How the West(ern States 100) was WonDecember 10, 2011
As veteran ultramarathoners know, you can get to know your peers quite well if you spend a large chunk of a 50- or 100-miler running with or crewing for them.
JB Benna’s new film Unbreakable is a bit like that. The audience spends 100 or so minutes in the company of four elite runners (Kilian Jornet, Hal Koerner, Anton Krupicka, and Geoff Roes) as they prepare for, compete in, and reflect upon the 2010 Western States 100. Along the way, we learn a tremendous amount about each of them. We meet their parents and girlfriends, tour their residences and workplaces, follow them along training routes and the race course, and observe candid moments that would normally be seen only by friends and family. We even get a glimpse of Koerner’s wedding.
The entertainment value of this almost voyeuristic spectacle will depend on audience members’ understanding of and interest in ultrarunning. The film provides little background information on the sport or its practicioners. It doesn’t lecture us on principles of pacing or refueling; it doesn’t give equal time to back-of-the-pack runners or elite women. It is relentless in its focus: here is the most prestigious ultra in the United States, and here are four men who are desperate to win it. Only the interspersed recollections of Gordy Ainsleigh, the first person to complete the Western States course on foot, provide significant context for the uninitiated.
On the other hand, some of the unusual footage may well be enjoyed even by non-ultrarunners. Contrasts among the protagonists are often cutely framed, as when we see the Koerner family dining at an upscale restaurant the night before the race while a solitary Roes cooks over an open flame at his campsite, or when we see Jornet’s lavish aid station provisions alongside Krupicka’s minimalist ones. Many great race-day moments — for example, the incredulity on Krupicka crew member Joe Grant’s face upon hearing at mile 93 that Roes is making a late charge — were captured only because Benna blanketed the course with seven or so cameramen.
The articulateness of the subjects also provides plenty of food for thought. Ainsleigh and Krupicka, in particular, not only look like bearded sages but sound like them too. Recalling the temptation to drop out of his inaugural run in 1974, Ainsleigh says:
And I thought, “What can I do?” … And the answer came to mind: I can still take one more step. And so at that point I decided to take one more step until I could no longer take one more step. And today we would say that is suicidal, you know. We tell people not to think that way since there is always another day to come back. Well, there isn’t always another day, because a lot of times life gives us one opportunity at something.
This lovely quote applies equally well to the epic race among Jornet, Koerner, Krupicka, and Roes. These four will surely have other chances to race each other, but they may never stage another battle as dramatic as the one that took place on June 26, 2010. JB Benna was very lucky to be able to witness this drama; he was in the right place at the right time. And the ultrarunning community is very lucky that Benna was able to share so much of it with us.