Many movies have captured the compelling drama of running, racing, and the athletes who have popularized the sport throughout the decades. Some have approached the sport through documentaries of running legends and landmark races, while others have fictionalized stories that help bring emotional and physical aspects of the pursuit to life. The following five movies stand out as classic films devoted to running—providing compelling narratives about runners of all stripes and the sport they live for. While some focus on the stars of the sport, others provide gripping narratives of amateur runners and less prominent athletes. Remarkably, however, their challenges and triumphs share common bonds—demonstrating the power of sport to serve as metaphor for the achievements and difficulties everyone faces.
5. Spirit of the Marathon
Spirit of the Marathon provides a unique, compelling view into the training and drum-up to the Chicago Marathon. For professionals Deena Kastor and Daniel Njenga, the event holds the promise of increased stature in the professional running circuit. For Ryan Bradley, the marathon holds the opportunity for him to qualify for Boston. Lori O’Connor, a first-time marathon runner, the race embodies the challenge of the unknown. For Jerry Myers, a 70-something veteran of long distance running, the event holds the opportunity to continue following his passion. Leah Caille runs the race as a newcomer to the sport, taking on her first marathon after a painful divorce. By juxtaposing the diverging stories of each runner, Spirit of the Marathon demonstrates how races bring together people who all strive to accomplish differing goals within a singular event: for some, a marathon is an opportunity to win prestige and sponsorships, and for others the event is as much a challenge for the mind as it is for the body.
4. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Based off of Alan Sillitoe’s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner recalls the story of a rebellious youngster named Smith who finds comfort and security through his running skills while attending classes at a reformatory school after stealing from a local bakery. Running provides him with moments of quiet reflection to consider the choices he made—and the choices made for him—that led him to the borstal prison in which he finds himself. The film is set in a grim, early 60s Britain and brings to light the class struggles which mark the tenor of the decade throughout the country. The boy, echoing his dismal surroundings, struggles with his own choices as well as his status as a prized athlete within the borstal—forcing him to choose between acceptance and authenticity. Sillitoe’s story seeks resonates with people of all stripes: runners can relate to the sense of peace and reflection provided by solitary runs, while non-runners can relate to the challenges we all face to our moral integrity on a daily basis.
3. Run for Your Life
Run for Your Life chronicles the early stages of the New York Road Runners club and its eccentric, prolific founder Fred Lebow. Emigrating from Europe, Lebow helped organize the small, tight-knit long-distance running community in New York City to create some of the first organized races within the metropolis. Beginning with a humble 55 runners in the inaugural New York City Marathon in 1970, Lebow helped to make the event a cultural and athletic institution within New York’s burgeoning running scene. Overseeing the New York City Marathon from its humble roots, through to its expansion across each of New York’s five boroughs, and then on to its legendary status as a premier running event worldwide, Lebow cemented his status as a legend within the running community in New York City and beyond. The documentary features interviews with Lebow’s colleagues, founding members of New York Road Runners, and archival press material culled before Lebow’s death in 1994. While the film chronicles the work of Lebow, it also features a rich and compelling view into a New York City gripped by economic stagnation, crime, and decay—using the marathon as a metaphor for urban revival.
2. Chariots of Fire
This seminal, four-time Oscar-winning film retells the story of British sprinters Harold Abrahams and Erick Liddell during the 1924 Olympics. With Abrahams running to overcome the Jewish prejudices he faces, Liddell dedicates his running as a Christian to the glory of God. The movie chronicles the adversity each runner faces in regard to their faith: Abrahams uses running to gain respect in a culture where he is not completely accepted, while Liddell rekindles his connection with God through running—while experiencing challenges and setbacks due to his devotion to his faith. Using running as a powerful metaphor, the movie examines the varying factors that motivate people to seek greatness in daily life, using running as a method of examining the human condition. The film demonstrates the uncanny ability of sport to help individuals overcome personal setbacks as well as the promise that athletics has to break social and cultural barriers.
1. Fire on the Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story
While the biopic Prefontaine may be the better-known film (and is a fantastic, critically-acclaimed film within its own right), Fire on the Track provides a firsthand account of the running legend’s life, accomplishments, and struggles through interviews with his family, coaches, colleagues, and Prefontaine himself. Known for his brash, outspoken, and larger-than-life attitude, Prefontaine has become a legend in distance running since his rise to prominence in the 1970s. The documentary focuses on Prefontaine’s 1972 Olympic trials, culminating in his heartbreaking loss in the 5,000 meter event at the Munich games. Narrated by Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest among other works, the film brings to life the legend of Prefontaine in an accessible and poignant light. For viewers interested in a linear, story-based view into the legend of Prefontaine should also pursue the biopic Prefontaine, released in 1997. The movie provides an account into the famous runner’s life that was formed and envisioned by his parents, providing a compelling glimpse into his life, legend, and untimely death.