Review – Desert Runners (2013)

Some materialists are fond of pointing out that we are things among countless other human and non-human things. Composed of all that cellular stuff, we are never quite ourselves, never exactly contemporary with every aspect of what we might call our ‘self’. Some think this cheerless while others might find an insistence on our materiality a great comfort. I do not want to burden you with more words on the topic but to encourage you to watch a new film that explores physical endurance. It shows bodies enduring in extraordinary ways, exhausted, fatigued and agonised bodies. It’s a film that makes the molecular body, the one in a continual flux of breaking, dividing and replenishing, more visible. It shows a body that runs.

I saw Desert Runners recently at the Edinburgh Film Festival and have been telling friends about it ever since. It won’t be on your television screens or in your local cinema for a little while yet, but, after some rave reviews following the premiere, it ought to be available in the near future. The film follows a group of amateur runners as they run across four of the world’s most inhospitable deserts: Atacama in Chile, the Gobi in China, the Sahara in Egypt and Antarctica. Directed by Jennifer Steinman, the film shows what happens when people try to run a marathon a day, for five days straight, in 40-50C (100-120F) heat or, in the case of the final race in Antarctica, –28C. Each race is roughly 250km in total. I think this is most people’s idea of an utterly pleasureless experience. Many of the runners, as they run, walk, crawl and vomit their ways across these deserts, loudly announce just how awful it is, describing these places as “hell on earth” and the effort of running through them a “nightmare”. During the second race in the Gobi an American runner, Nicolas Kruse, collapsed on the course and died.

The obvious question – why bother? – is met head on, each runner reflects on the pleasures and pains they work through to compete in each race. Steinman reports the runner’s stories without bullying stagecraft and we are put in the company of these people and, when they turn teary-eyed to speak to camera, the feeling is one of a delirious conversation rather than a manipulating performance. The runner’s motivations vary enormously and develop during and between each race – pride, charity, bereavement, personal ambition, spiritual self-discovery and physical curiosity. Richard Cheetham, who completed the Atacama race and is Senior Lecturer in in Sports Coaching at the University of Winchester, has explored the many reasons that people pursue these ultra endurance events. All the runners Cheetham interviewed “were drawn by the need to see what was within their grasp […] to reach a limit never previously realised.”[1] The runners he spoke to, a number of whom appear in Steinman’s film, speak of “pushing boundaries” and finding, in the geographical extremities in which the competitors passed through, a new way of understanding their personal extremities. It is a tale of errant egos and lost toe nails.

For me, the film Desert Runners captures a fascinating process of spatialisation, with moments when people reassess and are made to articulate a renewed sense of their place in the world. Among other things, this is a question of scale – in what sense do I fit into this? It’s a kind of questioning that occurs through a slippage between what we might ordinarily think of as discretely different kinds of space – corporeal, cognitive, emotional and geographic. In these extremes, in trials understood through a sense of the extreme, much is made to collapse – we can reconsider positions, values and interests, our ends and beginnings. Perhaps this is why an ultramarathon around the M25 would bring a different sense of drama, excitement or pioneering adventure – the geography, the isolation, the sense of ascetic proximity to ‘you’ makes the elision between landscape and personhood more possible. There is great value in this film, especially to all of those who are interested in different cultures of the body – disability studies, biopoltics or geographies of health, for example – and to anyone thinking about picking up some running shoes and heading out for a jog.

Disclaimer: I have been lucky to know Samantha Gash for ten years and her story is an important part of Desert Runners. Since meeting her when we were backpacking teenagers, she has been a drama student, a trainee lawyer and now, after her travails in the desert, a professional endurance athlete. Three years ago she decided to do the Four Deserts and became the youngest female to run all four deserts in a single year, the ‘Grand Slam’. Since competing in that race, she has run ultra marathons in the Himalayas, across the Simpson Desert in Australia, and USA and elsewhere. Samantha now uses her running to raise money for and awareness about a wide range of global health issues.

[1] Richard Cheetham, “‘The personal journey’: A Study of the Individual Race Stories of Desert Marathon Runners”, forthcoming 2013.

2 thoughts on “Review – Desert Runners (2013)

  1. Many thanks Will – fascinating stuff and I look forward to seeing the film. On the relatively straightforward point about endurance, I wonder whether there can in principle also be a kind of watered-down endurance on the part of viewers as well – vicarious, voyeuristic, but still exhausting and perhaps in some senses self-revealing. (I write this in the aftermath of the agony of seeing the British and Irish Lions defeated in a contest that shredded the nerves of players and spectators alike – and it’s all voluntary. Why?) The more complex points about spatiality are particularly interesting – that in some sense our own ‘thing-ness’ is graphically experienced when being stretched, projected, across distances. Plenty to think about on a Monday morning! Thanks again.

    1. I watched the film with an ultramarathon runner on each side and several banks of crossfit enthusiasts in front. How my sense of vicarious endurance compares to theirs I do not know. I spent the whole film with a lump in my throat, thinking, mostly, about St Anthony and early Christian monasticism. I wonder if anyone else thought the same? Probably not. But everyone I spoke to afterwards agreed that they felt thoroughly exhausted!

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