Interview with Desert Runners Film Director, Jennifer Steinman

You know those really annoying people in the theatre who are constantly talking through the film, adding their own commentary, laughing a little too loud and crying a little too dramatically? Er, unfortunately, when I saw the “Desert Runners” documentary at the Vancouver Film Festival recently, I turned into one of those dreaded theatre disturbers. I might as well have been eating loud, crinkly, individually-wrapped candies one by one. I was causing a disturbance.

I was so just excited by this movie that I really just couldn’t keep quiet. Not only was it about runners completing the RacingThePlanet series, which I have competed in five times, but also I knew two of the runners who were featured in it. Yes! Finally there was a film that showcased all of the ups and downs of multi-day races, the laughing, the crying, the vomiting, the misplaced bravado… I dragged my sister along because I thought that maybe by seeing this movie, she might understand a little bit more about me.

Despite my constant sweater-tugging and shoulder-poking during the film, my sister actually ended up really enjoying the movie too – and she isn’t even a runner. (At least she doesn’t define herself as one). Perhaps that is because the movie isn’t just about running. It is about the strength and vulnerability of ordinary human beings doing extraordinary things. It is about struggling against and eventually overcoming one’s own invisible limitations.  This is something that everyone can relate to and be inspired by, runners and non-runners alike.

This movie follows four amateur runners trying to complete the “Grand Slam”: running four of RacingThePlanet’s 250 km self-supported races in a single year.  That includes the Atacama desert in Chile, the Gobi desert in China, the Sahara desert in Egypt, and finally Antarctica. The driest, windiest, hottest and coldest deserts on earth, respectively.

I was lucky enough to be able to interview Jennifer Steinman, the director of the film, by phone today… which just happens to coincide with the  release of the film for digital download and DVD!  It has won more awards than there are ultrarunners in this world, so you’d be crazy not to see it. Read on for some fascinating insight into the making of the film and for a special discount code at the bottom!

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Ultra Runner Girl: I’ll start off by saying I love this film. Simply LOVE it. What inspired you to make it?

Jennifer Steinman: The idea for the film came from when I met Dave at a conference a few years ago. He was speaking about a race he had done 12 years prior, while he was in his 40s, called Marathon des Sables (which is another 250 km self-supported footrace in the Sahara desert). I had never heard of such things before! I thought it was totally insane – the longest race I had ever heard of was 35 miles. Then at the end of his talk, Dave said that the following year, at the age of 56, he would do four of these type of 250 km races in a single year. He said that only one person had done it before him, but he was a professional athlete.

Sitting there in the audience, I thought wow, now that is a story worth telling. I was really taken. The whole thing sounded crazy. Why this guy? Why does he possibly think he could do this? I mean, he doesn’t even look like an athlete – he is just an average guy, right?

I started to think about this concept of why some people think they can do things that others think are impossible. What makes us decide whether we can or cannot do something? What is that all about? My mother was really sick at the time and she could barely walk around the block. She wasn’t much older than Dave – how did he think he could run 1000 kilometres?

I approached Dave after the talk and asked him about whether he had thought about filming his journey… And we went from there.

Ultra Runner Girl: So originally the movie was going to be just about Dave? How did you go about picking the other runners?

Jennifer: (laughing) It’s a funny story. When my cameraman and I arrived in Atacama, Chile, ready to start filming, Dave said to us right on the first day, “Hey, y’know, I didn’t have time to train that much…”  He told us that he had run 15 miles the week before, but that was it.

Ultra Runner Girl: Classic move!  That’s hysterical.

Jennifer: Right, so I immediately turned to my cameraman and said, “he’s not going to make it!” So I told him to just start shooting everyone, and that’s what we did. We started talking to all of the other runners and through that process we found some really great people.  At the start, we didn’t yet have funding to cover all four deserts, but after the Atacama race, we figured out that the story of the film would be the Grand Slam… and the funding came in. We chose to feature those runners that we thought had the most compelling story over the year.

Before filming, I think we were expecting everyone to be elite athletes – y’know, those chiseled, incredibly fit, superhuman types. I was really taken by the fact that for the most part, these were just ordinary people who wanted to challenge themselves.  But they became superstars in my mind.

Ultra Runner Girl: Superstars but not super chiseled – I think that is pretty accurate of a lot of us out there (laughing).  Okay, be honest did you make any bets on which runners would make it to the finish line and which ones would bomb out?

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Jennifer: Ha, oh for sure. Dave kept surprising us. Constantly. But Samantha was the surprise of the year. Atacama was her first time ever doing an ultra. She walked most of the entire race because she had a foot injury. But by the end of the year, she was at the top of the pack. She went from being a no-name in the sport to a true competitor, and now she knows she wants to do this for the rest of her life.

Ultra Runner Girl: No kidding! She’s gone on to accomplish some pretty incredible things (click here for Sam’s website). What did you learn through the process of making this film?

Jennifer: The biggest thing I learned out there was that the difference between who makes it and who doesn’t has nothing to do with fitness. I saw people out there who you wouldn’t think in a million years could run a 5k race actually finish a 250k race. And those were the people that always knew they would finish. They never entertained doubt. They didn’t even allow it to enter their consciousness.

I would ask them “what does it mean for you if you don’t make it?” And they would reply, “I’ll make it.” They weren’t even willing to have that conversation. They were focused on what they needed to do next and how they could move forward. That was it. It was about the kind of mental commitment and determination that didn’t leave you any option other than to finish.

Ultra Runner Girl: I can definitely relate to that.  So, these races took place in some pretty remote places, which I imagine probably presented some crazy logistical challenges. How did you manage this? Were there any really insane moments?

03Jennifer: More than I could possibly recount! It was definitely difficult. We were living the same way the runners were: sleeping in tents and not showering for days.  We had access to 4-wheel drive vehicles, but there were some parts of the courses that were not accessible by vehicle, so we had to hike and climb our way out there.  Our drivers were always from the local area, so sometimes they didn’t speak English or know exactly where they were going. We got lost in China so many times!

In the Sahara, on the last night of the long day (the 80 km stage of the race), we had been up for almost 24 hours by the time we finally decided to head back to camp. It was about 3am and we were driving across a sand dune when all of a sudden, the car started to sink. We were in quicksand! We had to all jump out and walk the rest of the way in. All of our things, including our sleeping bags, were left behind.

Ultra Runner Girl: Brutal! How much footage did you think you had to take in total in order to wind up with the final film?

Jennifer: Probably about 80 to 100 hours in total.

02Ultra Runner Girl: Did you and the film crew have any rules about helping the runners if they were getting into trouble? For example, I remember one of the scenes when Ricky, the former pro-baseball player, was vomiting through the night. At one point, he seemed like he was really getting into the ‘danger zone’.  Was it tough for the crew to maintain a professional distance?

Jennifer: Of course, RacingThePlanet has rules about this. They are pretty strict that the runners must be self-supported, so we made sure we respected that. Our job was to observe and not to interfere. That being said, there is a scene when Ricky asked us to stay with him during the night because he didn’t think he could make it. When he asked us, he was serious. So we hopped out of the car and followed him on foot to the next checkpoint. It took us four hours, but we just kept him company and made sure he made it. I honestly believe that if he hadn’t have asked us to stay with him, he might still be lost in the desert. We were part of the experience. We didn’t carry his backpack or anything…. But if they needed water, we gave them water.

We’re people first and filmmakers second. We would never offer anything to anyone, but if someone was seriously dehydrated and I had a bottle of water in my hand, of course I would give it to them. You don’t deny someone water in the desert. We joked that we would say, “you can totally have my water…. Right after I get this shot” (laughing).

There is a scene where Dave comes into a checkpoint and falls on the ground. He is convulsing and shivering, glassy-eyed and all, because he hadn’t eaten in almost two days. At the time, I looked at him and thought, “we’re going to lose Dave tonight”. I went into my bag and shoved a clif bar into his mouth…. You could see that when the food entered his bloodstream, he stopped shivering and his eyes went back to normal. In that moment, he became my friend.

Ultra Runner Girl: I was wondering if the movie would bring you all closer together. It is a pretty intense experience to go through, whether as a runner or as a filmmaker.  I believe you can even be seen in some of the scenes, cheering and clapping for some of the runners on the sidelines, right?

Jennifer: Ha, yeah, it is kind of like a “Where’s Waldo” to see if you can spot me! We all became very close through the filming. We felt just as much a part of the grand slam team as the runners did – we were all out there together.

Ultra Runner Girl:  Okay, so inquiring minds want to know: did directing this film make you want to compete in an ultra yourself? Or are you now convinced you will never enter one of these races?

Jennifer: I’m pretty convinced I’ll never do one!  Everyone was always telling me that I should get out there and run one of the races. I thought about it… and then I was like, no!  Everyone out there has a really strong reason for why they are racing. I don’t have that ‘why’. For me, the movie itself was my ultra. The three and a half years I spent working on it was my ‘why’. That was the thing that turned me on – it is my passion.  The running just isn’t!  I have a lot of respect for everyone who is out there. And heck, I got in great shape through the process. You can’t hang out with you ultrarunner types without feeling compelled to go to the gym a bit more!

Ultra Runner Girl: That’s totally it though, isn’t it? You don’t have to be a runner – you just need to follow whatever your passion, whatever it may be. Speaking of which, what is next on your plate? Are you taking a break to enjoy your success on the film or are you ready to start your next project?

Jennifer: I’m ready for the next one! I have four or five good ideas at the moment and so now I’m looking for funding.

Ultra Runner Girl: Can you give us a sneak peek? Are you thinking of another sports-related film?

Jennifer: I’m pretty interested in doing a dance film, but I’m also entertaining the idea of one around women’s rights. And I’ve got an idea to do a film about the history of sex education.

Ultra Runner Girl: *queue URG blabbing about women’s rights in Afghanistan for the next five minutes*

Okay getting back to business. Congratulations on all of your success, Jennifer!

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Click here for more info about the film, upcoming screenings, and how to download the film yourself.  Use the code ULTRARUNNERGIRL for a 10% reader discount on downloads!

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