of a hodgepodge that is still interesting and informative.
All of the familiar names are present: Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Jim Fixx, Steve Prefontaine and Joan Benoit . However, it’s Fred Lebow and Karen Switzer who prove to be the most compelling figures. In 1967, Ms. Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, and you’ve probably seen the iconic photo of some guy trying to forcibly remove her from the race. It’s pointed out that at the time, women still didn’t have the right to vote in Switzerland – an effective means of showing that women were still fighting for basic equality. Mr. Lebow founded the New York Runners Club and was instrumental in moving the NY Marathon from The Bronx to Central Park. He was a marketing man and promoter at heart, and was a key figure in expanding the popularity of distance running.
It was 1984, before the Women’s Marathon became an official Olympic sport, the coverage of Ms. Benoit’s win is compared to women winning the right to vote. It’s also noted (somewhat facetiously) that “it’s the first time women are allowed to be exhausted in public”.
Perhaps the most interesting pieces of this running puzzle focus on the “free your mind” aspect of running that stands in stark opposition to the mega-corporate effects of Nike (and other corporations) on running events. Corporate sponsorships and vast sums of money created a global network of high-profile and finely-tuned runners, while the inner peace attained from running allowed the activity (rather than the sport) to continue to grow in acceptance from those looking to escape some of the day-to-day stresses of life.
The “dark side” of the sport reared its head in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy left destruction in the path of where the NYC Marathon (50,000 runners) was to be held. With the big money at stake, some poor decisions were made as citizens throughout the area were without power, clean water and even shelter.
Admittedly, distance runners can often be described as “oddballs”, and though it only takes a pair of sneakers and some shorts to “go for a run”, it’s the corporate sponsorships that make it big business … but at least now, women are right there with the men – whether it’s a big city marathon or a jog through the park.