Movie Review — McFarland USA #running #moviereviews

running-advice-bugIt isn’t very often that a good movie about running comes along. McFarland USA is indeed a movie about running and it’s a very good all around movie too. I think you runners will enjoy it.

Disney's McFarland USA

Disney’s McFarland USA

McFarland is the underdog story of underdog stories, as a newly formed team of high school cross-country runners from an impoverished farming community face pretentious rivals in the first-ever California State Cross-country meet. Set in 1987 in the rural town of McFarland, California, we go along for a ride with a bunch of young runners that are long on natural talent and work ethic, even while they are not taken seriously by their rivals. The story is about forming a team, working hard and winning against all odds.

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As with all sports movies, there’s more to McFarland than running. In truth, this story is maybe half about running. The other half of the movie is a story about cultural integration, family dynamics and understanding. This story is where we build our relationship with both the running coach and his students and that’s where this film really shines. McFarland is a picture with a lot of heart and its from that heart that we develop a deep affection for the runners and really pull for them as they try to win. We care about the team by the end of the film, because we care about the characters and really want them to succeed. This is the level on which McFarland succeeds as a movie as well.

McFarland features a somewhat typical fish-out-of-water premise to begin with: a teacher and coach moving to a small, rural town in which he and his family are pretty close to the only non-Hispanic residents. He’s blessed, in true “couldn’t have been written better if it were fiction” style with the last name “White” which quickly gets him the nickname “Blanco.” While the first act of the movie unfolds a little slowly, it’s nice to see that the outsider is not riding in on a white horse of infallibility. Quite the contrary, he’s the bud of many jokes and makes some big mistakes early on. This really is a story of learning that works both ways. By the end of the second act, this movie is hitting on all cylinders and we are invested and pulling for the team.
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Should you go see Unbroken for the running? #Unbrokenmovie #running #marathon #moviereviews

running-advice-bugI get pretty excited when a movie comes along that incorporates running as one of its story elements. There have been some great movies about running, or that featured running heavily (e.g. Forest Gump), as well as some real dopes. After seeing the trailer for Unbroken (#UnbrokenMovie) I got revved up by a story about Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. I got out my notepad and headed for the multi-plex to see if you runners might like the film.

Jack O'Connell as Louis Zamperini in Unbroken Photo by David James - © 2014 - Universal Pictures

Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini in Unbroken Photo by David James – © 2014 – Universal Pictures

First things first, the trailer advertising the film is 2 minutes and 36 seconds long. A full forty seconds of the first minute features the running story. That’s more than a passing mention. You can certainly come away with the idea that this is a movie about running, but it really isn’t. It IS the story of an Olympic runner and it IS the story of war hero who suffers horrendous torture as a prisoner of war. However, out of the lengthy two hour and seventeen minute (2:17:00) movie only about 10-12 minutes is actually about running. (Side note: I find the timing interesting here in that Paula Radcliffe’s most recognized women’s world record in the Marathon is 2:17:18. Co-incidence? She actually ran her fastest marathon in 2:15:25, or about two minutes less than it took to tell this story.)

Back to the running. I’ll first give the filmmakers props for doing a nice job shooting the few running scenes in the film. Capturing runners is tough to do, because they’re moving — and they move fast. That means that you need to have the cameras in motion and keep them stable while doing so. Most movies about running minimize this by having the runners run past stationary cameras, which means you get quick glimpses of the action rather than sustained shots. But here, we see some nice sustained action shots of the runners racing around the vintage dirt tracks of the era. The long-spiked style shoes look authentic enough and leading actor Jack O’Connell looks right at home whizzing around the track.

So how do they do with the history as it relates to Zamperini’s running? Again, they do a passing job. They compress the story by sort of rolling a number of important races into one. The film shows Zamperini being spiked in the shin and then surging to win a high-school track competition. This more famously happened in a later competition when Zamperini ran his personal best mile in college at the University of Southern California (although it may have happened any number of times in that era.) Also, the announcer concludes the call of the race in the film by saying, “… and with that, he qualifies to go to the Olympics.” That’s not quite true. In this particular race, Zamperini did set a world interscholastic mile record of 4:21.2, but this did not qualify him for the Olympics. It wasn’t until two years later in 1936 that he qualified for the Olympics in what can only be described as one of his most amazing performances. In the 1936 Olympic Trials, Zamperini finished in a dead-heat tie with American Record Holder Don Lash in record high-temperatures. The race was so hot that several runners collapsed during the race. I really question why the writers would leave out this performance, but then with the film at 2:17:00 in length, we can probably guess.
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Movie — Hood To Coast (The Movie)

running-advice-bugThe opening shot of the new documentary Hood To Coast starts with a lone runner, making her way through the darkness. Her headlamp is bobbing up and down and only the sound of her footfalls break the silence of the night. We see a series of small lights stretched out behind her, as other runners make their way, quietly padding through the night as individuals, but all going in the same direction. Then, out of almost nowhere, another light comes from behind her and like a jet-plane, another run blows past her, leaving her in his wake.

The crowd at last night’s premiere here in Portland instantly roared with laughter upon seeing this. And they were not laughing at the runner being passed, but rather laughing at the thought that at some time this had happened to each and every one of them. Being roadkill is part of Hood To Coast and this audience got it.

Hood To Coast (The Movie) made its debut last night in Portland, home-base to the iconic relay that draws more than 12,000 runners and walkers here every August. The film was also shown in theaters nationwide as part of a one-time event that drew runners from all parts of the United States. The Portland premiere was a unique and wonderful way to see this new film, because the audience was wholly made up of people that have not only run this event, but love it to the very core. These were, after all, the folks that were willing to up to $75 to see the movie on its opening night. They were hard-core, many of them sporting running shoes with there black-tie attire, and they loved every minute of this movie.

After the film, one of its producers told me that the audience did react differently here in Portland. “They laughed and clapped at points that were different than other audiences that have seen the film,” she told me. “The film really connected with this audience.”
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Book Review — Run Like a Mother (McDowell & Bowen Shea)

running-advice-bugWhen co-author Sarah Bowen Shea told me a few months ago that she had just finished a book aimed at marathon running moms I was intrigued. Being the father of a toddler myself, I have experienced first-hand the turmoil that bringing a child into the family can unleash. For women, the birth of a child is a sort of dog-pile of changes – from caring for a new baby, to finding body parts in new shapes (or perhaps misshapen), to dealing with massive sleep deprivation – and that’s all on top of new round-the-clock baby care. Where does that leave marathon running moms?

Run Like A Mother

If you want to know the answer to the question, pick up a copy of Run Like a Mother: How to Get Moving – and Not Lose Your Family, Job, or Sanity. Co-authored by Dimity McDowell and Sarah Bowen Shea, the book is an essential resource for any mom that wants to start or continue running after the arrival of those little bundles of joy (and complications).

McDowell and Bowen Shea are not shy to dive into the sometimes messy world of motherhood. Sure marathon runners are accustomed to talk of Porta-Potties and diarrhea, but how about newly leaking body parts, breast feeding concerns, or how moms might go about finding a running partner.

Take a peek at the table of contents and you’ll find chapters with such unusually frank titles as “Potty talk: peeing, pooping, passing gas and periods” or “Body Image: the weighting game.” Run Like a Mother covers a lot of ground with discussions of everything from choosing music for your runs to dealing with post-pregnancy issues.
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Book Review — Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

“Everything about the Tarahumara seemed backward, taunting, as irritatingly ungraspable as a Zen master’s riddles. The toughest guys were the gentlest; battered legs were the bounciest; the healthiest people had the crappiest diet; the illiterate race was the wisest; the guys working the hardest were having the most fun…”

So begins the exploration of a riddle by author Christopher McDougall in his excellent book Born to Run.

I will say at the outset of this review that I could not, in fact did not, put this book down as I read it cover to cover on an airplane ride recently. I was transfixed with the McDougall’s glorious story telling and hanging in anticipation to see what would come next. After reading a few chapters, I was ready to bestow a title on this book that I have always hoped to bestow: best running book ever. Alas, I can’t quite go that far, for reasons that I will explain, but this book comes close. Born to Run provides an interesting and exciting portrait of a part of the sport of running that most of us don’t even know exists.

Born to Run is part action adventure story and part scientific exploration into the art of running. The backdrop of the story was Christopher McDougall’s investigative reporting into an indigenous culture of the isolated Mexican region known as the Barrancas del Cobre or Copper Canyons. The people, known as the Tarahumara, live in this isolated region with a culture mostly unchanged from their ancestors. They live in caves and small cliff dwellings. They are known for their ability to hide and disappear when approached, giving them an almost ghostlike quality in history. And they are known to run. They have been famed for their ability to run gracefully, effortlessly, and with seemingly unending energy over amazing distances. Running is a part of their culture, it is a means of transportation, and it is also a social outlet and a way of staying healthy.

McDougall began researching the Tarahumara after seeing a picture of one of their members in a magazine photo. The picture showed a man running down a steep slope in his traditional Tarahumara garb and the traditional sandals that their people wear for running. He was fascinated by the photo and started to following the trail; He began exploring the history of the Tarahumara, their few appearances with modern competitive running and a mysterious character called the Caballo Blanco, who becomes a central figure in the story.

Caballo Blanco, who McDougall hoped to meet in order to talk about the ways of the Tarahumara, was at the time of their meeting in the very early stages of hoping to stage a race between some of the best ultra-runners in the modern competitive arena and some the best Tarahumara runners. The timing may have been a coincidence, but it allowed McDougall to chronicle this race that pitted Tarahumara runners on their home turf against Scott Jurek and other top runners. Born to Run faithfully tells us the story leading up to the race and then gives us the play-by-play of the race itself (in which McDougall was also a participant).
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Movie Review: The Long Green Line (2008)

long-green-lineI have to admit that I didn’t run out to see the new documentary The Long Green Line. Direct Mathew Arnold sent me a copy to review right in the midst of the peak of marathon season, so the film sat on my desk for a few weeks. Now I wish I had seen it sooner.

The Long Green Line presents a season with the cross country running team from York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois. The school, located outside of Chicago, is a typically suburban high school in most respects, but its cross country team is nothing short of extraordinary. The film chronicles a season with the boys team as they try for their 25th Illinois state title in 45 years. The team is the most winning sports team of any high school, in any sport, in the United States.

At the heart of the cross country program’s success is the coaching of Joe Newton and his assistants. The film, while following the team through the season, is more of a portrait of the coaching styles of Newton and his approach at reaching the boys in his program. He emphasizes discipline, character, and respect in his training. “It’s nice to be great, but far greater to be nice,” he says.

Perhaps what sets Newton apart from coaches of today’s age is that he seems to be able to not only instill a desire to win and excel on the field of sport, but he is able to get these kids to want to be good people at the same time. ‘We make them into good people first, then good runners,’ is an ideal that he espouses in the film.

To say that all running coaches should see this film is to sell the film short. Truly everyone that works with high-school aged boys should see this film. You can watch before your eyes how a true master gets his message through and makes a profound influence on the lives of these young men.
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Movie Review: Run, Fat Boy, Run

run-fat-boy-runThe movie Run, Fat Boy, Run might not be technically very astute when it comes to running, but it brings some good laughs to the subject of training for a marathon. And, in its more poignant moments, it actually provides a bit of insight into some of the reasons that might actually propel a person to take on a the marathon challenge in the first place.

Directed by David Schwimmer of Friends fame, the film stars Simon Pegg, Thandie Newton and Hank Azaria. Simon Pegg plays Dennis Doyle, who in the opening sequence of the film, leaves his bride to be at the altar on their wedding day — and with her expecting their child no less. Five years later, we are re-introduced to Dennis, who is now working as a security guard in a women’s underwear store, smoking too much, and having added a big round belly at his middle.

His ex Libby (Thandie Newton), meanwhile, has moved on with her life and is doing well with a new boyfriend named Whit played by Hank Azaria. Whit seems to be a good guy: rich, handsome, and doing his best to get in with Libby’s son. He is also a devoted marathon runner, training for an upcoming race just a few weeks in the future.

Dennis, hitting bottom in his life, decides that he’ll run the marathon too — mostly to show Libby that he’s changed, by becoming more disciplined and sticking with something for once in his life.

The comedy starts in earnest when Dennis begins his training with his two coaches, his good friend who has bet a large amount of money on his finishing the race, and his landlord Mr. Goshdashtidar. One of the funniest exchanges comes as Dennis is forced out onto one of his first training runs and questions Mr. Goshdashtidar as to what qualifications he has to be the Assistant Coach: “I have the spatula!” he answers, thwacking hard him on the butt to get him moving.
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Movies: Spirit of the Marathon in theaters again Feb 21st 2008

The new documentary Spirit of the Marathon will be back in theaters for one more showing tomorrow night — February 21st 2008.

These special screenings are in advance of a wider release and a DVD release later this year. The film received excellent praise from movie-goers last month when it made its debut.

Spirit of the Marathon follows athletes of different levels through their training for the Chicago Marathon. It includes both elite and first time runners in the people that it follows. Also featured are interviews with marathon luminaries from around the sport.

You can find out more about the film, including links to locations of theaters in our original posting by clicking here.

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Movies: Spirit of the Marathon debuts

There have been a few — and only a few — good movies made about running. It’s admittedly quite difficult to capture the energy and drama of running on film. There have also been a few documentaries that have tried to distill the pain and drama of running long distances onto the silver screen, most of which have failed to really capture any of it.

Spirit of the Marathon

January 24th 2008, a new documentary hit theaters that takes on the marathon in grand form. Spirit of the Marathon debuts in a special 500 theater screening across the country.

Filmed on four continents, the movie brings together a diverse cast of amateur athletes and marathon luminaries. The film includes interviews with running greats like Dick Beardsley, Paula Radcliffe, Bill Rodgers, Toshihiko Seko and Grete Waitz.
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Book Review: The First Marathon (Susan Reynolds)

First Marathon Cover Art

If you’re a marathon runner with kids, you’ve probably had the experience of trying to explain the concept of the marathon to them. I tried one time, with my nephew, who had come to see me at a marathon finish and I was met with a sort of glazed over look and a long list of questions that began with the word “why”. It’s hard for kids to grasp the concept of running so far, and harder still to understand the historical tradition behind the marathon.

Author Susan Reynolds has tackled the subject in a children’s book called “The First Marathon: the Legend of Pheidippides.” In this beautifully illustrated book, she tells the historical tale of Pheidippides and his runs from Athens to Sparta and Athens to Marathon in 490 B.C.

The book is aimed at grade school aged children, perhaps from grades 3-5 or thereabouts depending on the child.

Reynolds does a nice job of sketching out the role of running as method of communicating in Ancient Greece and then nicely draws a picture of why Pheidippides would have been sent from Athens to seek the help of Sparta in the face of the coming invasion by the Persian army of King Darius. I thought she did a nice job of tying back the fact that Pheidippides, being a soldier, then had to fight in the battle af Marathon as a soldier before making his final run from Marathon to Athens to spread the news of victory.

Some reviewers in other forums found the language to be overly sweet in places, but I thought the book read well aloud and has kept the attention of those to whom I’ve read it recently.

The book concludes by telling readers that modern marathons are held around the world in celebration of Pheidippides act of bravery. “This would be a sad story if it stopped here,” writes Reynolds, “but it doesn’t. Nearly twenty-five hundred years after his death, Pheidippides is remembered. He is a hero to the Greeks and to runners everywhere.”

Another nice feature of the book is a more in-depth two-page exploration of the development of the modern marathon at the end of the book. Not a part of the story itself, it provides some nice background about marathon running in general that you and other adult readers might find interesting. Reynolds also briefly concludes the book with a note on her sources, explaining how she put together the details of the story.

So for any of you that have been met with puzzled expressions when trying to explain what you do as a marathon runner, this will make a nice addition to your library. It’s a lovely book that you’ll want to have in your home for your children.

The First Marathon: The Legend of Pheidippides is available on-line from for a list price of $16.95.

Coach Joe English, Portland, Oregon USA

Title: The First Marathon: The legend of Pheidippides
Author: Susan Reynolds
Illustrator: Daniel Minter
Publisher: Albert, Whitman and Co. (2006)
Reading level: ages 4-8