A little over a year ago, Saucony and Runner’s World reached out to me with an idea. They had seen some of my cycling films, and they wanted to achieve something similar within the sport of running. The concept was simple: travel to several destinations around the world where we knew running had impacted individuals or the community in a profound way, and start filming. There were no scripts, no film crews, no studios, and in some cases, no plan. Just a location to get to and a person to ask for.
As I embarked on the journey, I had no idea what to expect. In some cases the locations were remote, safety was a potential concern and English was not widely spoken. But I soon discovered that with running as our common bond, I had far more similarities than differences with the amazing people I met. I am extremely proud and excited for the film to be released publicly and for you to discover the amazing stories we uncovered. You can watch the film by clicking the link below. After you’ve finished, come back and scroll down to read about some of my behind-the-scenes observations from each location.
A Journey to Uncover the Transformative Power of Running
A film by Brian Vernor
This was the second stop on our film tour, and in many ways it was the most challenging and the most rewarding. Girls Run 2, the running club in Djibouti, serves a group of girls who simply wouldn’t run without the organization. The straightest way to say it is that the girls are from very poor families. For these families the idea that their daughters should run is not high on the priority list. Culturally, Djibouti is so far away from us in the United States. There were many considerations for how the local people would perceive the girls being filmed by outsiders. We had to make sure they were not being seen in the wrong way by their community. At the same time these girls are pushing some boundaries. It is not common for young girls to participate in sports in Djibouti, but these girls discovered a drive to run, and to compete, and with the support of their families they have found a way to participate in sport. They are doing something not everybody agrees with, and which in some cases brings scorn, but each girl has their own drive which has lead them to run, and to convince their families to let them run. As a filmmaker I have a great obligation to a subject. Despite some of the boundaries and logistical barriers to filming in Djibouti, I felt obliged to find a way to show these girls’ pure and infectious beauty–as runners, as girls, as humans.
In life there are ups and downs, right? Well, for Renaldo da Costa, the contrast between the two is remarkable. Coming from a non-running culture he found running simply because a local race offered a chance to win a radio. Not money, just a radio. He went from chasing toys to being chased by every top East African distance runner in the world. In 1998, in Berlin, he outran every man who ever lived and set the world record in the marathon, finally setting a new mark after the previous one stood for over ten years. His low was equally dramatic. He lost everything from his running form to his family, and even contemplated suicide. He re-emerged in running because others saw that he could help them. He now helps young runners but they also help him. It is their need which gives him a place in the world. He recognizes the balance and he lives with humility as well as an infectious laugh that tells you he knows when life is good and when it’s not.
Running is simple. We don’t need much to do it. However, the effect of running can be complex and long lasting. In Finland, the culture of running is so strong, and nearly every kid grows up learning about the great distance runners known as The Flying Finns. Especially in the 1920s and 1930s those Finns dominated distance running. In the first years of independence from Russia, Finland was made famous for its runners. A small country beat all of the great countries. The underdogs had their day. The transformation from underdog to powerhouse, at least in sport, helped form an identity which remains to this day.The Finns today may not dominate the sport but the deep seeded culture of running stands. While exploring the roots and the great tradition of distance running in Finland, we visited the 2013 national cross country championships. These races were contested by young and old, elite and amateur, and everyone ran their races with a sense of pride which is rooted in their past greatness that has never been surpassed by another country.
While filming this section of the movie I often reminded myself how lucky I was to be there. Mt. Fuji, newly deemed a United Nations World Heritage site, is a shockingly unique landscape of black pumice, splintered weather patterns, and distorted physical scale. Additionally, we were allowed inside a foreign military base to shoot with elite National Guard soldiers while they trained for the annual Mt. Fuji Ekiden, a relay race up to the top of Mt. Fuji, and back down. I find running to be so beautiful. A runner, smooth in stride, and pushing themselves in pace, is something I could point a camera at for days. The Ekiden, these soldiers (all sub-fourteen minute 5k runners), and Mt. Fuji, are all spectacular. As a filmmaker I was being given a privilege I had to respect. One soldier I interviewed spoke a similar sentiment, “The mountain is letting us run on it.”
Throughout making this film I was stumbling back into running. Previously, I ran as a supplement to training for bike races, cyclocross racing specifically (a sport which requires you to run with your bicycle on your shoulder for short distances). Around the time I went to New York to film with Achilles International, I was feeling pretty good about myself as a runner. I’d gotten over the beginner’s hump and I was able to enjoy pushing my pace knowing I’d recover by the next day. Then I found myself next to one of the athletes of the Achilles track club. Dale Layne lost his vision slowly as he became an adult. He ran competitively in high school in his birth country Guyana. After losing his site entirely he moved to New York City and found Achilles International. With the community and structure this organization provides athletes, Dale was able to take up running again. When we planned to film him training in Prospect Park, his usual guide was suddenly not available. Instead of rescheduling the shoot I laced up and served as his guide. The experience was humbling in many ways. It was overwhelming to look ahead to every step and think about what needed to be communicated to a completely blind man. Think how much less complicated it is for most of us to walk out the door and run for thirty minutes. Secondly, Dale was a better runner then me–Humility revived.