What makes marathon running extraordinary is that it's the largest international sport in which first-time amateurs and elite professionals compete together. What makes it beloved is that completing a marathon is the most difficult physical challenge that any ordinary person can accomplish. Almost nobody can summit Mt. Everest no matter how much they might want to, but almost everyone can complete a 26.2-mile marathon if they have the willpower to do the necessary training.
As demonstrated by made-for-TV documentaries like Marathon Challenge, there's clearly an audience out there composed of people training for, or considering, a first marathon seeking inspiration. This audience is the target of the 2007 documentary Spirit of the Marathon by first-time feature director Jon Dunham, who also serves as producer and cinematographer. The 104-minute documentary interweaves the story of six runners preparing for the 2005 Chicago Marathon with talking heads interviews with elite runners and authors about the history of the sport and its continuing appeal.
Of the six principal participants, two are elite professionals, two are returning amateurs looking to improve their time, and two are novices hoping to complete their first marathons. The elite runners are Deena Kastor, winner of the bronze metal at the 2004 Olympics, and Daniel Njenga, a Kenyan who divides his time between a Spartan dormitory-style room in Tokyo and his family home in Kenya.
Deena Kastor above, and Daniel Njenga below (far right)
Among the amateurs, the returning marathoners are Ryan Bradley, who hopes to earn a spot in the prestigious Boston Marathon, and Jerry Meyers, who took up marathon running at age 65. The novices are Lori O'Connor, a graduate student and newlywed running for charity, and Leah Caille, a divorced mother of a seven-year-old who's used running to lose weight, gain confidence and make friends.
All of the participants are followed from their training through the 2005 Chicago Marathon itself. Though there are training injuries and race day anguish, Dunham to his credit avoids the reality-TV approach of over-emphasizing the personal drama.
The race day video coverage of Kastor and Njenga competing to win is exhilarating, while the coverage of the amateurs is sufficiently comprehensive. The competent cinematography is complemented by an excellent original score by composer Jeff Beal, performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
Despite the coverage of Deena Kastor and Daniel Njenga, and brief interviews with a number of other elite runners, there's probably not much here of interest to experienced marathon runners. Dunham doesn't get beyond the surface level of their training regime, and there's very little consideration given to the psychology or remuneration of a professional marathoner.
There's also probably nothing here that would appeal to viewers who have no interest in personally running a marathon. The coverage of the race itself is too thin to attract general sports enthusiasts, and consideration of the human drama is too slight to attract typical reality television viewers.
Spirit of the Marathon is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio). While the archival footage is of varying quality, the new material suffers from digital combing, aliasing, motion blur, loss of detail and occasional color blooming.
Audio is provided in DD 5.1 and 2.0. The mix is front heavy but dynamic, with no noticeable dropouts or distortions. Forced subtitles are provided for most Kenyan-accented English, and optional subtitles in Spanish and English for the deaf and hearing impaired are also provided.
The extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an 18-minute featurette about the making of the documentary which also includes supplemental scenes.
There are probably insufficient insights or drama in Spirit of the Marathon to attract either experienced marathon runners or people not personally interested in running a marathon, but for novices looking for inspiration to complete a first marathon, Spirit of the Marathon is recommended.