Q&A With Spirit of the Marathon Director Jon Dunham
There have been many attempts through the years to capture the essence and meaning of the marathon, through books, articles, and motivational speeches. Now a young filmmaker, Jon Dunham, has brought his version to the big screen, with the feature-length documentary Spirit of the Marathon.
Posted Thursday, 17 April, 2008
The film delves deeply into the lives of six runners who took on the 2005 Chicago Marathon, including elite world-class competitors, first-timers, and a veteran back-of-the-packer.
The film is captivating in its intimacy. The featured runners willingly share their hopes and dreams—as well as their fears and insecurities—in the weeks and months leading up to and on race day. As happens in all marathons, for some the race brings ecstasy, while for others the primary emotions are disappointment and frustration. Interwoven into the film are rare glimpses into the history of the sport, the building blocks that created the widespread culture of the marathon that has become a worldwide phenomenon in the early 21st century. The scenes of Deena Kastor and Kenyan Daniel Njenga in their home training environments are worth in the price of admission in and of themselves.
After a nationwide showing in January and an encore in February, Spirit of the Marathon is coming to Boston on marathon weekend. With the Olympic Trials scheduled for the day before this year’s Boston Marathon, it is especially timely, as trials favorite and 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor is one of the six runners featured in the film. For more information on the showing in Boston on April 17, visit www.marathonmovie.com We had a chance to interview Jon Dunham recently. A variety of subjects were covered in the interview. We hope you enjoy both the interview that follows and the film.
CR: What motivated you to take on this project?
JD: The genesis of Spirit of the Marathon came out of my own marathon running experiences. I ran my first in Los Angeles in 1993 and was completely captivated by the event. Since then, I've run at least one marathon every year, and 24 to date. Like so many others who have taken on the challenge, I discovered it to be a very empowering experience. It really gave me the confidence to attempt big things in life and Spirit of the Marathon is a direct result of that.
Kenya was absolutely a life-changing experience.
Why did you choose Chicago, as opposed to another marathon?
While I always wanted to capture the spectacle of the marathon and its epic scale in the filming of a big city event, Chicago became the epicenter of this for a number of different reasons. First and foremost, this was related to the characters themselves. Specifically, I wanted to feature someone attempting to qualify for Boston, and where do people do this? Typically on a flat, fast course. Also, Deena Kastor, was the first official "star" signed on to the film and she had decided to run Chicago. So in this way, the characters themselves dictated where we filmed.
Another more practical consideration had to do with the layout of the course itself. Since Chicago is not a point-to-point course like New York, there were certain logistical advantages to the fact that the runners were always returning to the downtown loop of Chicago. This enabled us to move camera crews around very efficiently and to quickly capture different areas on the course.
What is your own running background?
I attended a very small high school, which had no cross country team and no track team. In fact, the only running we did in physical education was 1.5 miles once or twice a year. While most groaned, I loved it. Running was something that I was naturally somewhat good at and this developing love ultimately led me to the marathon, which I ran for the first time when I was 15...without training!
You must have done quite a bit of research on the history of the marathon. What was the most surprising information you learned from that research?
I did years of research on the history of the marathon in preparation for the making of the film. I must have read a good 40 books, I looked at every running related film I could find and hours upon hours of archival footage, I developed relationships and friendships with key people in the sport, and I even had the opportunity to visit some of the sites that are most significant in the event's history (e.g. the town of Marathon in Greece and the tomb of the Athenian soldiers, Windsor Castle in the U.K. and the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the first women's Olympic Marathon took place). There are many wonderful pieces of trivia that I found and someday I would love to do a film simply on the history of the marathon itself.
That said, some details that stand out have to do with the very origins of the event. While the Olympic Marathon of 1896 was officially the first contested "marathon" so to speak, there was actually a full marathon trials race held prior to this, which the Greek athletes had to run in order to compete in the Olympics. Related to this is also the fascinating rumor that a woman may have run the first Olympic Marathon.
How did you end up choosing to profile the runners that appeared in the film?
We did a mass casting call across North America, then met with a lot of people and put the cast together based on these meetings. The runners featured in Spirit of the Marathon were chosen in order to represent a diverse spectrum of the marathon running population. I certainly always wanted to follow a first-time marathoner and capture that magical experience, as well as someone attempting to qualify for Boston. I was also interested in following someone who was running for a charity and an older runner as well. And then of course there are the elite athletes. I always intended to film specifically a Kenyan runner and one of my original concepts was to follow someone who was pursuing a record. I was blessed to find this person in Deena Kastor.
It should also be noted that following a mix of both "slow" as well as "fast" runners was always what we intended to do. Spirit of the Marathon was never meant to be exclusively a film about elite marathoners or amateurs. It is this tremendous diversity that is part of what makes it such a unique and empowering event.
Did they all know what they were getting in for? That you would follow them around in their daily lives so closely? Did any of the featured runners have second thoughts as the project progressed? Or did they accept the cameras as a normal part of their lives?
Everyone who was filmed was briefed on how personal the filming would become. That said, I think the moment that it really hit everyone that they were part of a major motion picture came when they at last witnessed their journeys projected on the big screen!
As for the actual production, there was certainly a “breaking the ice” period, but over time everyone really warmed up to the camera being around. I am very grateful to all of them for having the courage to be a part of the film and for their never ending support of the project. We couldn't have made the film without Daniel, Deena, Jerry, Leah, Lori and Ryan.
Did interacting with Deena and Daniel give you a greater appreciation for how hard elite marathoners train and what is need to mentally prepare for a major marathon?
I never had any doubts about how hard elite athletes train in preparation for a race. I think what was most remarkable to me where Daniel and Deena were concerned was there graciousness and accessibility. Deena was a star from day one. She was always completely open with the camera and at ease no matter what the circumstances were, even when she was injured. She's just an incredibly positive, upbeat person and a lot of fun to be around.
Daniel was our Godsend in Japan and Africa. He looked after us, helped us order meals off of foreign menus and even picked up the camera and did some filming himself on a couple of occasions. He's an incredibly endearing person.
What stuck with you most about the Kenyan culture, and how long distance running fits into that culture?
Kenya was absolutely a life-changing experience. Running is truly a way of life there. There's so much incredible talent and kids take it very seriously at a young age. It's remarkable to see a local track where they all train.
How did you arrange the cameras during the marathon on order to continuously follow the runners throughout the race?
In total, we used 30 high definition cameras and a crew of more than 100 people during the filming of the marathon. Generally speaking, the crews were divided up between those filming with the actual runners featured and the filming the marathon itself. The amateur runners were followed with pedicab cycles throughout the entire race and the elites were filmed from motorcycles. The pedicab riders literally could not pedal fast enough to keep up with the world class athletes!
Have you kept in touch with the runners you profiled in the film? You must find yourself rooting for Deena Kastor in the upcoming Olympic Trials race.
I am in regular contact with everyone in the film and they are also in contact with each other. We all became very good friends through the experience and we're all cheering for Deena at the trials!
If you had to put it into words, how would you describe “the spirit of the marathon?”
The "spirit of the marathon" exemplifies the power of the human spirit. We are all capable of so much more than we can imagine.
Overall, have you been happy with how the film has been received by the public, and the box office attendance?
I have been thrilled by the response to Spirit of the Marathon. Like the marathon itself, it was a very long journey making this film and the finish line has been incredibly rewarding. I'm so grateful to have been able to make this film.
Will the film go to DVD at some point?
The DVD will be released in the fall and will include some wonderful extra features.
Do you have any future film projects planned?
I have many different projects at different stages of development right now. Time will tell which ones make it to the big screen.