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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Film Review: Desert Runners

A new documentary explores the life of times of ultrarunners.

by: Ian Bagley

image: Smush Media
image: Smush Media

“I think people have gotten saturated with marathons…I think that’s why I didn’t want to just run a marathon—It just seemed too conventional.” — Ricky Paugh

There’s certainly a good argument to be made that marathons and masochistic obstacle races—we’re looking at you, Tough Mudder—have hit a saturation point in the United States. After all, everyone from your neighbor to your co-worker to your 13-year-old nephew is running one these days. Been there, done that.

But if going back to “conventional” racing, as 33-year-old ultrarunner Ricky Paugh puts it in the enthralling new documentary Desert Runners, means running through blistering heat and bitter cold in some of the most desolate places on Earth, then, uh, maybe we’ll stick to our well-manicured Rock n’ Roll races after all.

Desert Runners chronicles four international ultra-runners—Paugh; 25-year-old Australian Samantha Gash; 40-year-old Brit Tremaine Kent; and 56-year-old Irishman Dave O’Brien—who are attempting to become “Grand Slammers” by completing four 250-kilometer (155 miles) races in four of the world’s harshest deserts in the same year. Unlike legendary marathoner Dean Karnazes, the first to complete the feat in 2008, these men and women are not professional athletes chasing fame and sponsorship. They’re doing it for pure sport.

Director Jennifer Steinman certainly has plenty of gorgeous scenery to work with as she follows the runners around the globe. The action moves from the Atacama Desert to the Gobi, to the Sahara, and concludes on the Antarctic ice. Interspersing race footage with racer interviews, the film moves briskly and sure-footedly right alongside its subjects.

Still, casual viewers will likely find themselves asking: Why do they do it? What are these runners trying to prove? O’Brien, the oldest of the four, gives as close to an answer as the film is able to provide:. “Doing these four deserts, it’s proving to myself that I can do this for me…it’s not for television or to write a book, the real truth is it’s me against me.”

Whether or not that answer satisfies your curiosity completely, there’s no denying that Desert Runners is a propulsive and inspiring look at the lives of those who stretch endurance to the breaking point.

Desert Runners is screening in select cities worldwide.

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