Last night I watched Desert Runners on Netflix. It’s a documentary on four amateur runners attempting to complete the 4 Deserts Races in one year, the “Grand Slam” of running. This endeavor takes them around the globe to run 250 kilometers, about 155 miles each race, in some the world’s most extreme climates.
They run in Chile’s Atacama Desert, China’s Gobi Desert, the Sahara in Egypt and around Antarctica through the driest, windiest, hottest and coldest places on the planet, respectively.
Assuming it’d be dry (budum tish), I only planned to watch 30 minutes and wound up glued to it. The scenery alone is incredible. At one point, during the first race in the Atacama Desert, where it hasn’t rained in 400 years, the route takes them over what was once the bottom of the ocean floor. Temperatures during the day are often over 100 degrees, but what a place to go for a run.
Quickly you learn that running is a loose term here. Prior to watching this, I pictured ultra competitors racing full speed ahead nonstop until the finish line the way Scott Jurek and Dean Karnazes describe. These races are broken down over several days. The terrain, conditions, fatigue and body problems force competitors to walk, limp, lie down, bleed, dry heave and show off all kinds of gross blisters I would’ve been okay not seeing. They also laugh, cry, worry, support, hold on to and cheer each other through.
It’s an adventure that actually made me think Hmmm, maybe me, too, if … Then I looked up the obscenely high cost of registration. Each race is about $3800, making this not only an enticing adventure, but a prohibitively expensive one for peasants like me.
The four people highlighted weren’t the only ones going for a Grand Slam in 2010. None of them are crazy and, like probably every single person on the planet, they all have a story to tell. One is recently widowed after losing his wife to cancer. Another is a 22-year-old gunning to be the youngest female ever to complete all four. My favorite is a 56-year-old Irish man from Cork named Frank who runs with spirit, humor and heart.
Ultrarunning is an extremely extreme sport. Dean Karnazes book on his Grand Slam year made it seem like this superhuman feat. This doc delivers the day-by-day of each race. The angst of possibly not being able to finish is articulated and apparent. In showing their grit as well as the highs and lows, you see how ordinary people accomplish something so extraordinary it’s almost inconceivable.
The only part I rolled my eyes at is when we meet the four runners and a few of them say they chose this challenge because they didn’t want to conform by just running marathons. These ultras are epic and the appeal of the challenge is understandable, but no need for snobbery.
The annoying part is gone in a flash. I loved this movie and if the universe were to send me a free pass to any race, I’d attempt the Antarctica one. Wouldn’t you? Not sure if non-runners would enjoy it, but maybe. If you need a little inspiration in striving for something difficult, watching these runners grit it out offers a hefty dose.