“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
The film Desert Runners begins with Theodore Roosevelt’s quote, and over 99 minutes, it follows four amateur runners who are attempting to complete four 250-km stage races in a single calendar year in the world’s toughest desert arenas: the Atacama, the Gobi, the Sahara, and Antarctica. These races, which comprise Racing the Planet’s 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series, are known popularly as the 4 Deserts Grand Slam. The 4 Deserts Grand Slam was first completed in 2008 by Dean Karnazes, who also served as an executive producer for the film, and by South African runner Paul Liebenberg.
Director Jennifer Steinman was inspired to make the film after attending a health and nutrition conference where Dave O’Brien, one of the runners featured in the film, announced that at age 56, he was going to run the Grand Slam. After hearing O’Brien, Steinman became interested in people’s perceptions of their own limitations—“how can one person think something is totally possible, when most others would perceive it as ‘impossible’?” Within two months of hearing O’Brien speak, Steinman had begun filming.
It is always impressive when a film can make a past sports event, where the outcome is already determined, exciting. The film highlights the tremendous accomplishments of the runners without shying away from the difficulties they faced on the courses. In 2010, when the film was made, a runner died of complications related to heatstroke during the Gobi Desert race, and the filmmakers captured the reaction of runners and race organizers. The film effectively balances coverage of the background stories on the runners with footage of races. For those who would never consider running even a single desert stage race, let alone four, it shows, often in very compelling terms, why reasonably sane people choose to do so.
The film does have shortcomings. It would have been nice, for example, if the film had provided more detail on the structure of the races—for example, how many aid stations were on the courses and how they were spaced. Also, the races were generally six days and 250 kilometers, but at times the runners seemed to be running through the night. I couldn’t help but wonder how long they rested before running again the next day. It also would have been interesting to know how fast the winners ran the courses and how long the slower runners spent out there. The filmmakers may have intentionally omitted such details to keep the focus on the runners’ struggle rather than the logistics, but including more information about the organization of the races would have given greater context to the runners’ stories.
These flaws aside, the film should appeal to a wide audience, not just to ultrarunners but to anyone looking for inspiration. The trials of the runners featured are a strong endorsement of Roosevelt’s statement that the one who counts is the one who makes the attempt, the one “who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
The film is available for purchase (including an option to download) on the website.
Watch the trailer: