At the 2011 Vermont 100, Zak Wieluns cruised through the mile 89 aid station elated that he was on his way to his first 100-mile finish. His crew, including close friend Mike Mooney, wished him luck and drove to the finish line, expecting to see him a few hours later. As the hours passed, Mooney realized something was wrong. He eventually felt a tap on his shoulder, turned around, and saw Wieluns’s pacer, who said, “come with me.” Mooney followed to the medical tent, where he found many injured and ill runners, including Wieluns, who immediately started apologizing for not finishing. The pain had become so bad that he’d had to drop just eight miles from the finish.
The very next day, Wieluns announced that he would run the VT 100 again in 2012. True to his word, Wieluns took his place at the starting line the following July. Wieluns admits that he was probably undertrained in 2011, but he trained harder in 2012. By race day, he was in the best shape of his life. But about 30 miles into the race, Wieluns mentioned to a crew member that his knee was feeling a little “wonky.” By the next aid station, his knee couldn’t support any weight: he had ruptured a cyst. Mooney wasn’t at the 2012 race, but he remembers being heartbroken for Wieluns when he heard the news.
Wieluns still didn’t give up. He knew he was disciplined enough to train for a 100-miler and strong enough to run one. When registration for the 2013 Vermont 100 opened last December, he didn’t hesitate to sign up. But he did hesitate when Mooney came to him with the idea. Mooney, now an independent filmmaker, proposed to make a documentary about the Vermont 100, with Wieluns as the star. Wieluns wondered whether he was the kind of guy people make running movies about. The answer: no, which, he realized, was exactly why the movie should be made.
On July 20, when Wieluns returns to the Vermont 100, he won’t have just his crew and pacer for company. He’ll also be followed by film crew members from Hammer & Saw Films, a company founded by Mooney and Will Peters, who will be there to capture footage for a feature-length documentary called 100: Head/Heart/Feet. The documentary will tell the story of the hundreds of runners who trail the lead pack—the runners who are on the course hours after the winner has crawled into his sleeping bag for a few hours of shuteye before the awards ceremony. It will capture not only the journey of Wieluns as he runs the Vermont 100 but also the camaraderie forged between runners, crews, and volunteers during the 20 or 30 (or more) hours on the course.
It would be hard to find a better leading man for this story than Wieluns. He is, in Peters’s words, the “everyman” of ultrarunning. Wieluns went for his first run in 2002, when he, Mooney, and Peters were students at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H. He had a simple goal: to impress a girl. The run did not go as planned. “When he got back, he looked like he was going to die,” Mooney recalls. “It was hilarious.”
But Wieluns persisted, both with running and with the girl, Lenka, who is now Wieluns’s wife. The two moved to Slovakia, where Lenka grew up. There, Wieluns began running more seriously. He was still trying to impress Lenka (and her father), but he also found that he truly enjoyed running. When he returned to the U.S. in 2008, Wieluns signed up for his first ultramarathon, the Pineland 50k, and he never really looked back. In 2011, he even recruited Mooney to run an ultra with him.
Still, Wieluns is not the sort of runner who will make a living from the sport. “I’m just kind of a normal guy,” he says. “I really have no real running talent. The improvements I have made in my running have just come from hard work.” He works a full-time job, and he and Lenka recently welcomed their first child. One of the goals of the filmmakers is to show how someone with a family, a job, and normal athletic ability can train for a 100-mile race. To this end, they gave Wieluns a GoPro digital camera, which he has used since February to record much of his training, including runs that start as early as 4:30 a.m. so that he can get in his miles and still be home in time to deliver Lenka her morning coffee.
Wieluns may be a reluctant leading man, but his humility seems likely to lend a certain charm to the documentary. He was shy about having his VO2 max tested for the film because it meant that he had to run with his shirt off on camera. And he knows that the movie may capture some very intimate moments as the race progresses. Mooney remembers well some of the things he saw while crewing at the 2011 Vermont 100, including runners vomiting, collapsing, or stripping off almost all of their clothing to rub Vaseline on their chafed skin. Wieluns cringes a little at the prospect of having such scenes recorded, and he concedes that having the camera crews there puts extra pressure on him to finish. But by the late stages of the race, he says, all he’ll worry about is putting one foot in front of the other.
As for Mooney, filming his friend as he attempts to finish a hundred will be “a little bit of a balancing act.” He says that the role of the documentary filmmaker is to be present but to make it seem as though you are not. At the same time, his friendship with Wieluns means that he won’t be able to help being emotionally affected by the outcome. “If he does finish, if he doesn’t finish, I’m going to be emotional,” he says.
The role of documentary filmmaker is a new one for Peters and Mooney, who have so far honed their filmmaking skills making short, fictional pieces. But if the trailer is any indication of their abilities, it seems Mooney and Peters will be more than comfortable in this new genre. On race day, Peters, whom Mooney refers to as a “magician” of cinematography, will be in charge of the crew. He and Mooney will be at many of the aid stations filming, and they’ll also be directing a crew of about 15 to more remote locations along the course. With the help of Colby-Sawyer’s video unit, Windcrossing Production, Mooney and Peters anticipate capturing hundreds of hours of footage, which they will add to footage they’ve been taking since February and to post-race interviews. Wieluns will also be wearing a microphone for much of the race to capture audio, and his pacer will wear a GoPro.
After the race, editing will take a few months. Mooney and Peters anticipate having the final product ready in late fall or early winter for documentary film festivals and a few regional showings before releasing it on DVD.
Mooney and Peters hope that this film about an everyman of ultrarunning will appeal not only to runners and documentary filmmakers but to a broader audience. The story isn’t just about running, Peters says, it’s about “family, love, breaking barriers, and never giving up.” Mooney found himself “absolutely blown away” by the community of ultrarunning when he first crewed for Wieluns at the VT 100, and he wants the film to give others a taste of what he has seen. As for Wieluns, he hopes that the story of one normal runner will inspire others to get outside and attempt something that seems impossible. “That’s why I do it, to get to the top of the mountain,” he says. “There’s nothing like it.”
Watch the trailer for the film below. You can follow the film production and Wieluns’s training on Facebook. You can also support the production of the film (and reserve a copy of the DVD) by contributing to Peters and Mooney’s Kickstarter campaign.