Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

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New Do Interview

December 8, 2017

Five years ago, I interviewed fellow Seattlite Do Peterson on my “Sing About Science” blog. Now I’ve interviewed him in conjunction with the release of his next CD, Ideation. Here is the start of the interview.

GC: Do, your new album is called IDEATION. Help us understand this title.

DP: Yes, the album is called IDEATION. This title comes from my struggle this year to recover from mental illness with suicidal ideation. IDEATION does not just apply to bad thoughts though. The word also has broader meaning: a synthesis of ideas. My process of healing has involved recognizing and reworking unhealthy ideas about success, family, love and friendship. IDEATION speaks to the journey of synthesizing memories and experiences into healthier ideas. So in this way IDEATION alludes to both disease and remedy. The songs in IDEATION were inspired by both, starting from emotional darkness, illness, despair and shame, progressing through helpful but imperfect therapies, and ending with discovery of light, belonging, love, resiliency, and healthier scaffolding to step forward.

Do’s website, dopeterson.com, has the rest of the interview.

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My interview of John L. Parker, Jr.

July 15, 2015

As a young runner growing up in the 1980s, I got most of my inspirational reading from a small Florida publishing company called Cedarwinds. Cedarwinds was founded by a former miler and would-be novelist who, unable to convince existing publishers of the merits of his first manuscript, decided to print the darn thing himself … and the rest is history.  Once a Runner became a cult classic and, eventually, a New York Times bestseller.  A sequel, Again to Carthage, appeared in 2007; the prequel Racing the Rain was released yesterday.  In anticipation and celebration of this latest book, I conducted an email interview with the author, John L. Parker, Jr., after meeting him at a very nice Fleet Feet Seattle event in May. I hope others find the exchange below an interesting addition to other Parker interviews that can be found online, such as those by Benjamin Cheever and Gary Cohen.

GJC: When you referred to yourself as a novelist at the Fleet Feet Seattle event I attended in May, it sounded weird to me because I think of you mostly as a nonfiction writer (and yes, I count your political speechwriting as nonfiction) who once wrote a novel in your spare time (and then eventually generated a sequel decades later). Am I giving short shrift to the novelist part of your resume? Is “novelist” a central part of your identity?

JLP: Until recently Harper Lee had only published one novel and I’ve never had any problem calling the author of To Kill a Mockingbird a novelist. Now I’ve written three of the things, one of which has been in print for almost 40 years and been translated into eight or nine languages.

So yes, I think of myself as a novelist.

GJC: OK. If we go back to the birth of Once a Runner, how did you get started as a novelist?  Had you taken any creative writing classes?  Did you have a writing mentor? Did friends give critical feedback on drafts?  Or were you mostly blazing your own path?

JLP: As an undergraduate, I was admitted into the advanced creative writing seminar at the University of Florida, led by Smith Kirkpatrick and Harry Crews, both published novelists. The writing program at UF had a little known but remarkable pedigree, having been influenced and guided at various times by the likes of Andrew Lytle, who founded the program, as well as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Robert Frost.

Anyway, I attended the weekly seminar for several years, even after I was in law school.

Once I started Once a Runner several years later, however, I was on my own. For better or worse, I felt my subject matter was too esoteric for outside advice to be of much help. Also, I really didn’t know who I would have asked. Most of the book was written in North Carolina, where I was pretty isolated.

GJC: Do you remember absorbing any particularly important lessons from this writing seminar?  Did you produce any writing in that setting that gave a hint of things to come?

JLP: I learned a great deal in the program, though both Kirk and Harry would often say that they couldn’t really “teach” anyone to write. They were there to try to guide us as we taught ourselves. So we met every Thursday night in building D in the old section of the UF campus, read each other’s stories out loud, and tried to figure it all out together.

From Kirk the most important thing I learned was that every story needs what he called “a backdrop.” By that he meant that for a story to have real gravitas it needed to be played out in front of a larger canvas, even if that context is only hinted at. For instance, you could write a story in which a man and woman meet one evening at a friend’s house and fall instantly in love. If the characters have any real depth, it could be an okay story even if they are completely isolated in time and space. But what if you find out that she is recovering from a suicide attempt and that he will be getting up at five the next morning to drop bombs on Frankfurt? A bare bones plot springs into three dimensions.

From Harry I learned, as he put it: “Every story is an ‘action.'”  By that, he meant that something needed to happen. We were not into deconstructionist navel gazing in building D.

As for my own work in the course, I occasionally got a kind word from Smith or Harry for one of my stories, but then, I don’t think anyone even got into that program unless Kirk or Harry thought you were capable of writing something publishable.

GJC: At the Fleet Feet event I attended, you emphasized that novels (yours and others’) are rooted heavily in real-life people and events. You said that novel-writing is basically the construction of a narrative arc out of real-life components. (I am paraphrasing.) Can you tell us a bit more about how this construction process works for you? I’m partly wondering whether you tend to start with certain personal experiences and imagine how they could be arranged into a story, or whether you tend to start with a flight of fancy and then bring in relevant personal experiences as needed.

JLP: I usually start with real characters and/or events, and weave them into a narrative. In doing so, I do not feel constrained to describe the characters or events accurately, although many times the details may be fairly true to real life. Also, I don’t feel limited to real chronologies, nor do I feel any compunction about blending two or three real people into one fictional character.

What comes out at the end of the process may not be recognizable to people who actually lived through the events that inspired the story, although they would surely recognize some of the details. The main point of my talk is that if you’re reading a novel and you encounter highly unlikely situations, or truly outrageous characters, you’d better think twice before proclaiming that the author has way too active an imagination. Often those events or characters turn out to be the most factually based events or characters in the story. That was exactly the point Bob Shacochis was making to the radio interviewer that I mentioned in the talk.

GJC: You have encountered many skeptical reviews of Once a Runner and Again to Carthage. Which aspects of these books have drawn the loudest or most persistent howls of disbelief, in your estimation?  Quenton Cassidy’s 60-quarters workout? Football coach Dick Doobey’s utter stupidity? The physical assault and hallucinations that occur during the Olympic Trials marathon?

JLP: In my talk I probably exaggerated the number of incredulous reactions those plot points have received, but I’d say the 60 quarter workout has been met with the most disbelief. Bill Rodgers told me it was the only part of Once a Runner he found unrealistic. If I had heard about it from someone out of the blue, I might not have believed it myself. But I in fact did it, in my junior year.

GJC: What prompted you to do that workout, anyway?  I’m guessing that it wasn’t your coach’s idea.

JLP: I almost did the workout by accident. I did the first 20 and didn’t feel all that bad. Normally, that would have been the end of the workout. But I was training alone that day for some reason, and it occurred to me that if I could manage to finish another set of 20 quarters, it would be almost unheard of. After I finished the 40th, although I was truly done in, I immediately began to toy with the idea of one more set. By the time I finished the mile recovery jog, I had decided to try it.

I knew it was crazy, but at the same time, it was a thrilling kind of a challenge, just to finish an unprecedented workout like that.

My mentor and coach, the Olympian Jack Bacheler, was horrified when he heard what I’d done. He was completely opposed to “stunt” workouts like that, and for the most part I agree with him. I certainly don’t recommend that young runners consider training this way. I was lucky I got away with it without any lasting damage.

GJC: So is it fair to say that this workout did not have quite the same significance to you as it does for Quenton Cassidy in Once a Runner? The workout struck me as arguably the climax of the novel, in which Quenton gives himself fully to his running and his coach and realizes his true capacity for self-punishment.

JLP: Yes, you could say that.

GJC: Many Once a Runner fans know that you tried to find a publisher for the book, couldn’t, and wound up publishing it yourself in 1978 — a full 25 years or so before the self-publishing industry really took off. How did you do it, in terms of logistics?  Did you buy a printing press and set it up in your basement?

JLP: No, but I set the type myself. In those days you set type on a phototypesetter, a huge machine that actually burned each letter onto a sheet of photographic paper that then had to be developed. It was a long, arduous process. Every line that had an error in it had to be re-set, then literally cut and pasted over the erroneous line. In fact, that’s where the phrase “cut and paste” comes from.

I was lucky enough to have a friend who owned a graphic design shop, and he allowed me to work on the book after hours. I spent several weeks of all-nighters getting it done. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

We had a firm in Jacksonville do a press run of 5,000 copies, which I found out later was actually a pretty big first printing. The average first novel released by the big publishing houses in New York sell 3,000 copies on average.

As it turned out, that was just the first of many printings.

GJC: Both the world of publishing and the world of running have changed a lot since the 1970s. If you had been born in, say, 1980, and graduated from college in 2002 or so, with an athletic trajectory similar to what you had in the 1960s and ’70s, do you think you would have published a Once a Runner-like book by now (2015)? Why or why not?

JLP: I have no idea if I personally would have done it, but surely someone would have. For one thing, traditional publishing houses are much more open to books about running than they were in the mid-70s, when the success of Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running was a total surprise to them. For another thing, self-publishing is hundreds of times easier to do now that it was then. You have to remember, there were no personal computers then, no such thing as “desktop publishing,” not to mention no Amazon or ebooks.

When you think about it, the odds against Once a Runner ever seeing the light of day, much less becoming something of a success story, were incredibly slim.

GJC: We talked at Fleet Feet Seattle about how your old rival Jack Nason was unhappy with the portrayal of his fictional counterpart Jack Nubbins in Once a Runner, and how this reaction surprised you (but later led you to pay tribute to him in Again to Carthage). Have other real people reacted to their Once a Runner or Again to Carthage characters in ways that surprised you (and that you are able to share)?

JLP: Jack Nason was one of the few important characters in the books who was portrayed almost exactly as he was in real life. Some old teammates were mentioned in passing in the books, but they were not fully developed characters and I haven’t heard of anyone reacting negatively to being mentioned that way. The same goes for well known runners of the era, like Frank Shorter or Benji Durden, who appear pretty much as themselves. As far as I know, most of the guys were thrilled to be included. The high jumper Ron Jourdan used to call me several times a year, right up until his death recently. He was clearly the model for Ron “Spider” Gordon, the high jumper in Once a Runner, and nothing seemed to make him happier. He was the guy in the book who was sort of nonchalantly clearing 6-6 indoors on a sandy floor and a makeshift landing pit, stoned out of his mind. This was something I actually witnessed, more than once.

GJC: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but I don’t know the answer, so here goes. Why the three-decade delay between Once a Runner and its sequel, Again to Carthage?  Were you initially unsure that you wanted to do a sequel?  Were you just busy with work that paid better than novel-writing?  

JLP: After I finished Once a Runner, I assumed I would never write another novel about running. I had put everything I knew or felt about the subject into the book and couldn’t imagine that I would ever have anything to add to that.

As I grew older, that perspective changed. I found myself thinking about Cassidy’s life after his college years, and wondering what kinds of themes I might find there worthy of another novel. It took a number of years, but eventually it all began to come together in my head.

The idea for Racing the Rain came much more naturally. Most people would find my own childhood growing up in Florida somewhat out of the ordinary, and my early athletic career was certainly not the typical All American sports story. There seemed to be some material there. Additionally, the readership that had slowly grown around the other two books made me think there would be some interest in Quenton Cassidy’s early years, the kind of childhood and adolescence that would make him into the person he became.

I wrote one sentence that I thought would be the opening line in the book. It ended up being placed later in the story, but the moment I wrote it I knew I could write the novel.

GJC: That sentence could be the basis for a fun reader contest, in which they have to guess which sentence it was. Anyway, you said at Fleet Feet that a lot of being a good writer is just noticing the interesting things going on around you. In writing Again to Carthage and Racing the Rain, you were able to draw upon many additional years of noticing things. Has your skill in doing the writing itself also improved since Once a Runner? If so, how did that affect Again to Carthage and/or Racing the Rain?

JLP: I hope I’ve become a better writer over the years, but that really is for others to judge.

GJC: I’m wondering what you can tell me about the titles of the books of the trilogy.  For example, each title follows the formula of: Important Word + Less Important Connecting Word + Important Word. Is that just a coincidence? Does that pattern have a rhythm that you like?

JLP: Apparently it does, though I hadn’t really thought about it in that way.

Racing the Rain was first suggested by Susan Moldow, the head of Scribner, after she read the first part of the book. Of course she was exactly right. I had been calling it all kinds of things up until then. It was much later that I Googled it and found out there was a similar title for some popular doggie book (The Art of Racing in the Rain). I suggested changing mine slightly, to Rain Racer, but Scribner didn’t want to change it at that point.

Once a Runner always seemed an apt title to me, based upon the traditional fairy tale’s opening phrase “Once upon a time…” To me that said that this was a story about a runner, a novel rather than a how-to book. Such a book hardly existed at the time. Well, there was The Olympian, by Brian Glanville, and there was Alan Sillitoe’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but that was about it.

Again to Carthage took me awhile to come up with. My tongue-in-cheek early working title for it was, of course, Twice a Runner. I toyed around with different ideas over the years while working on the book. I loved the “Again to Carthage” idea, but I had already used it years before in a magazine essay about athletic comebacks. It finally occurred to me that there was nothing to prevent me from using the same title for the novel, particularly since it was indeed a story about a comeback.

It paints a particularly evocative image for me, this line from Shakespeare, of Dido, the queen of Carthage, standing on the wild sea banks and pining for the return of the Trojan hero Aeneas, with whom the goddess Aphrodite–his mother–had caused her to fall in love.

GJC: Very interesting! In my original copy of Once a Runner, which I no longer have, there was a disclaimer along the lines of, “The author is aware of certain anachronisms in this book…. To those who have ferreted them out, a hearty ‘well-done’!”  Would a similar message befit Again to Carthage? I’m thinking especially of the fact that Quenton winds up training for and competing in what seems to be the 1980 Olympic Marathon Trials, which, as you know, doesn’t fit with other details indicating that he competed in a Montreal-like Olympics (1976) and then retired for quite a few years after that. You must have felt there were compelling reasons to make Quentin’s goal the 1980 Trials rather than some other race. Maybe you wanted to be able to draw upon your intimate knowledge of the 1980 Trials? Maybe the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Olympics made for a tidier story that could end at the Trials, without the necessity of an Olympic epilogue?  Am I getting warm?

JLP: Yes, that constrained time window has always been a problem. In some of the earlier editions of Once a Runner, the first chapter specifically refers to the Montreal Olympics. But beginning (at the very least–it may have changed even earlier) with the Scribner hardcover edition, it simply says “The Games,” keeping it intentionally ambiguous.

According to Racing the Rain, Cassidy graduates high school in 1965. His senior year of college would therefore have been 1968-69. That would make Munich in 1972 the most likely candidate. That allows pretty much everything else to fit. He could have come back (while the Vietnam war was still going on) and finished law school by 1975, then been in his law practice for several years before hearing the siren call from Mount Olympus once more around 1978.

The one thing that doesn’t work out with that scenario is that in Once a Runner Frank Shorter is referred to in 1969 as the marathon gold medalist, which wasn’t the case until 1972. I guess that would be one of those little anachronisms that I mentioned, so a hearty “well done” to me!

But to answer your further question, yes, the plot of Again to Carthage was always going to pivot around the 1980 trials, because to me they perfectly represent the triumph of political idiocy over the higher ideals the Olympic Games have exemplified since the Classical era more than 2,000 years ago.

Carter’s pathetic boycott simply punished our own athletes for something another government had done: invade Afghanistan. And, oh irony of ironies, guess who also ended up invading Afghanistan some 20 years later?

But to this day Carter doesn’t appreciate what he did to our athletes. Whatever his other qualities, when it came to sports, Carter was always the equipment manager.

GJC: As you’re pointing out, Again to Carthage continues Once a Runner’s theme of incompetence, corruption, and/or stupidity on the part of bureaucrats and administrators.  Given that anti-authority streak, I want to ask you what you think of TAC’s and USATF’s governance of track and field in the United States over the past four decades or so?

JLP: I’m not really qualified to comment on any specifics; I simply don’t keep up with that kind of thing. My intuition is that the politics of track and field in the U.S. have just gotten nastier and nastier over the years, and that the last people athletic officials have any concern for are the athletes. But that is based on just my own superficial impressions and what little I can glean from news accounts and from friends who are closer to the situation than I am.

The critique implicit in the three books is really based on my own personal experience with the athletic department at the University of Florida many years ago, as well as my general impression of the kinds of people who like to run things in this country, athletics included. And, if you want to know what they are like, just try to remember the people who ran student government in your high school.

GJC: So Racing the Rain also includes some administrative villains?  I’m imagining, say, an assistant principal who wants to expel Cassidy for missing class to compete at a big meet.

JLP: Actually, a lot of this book is about bad coaching more than bad administering.

But a further complication late in the story is Cassidy’s mentor’s possible connection to a double murder. The mentor, by the way, is a complete wild man who lives off the land far away from civilization and is very closely modeled after a real historical figure. And the double murder was based on a historical crime as well.

GJC: I look forward to reading about that! OK, last question. In Again to Carthage, Quenton explains the fulfillment of serious running: “When you’re a competitive runner in training you are constantly in a process of ascending…. It is actually possible to be living for years in a state of constant betterment. To consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or a year ago, and that you will be better still tomorrow or next week or at tournament time your senior year. That if you’re doing it right you are an organism constantly evolving toward an agreed-upon approximation of excellence. Wouldn’t that be at least one definition of a spiritual state?”  My question is, do you think Quenton can feel as happy and fulfilled after retiring from serious running as he did pre-retirement? Is there anything that can replace running in getting him to that “spiritual state”?

JLP: That passage really only pertains to someone still in their youth. After a certain point in your life, no matter how much you may strive, you can never again hope to be in that “process of ascending” he talks about in that letter.

Your question is actually dealt with somewhat in Racing the Rain. In a passage that discusses Cassidy’s affinity for the waters he grows up around, the ocean and the rivers, in addition to the rest of the natural world he is surrounded by, the narrator hints that Cassidy will find many forms of fulfillment in his life, that running, diving, paddling through that world is perhaps the most fulfilling way to relate to it, both during his youth and afterward.

GJC: Thank you for the interview, John, and good luck with the release of Racing the Rain!

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An interview with Seattle playwright Paul Mullin

October 7, 2013

The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR.org) puts on many great events, from the Student Bio Expo to Community Conversations. In their newest program, Science On Stage, they are currently hosting staged readings of The Sequence, a play by Paul Mullin. I attended the first performance last Saturday and loved its mix of scientific and human drama. Unable to stay for the post-play discussion, I instead emailed Paul some questions. His responses are posted here with his permission.

logo for The Sequence Paul Mullin

GC: A lot of your work addresses the intersection of art and science. Have you always been interested in science? If not, when did science come alive for you, and why?

PM: I have always been interested in science. My father, who died before I was born, was working on his PhD in physics and was apparently a freak for math and the periodic table. My mom took her degree in biology and worked in a lab before getting married and working in the home full time.

I have always loved understanding how the world actually works. I love the rigors of the scientific method: the testability, the constant and never-ending process of correction and integration when new understandings are introduced to the fray. Science, at it its best, provides an invigorating model for how to proceed in all other disciplines of a free and evolving society, including the arts. I have often said that I wish we artists applied more of the rigors of science to determining which of our works succeed ultimately and which do not. It’s not a perfect 1:1 correlation between the disciplines of art and science, but there is much more room for correspondence than most artists are willing to admit.

GC: You have speculated that the late Curt Dempster of Ensemble Studio Theatre commissioned you to write The Sequence because “he recognized in Craig a kindred spirit: a kinless prickly genius who gets things done.” Can you tell me a bit more about how this play first came into existence? For example, its development was supported by a grant from the Alfred Sloan Foundation, right?

PM: So in 2001 Ensemble Studio Theatre produced the off-Broadway premiere of my play, Louis Slotin Sonata, which dramatizes the true story of a Los Alamos physicist who, while performing an unnecessary demonstration of a criticality test on a plutonium bomb core, accidentally gave himself a lethal dose of neutron radiation. He died nine days later. After the success of that production, I was invited by Curt Dempster to submit additional ideas for science plays. I wanted to work on something about human consciousness and sent in a proposal. (I would finally complete this effort a decade later, with my play Philosophical Zombie Killers. I just recently staged a public reading, info here: http://www.paulmullin.org/just-wrought/philosophical-zombie-killers/). At the time, however, Curt was more interested in a completely different subject. He had seen Craig Venter on The Charlie Rose Show and, as I have said, I imagine he recognized a kindred spirit: an arrogant, monomaniacal genius who had the raw guts to want to change the world. I knew nothing about the story, but after doing some initial research I was quickly convinced that there really was a play here. The detail that sold me for good was learning that Venter had secretly used his own “genetic material” as Celera’s sample for sequencing. The lofty fog of scientific endeavor suddenly cleared as this act of sheer human outrageousness snapped everything into crisp dramatic focus. There was a story here. Boy oh boy, was there a story! We agreed on the terms of a commission and I dug into researching and developing The Sequence.

GC: The Sequence is in some ways a small-scale production, with only three characters: genomics researchers Francis Collins and Craig Venter, and journalist Kellie Silverstein. The small cast obviously makes casting and staging easier. Were there additional reasons why you thought this story would best be told from the perspective of these three and these three alone?

PM: You’re absolutely right, of course. The primary reason I chose to make this play a three-hander with rudimentary production demands is that these days new plays are rarely considered for staging in any case, but even less so if they make vast technical demands, or have huge casts. That said, I also wanted to imbue this story with an intimacy and clarity that has been lacking in many of its presentations that I encountered while researching it. All the books, for the most part, chose to illustrate the race as this vast enterprise, as indeed it was, but my experience with audiences is that their eyes tend to glaze over when bombarded with “vastness”. They want to know how the story matters to them, and for that I chose Kellie as their proxy.

GC: My own interests include the use of music to support science education. Let’s assume for the moment that there was funding to stage a big-budget version of this play. What kind of music, if any, might be included? On the one hand, it might be entertaining, say, to represent Collins with the folk-rock music that he fancies, and Venter with some harder-driving stuff. On the other hand, the script is so packed with intense dialogue that songs with words might be a momentum-killer.

PM: I think The Sequence works well as written and wouldn’t be likely to want to alter it significantly, especially since it can be done, and has been done in its world premiere, in a much bigger way than this current reading. Check out some of the pictures from the Pasadena production at The Theatre @ Boston Court, here: http://www.bostoncourt.com/events/55/the-sequence

All that said, I love adding music to my plays, and Louis Slotin Sonata, which is by nature a much “bigger” show, actually has a huge song-and-dance number in its second act. You can hear what that sounds like here: https://soundcloud.com/paul-mullin/sodom-saki-full-length; and see what it looked like here: http://www.jenniferzeyl.com/costume.php?show_id=37 .

GC: As a scientist, I appreciated the fact that The Sequence covered substantive scientific content. For example, some good explanations and analogies were offered to contrast Venter’s shotgun sequencing with traditional sequencing. Not everyone cares about that stuff, though. Did you struggle at all with the question of how much science to include in the play?

PM: I struggle with this question with every science play I write. And once the play is written, I struggle again with artistic administrators that want to neuter the play and make it just another what I call “Einstein in Love” play, i.e. a story that has an ostensible scientist as its main character but hinges in no significant way on any actual science: a plug-in play. To me, the science is integral to the science plays I have written: just as crucial to the rising action of the story as politics is to a Shakespeare history play or as sex is to a Joe Orton farce.

Today’s theatre artistic administrator distrusts science because he doesn’t understand it. It’s a systemic distrust of objectivity and testability, because, of course, if you let those ways of measuring into the system of theatre, then you have to answer for the immense failures of American theatre over the last 50 years in a meaningful way beyond shrugging and hand-wringing. Bad artists hate science because you can’t bullshit. Of course, you can’t bullshit good art either, but you can often bullshit long enough to have a career, if not a life for your art beyond it.

GC: I have read Francis Collins’ book The Language of God and have had a couple of email exchanges with him, and I found your script generally consistent with his personality. Still, you took some liberties in turning the real-life person into a character in your play. For example, Collins the character is sometimes more condescending to the journalist than the real Collins may have been. Have you gotten any interesting reactions on how he and Venter were portrayed, either from Collins and Venter themselves or from people who know them well?

PM: By and large, the people I have encountered who know Collins or Venter or both have been very complimentary about the accuracy of my portrayals. Collins himself told me that he thought he got off easy compared to my rendering of Venter. I find this amusing, since in the theatre world at least, Venter is considered the star of the piece, the cherry role to play for actors. Of course, I think they are perfectly weighted against each other just as they were in the actual events, but then, it’s my baby and I love it.

Collins is a mensch, a truly wonderful person; but I don’t think for a second that someone who has run the Human Genome Project and then NIH after that, is not capable of the kind of condescension or deviousness that he exhibits at rare moments in The Sequence. I suspect the side of Collins you saw, was the one he allowed you to see, the same side he allowed me to see when he most graciously and generously agreed to join an impromptu post-play discussion of a reading of the play at George Mason University.

Venter, not surprisingly, has played his cards closer to his vest during the long development of this play, though I have fielded questions from his PR person, and was asked to send a copy of the play early in the process — a request that, at the time, I declined because the play wasn’t ready to share. I believe representatives of his attended the Pasadena production, and since he didn’t sue me, I have to think he wasn’t utterly outraged by his portrayal. Then again, maybe my work is just too small potatoes to worry about.

GC: The Sequence addresses a range of ethical issues relating both to tests for genetic diseases and to the funding and reporting of research. A favorable review of a 2008 Pasadena production of The Sequence commented, “[Collins and Venter] cheat, lie, manipulate the public, and generally have a good time doing so, sometimes with hilarious results.” Personally, I didn’t find your characters to be terribly unethical. To what extent are these characters intended to be morally ambiguous?

PM: I’m with you. I don’t find them all that morally malignant. These are top tier players of a hardball game. As an actual baseball player once said, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” I tried to illustrate what I came to believe after a long and deep period of research: that both of these men did whatever it took to best serve humanity. They simply had starkly different views how best to do that, ethically and efficaciously. They both believed that their side winning the race would be better for everyone. These divides in perspective continue to exist up to this very day in the discussion of ethics concerning genetics and genomics.

GC: One of the main concerns of The Sequence is the role of news media in presenting science to the public. In her introduction to the play, Reitha Weeks mentioned that you are not a scientist but work at Amgen. What do you do there? Are you a media relations guy?

PM: I am an administrative coordinator in the IS division at Amgen. I am neither a scientist nor a PR person. I am a glorified secretary, though I don’t know how glorified you could consider it. I book travel, meetings, and generally assist people on my team with the administrative aspects of working here. I began this job after finishing The Sequence and, even though Amgen gets mentioned in the script, it is simply a fluke that I landed here as opposed to some other company: a fluke that I am deeply grateful for every day. It’s nice to have a job, and Amgen is very kind to its employees. Life is weird sometimes, and sometimes fate seems to have a rather prosaic sense of humor.

GC: Sitting in the audience a few rows over from you, I think I heard you say that you wish there were more efforts to combine science and art. Are there particular models or examples of this that you think work especially well?

PM: Not many. We are going to have to change the minds of the people who make the decisions about what art gets advanced — what plays get staged — if we want this situation to change.

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Interview with ultrarunner Charlie Engle

June 26, 2013

This spring I finally got around to watching the movie Running the Sahara, which has been out since 2007.

Having been exposed to many extreme ultrarunning challenges, I wasn’t as riveted as some people by the trans-Sahara quest per se. However, I was captivated by the on-screen charisma, eloquence, and humor of expedition ringleader Charlie Engle. He seemed like a complex guy who would be really interesting to go for a (non-trans-desert) run with.

Since that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, I did the next best thing: I asked him for an interview.

Charlie Engle, running in confinement.

GC: Hi Charlie! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. It will be interesting for me, though I’m not sure what (if anything) you’ll get out of it. I guess that’s my first question: given that you’re a busy guy, why agree to this? I’m just a guy with a blog who watched “Running the Sahara” and wanted to delve into a few things more deeply.

CE: Greg, in all my years, I’ve never turned anyone down who asked to speak with me. I don’t pretend to know where this path will lead. I just go with the flow.

GC: Fair enough! OK, next question… The movie “Running the Sahara” devotes a lot of attention to the medical and political logistics of covering the entire Sahara desert, but not much is said about the sponsorship side of things. Can you tell us more about how you raised the money for such an unusual undertaking, and how long that took?

CE: I take your question as a great compliment. I was adamant that this documentary not turn into an ad for sponsors. If a product couldn’t be represented organically, then it didn’t belong. That’s why the crew is driving Toyotas but we are not wearing Toyota logos. The same is true for Magellan GPS and Gatorade and Champion and Mission Skincare and Nike and others. Magellan GPS was the first to sign on. That was through a direct contact of mine. Then when LivePlanet, Matt Damon’s production company, signed on, they took over the sponsor acquisitions. LivePlanet also brought in investors to cover the bulk of the cost. It took about 9 months to put the financing together if i remember right. This was an expensive project but every single dollar came through investors and sponsors. In the end it was a very successful project. “Running the Sahara” is selling better than ever today.

GC: Many viewers of “Running the Sahara” see it mostly as a film about the immense physical and psychological challenge of running across the desert. Personally, I know lots of ultramarathoners, thru-hikers, and assorted other endurance-oriented oddballs, so I assumed all along that a traverse was physically possible, and that the logistical challenges (financial and diplomatic) would be even more formidable than the obvious physical ones. To what extent do you agree with that assessment?

CE: The logistical challenges involved in “Running the Sahara” were overwhelming. The entire project was on life support more than few times during the year leading up to the expedition. Raising money, finding sponsors, arranging support in Africa and managing the politics of the expedition itself were all far more difficult than actually running. The best times are the ones that involve physical suffering. That’s the part that makes all the stress worthwhile. Running is true escape. All the other stuff is just necessary noise.

GC: That certainly makes sense to me. Have your post-Sahara adventures reflected conscious choices to simplify the logistics? For example, I believe you subsequently tried to run across the United States in record time. That obviously requires significant planning, but it must be much more straightforward than arranging safe passage through six African countries.

CE: You give me too much credit for being conscious. Running America was inherently easier to plan for the obvious reasons of language and logistics. The AT [Appalachian Trail] and PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] are tough physically but one can be home safe in bed within a day if things go wrong. The same was true for “Running America.” The hardest part was planning the budget and making the film. The physical suffering was to be expected, there was no stopping that. And actually, the physical suffering was part of the goal, trying to scrape away the crap of daily existence and replace it with something better….hopefully.

GC: You’re saying that the physical suffering is not a simply a necessary hardship on the way to your goals; it is a goal in and of itself. That must seem perverse to some people. How does that work for you? Is there a spiritual dimension to this?

CE: I do genuinely believe that many of life’s most useful lessons come through hardship, usually situations that we don’t choose. Years ago, I decided to actively seek hardship with the hope of achieving the same life altering results that often come with surviving unexpected challenges. So I view my adventures as voluntary suffering that will lead to a greater understanding of what drives me. The trick I haven’t mastered is finding balance. I am trying to learn how to pursue and appreciate happiness as much as I crave the need to suffer. For me there is a great spiritual aspect to what I do. I am not a believer in any traditional religion but I do feel a strong attraction to certain people and to powerful places so this confirms for me that there is most definitely a power greater than myself. My personal suffering brings me closer in line with my higher power and that is important to me. In every long run, I want to push myself to that point where all seems hopeless because that is the exact place where I get to discover new things about myself.

GC: In many parts of “Running the Sahara,” you come across as humble, kind, and generous; in other parts, less so. Extreme suffering will cause almost anyone to say and do selfish things. Do you view your behaviors in your darkest moments as aberrations brought on by the circumstances, OR as a genuine part of you (even if they’re not the prettiest part)? I’m thinking about the possible parallels with drunkenness. Intoxication could be said to cause someone to abandon his/her true self; alternatively, it could be said to reveal a side that is normally hidden but has been there all along.

CE: It’s interesting that you characterize some of the things I appear to have done in “Running the Sahara” as selfish. I have learned the obvious lesson that everyone who watches the film brings their own life experiences to the mix. Some see me as a pushy jerk while many others see me as driven and passionate. I think that says as much about the viewers’ background as it does about me. I think the movie portrays me as 80% decent guy and 20% asshole. Much of what was in the film is not in context (500 hours of footage boiled down to a 100 minute film by a creative editor) but the fact is that in real life that ratio is probably accurate. I can say one thing for certain. The likelihood of three runners making it all the way across the Sahara is really small. My teammates have told me directly that without the urgency I put forth every single day, we would not have been successful. I can live with that.

The scene near the end of the film is the most perplexing to me. It makes it look like I might try to finish without my teammates. I have always found that fascinating. First, it begs the question; why would I do that? What would be gained? Had I actually finished before them, I would have looked like the biggest jerk ever. I may be a hardass sometimes but I’m not stupid. We started as a team and I always wanted us to finish as a team. Ray [Zahab] and Kevin [Lin] became scared that I would somehow finish before them and this made for great film drama. I had no idea what was happening behind me. I couldn’t have possibly run any slower. I was doing 15 minute miles. A pack of turtles could have caught me.

All that is to say that running reveals true character, amplifies all that I am, good and bad. Drugs simply acted as a mask for any feelings, a false and deceptive coping mechanism that only makes any situation worse. Running (adventure in general) is cleansing and enlightening. Drugs are debilitating, soul crushing substances. Drugs only destroy and never give back. Running makes everything clear, softens all the hard edges.

GC: You’ve written a lot about running in prison on your blog, Running in Place. In short, you were able to keep running, but without a lot of the amenities and variety that most of us take for granted. Did prison change your relationship with running?

CE: Prison changed my relationship with running in several ways. The most apparent change to me is that I learned to appreciate the purity of running again….or maybe for the first time. When I was young, I ran for pure joy, just to go play with friends. It always seemed so easy, I never got tired. Or at least that’s how I remember it. But my time in prison was just the opposite. Every step seemed burdened somehow, weighed down by stress. That’s how it started anyway. But I quickly realized all I needed to do was to find the joy again and that could only come from letting running do what it does best; cleansing the negativity and opening up the possibilities that are always there when I run.

GC: Finally, I’m wondering about the extent to which you’ve experienced a stigma attached to your conviction for mortgage fraud. On the one hand, you’re an engaging speaker who can win audiences over when you have a chance to tell your story. I imagine that serving your sentence has even made you more fascinating and more marketable in some ways. (“Charlie Engle: He survived Badwater, the Sahara, AND a Federal penitentiary!”) On the other hand, the phrase “mortgage fraud” will always sound terrible to many ears. Until I read the March 25, 2011 New York Times column by Joe Nocera, I had assumed that you had done something that was unequivocally reprehensible.

CE: Certainly my arrest and incarceration didn’t help my short term speaking career…..or much of anything else. But ironically I have gotten so much support that I have way more opportunities now than I did before this mess started. Speaking, writing and planning new adventures are all things I worried I might never do again. But just the opposite is true. I’m sure there will always be a stigma of sorts. I probably won’t be asked to help anyone fill out their mortgage application. (I didn’t fill out the ones I was accused of signing either.) I know I didn’t do anything wrong and that’s mostly enough for me. I have pretty thick skin. For a runner.

GC: Indeed — all that running through the desert must have created some impressive calluses! Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts so freely, and good luck with your next adventures!

[Related: Utrarunner Podcast interviews Charlie Engle]

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“Run Simple”: a conversation with author Duncan Larkin

March 2, 2013

Last November, a Taiwanese woman interviewed me about trail running. That was the ostensible topic, anyway; four of the five questions addressed the clothing, gear, and cross-training equipment that one might use in becoming a trail runner.

Concerned by this focus on “running stuff” rather than the actual act of running, I recommended that the interviewer read the book Run Simple by Duncan Larkin.

Then I decided that I should probably read it too.

“Run Simple” is a good, provocative title, but it doesn’t mean exactly what you think. I was surprised, for example, to find that one full chapter is devoted to cross-training exercises, and another contains detailed 8- to 16-week training schedules. Wanting to ponder the nature of simplicity a bit further, I conducted an email interview with the author.

RunSimple_cover

1. The title “Run Simple” reminds me of Apple’s colloquial-sounding “Think Different” slogan. Was that parallel intentional? Would an adverb (i.e., “Run Simply”) have been too sophisticated or elegant for a book about simplicity? Chapter 6 advises runners to wear cheap clothing, even if it looks a bit shabby; did you want the title to have a rough-around-the-edges feel too? Or am I overthinking this?

The parallel between Steve Jobs’ brilliant philosophy of simplicity in terms of design and my own vis-a-vis running was not intentional. Originally, I wanted to call the book ORGANIC RUNNING, and even suggested MAO’S LITTLE RED BOOK FOR RUNNERS, but those titles were rejected by my publisher, who kept seeing the word “simplicity” in my manuscript and made the suggestion, because that’s really the overarching theme of the book. As it stands now, I like the title, because it does have a rough-around-the-edges feel and is itself minimalist (just two short words that hopefully reach out and grab people when they see the cover).

2. In the book’s opening chapter, you describe how various experiences led you to simplify your approach to running over time. (The bit about your dog burying your $25 gloves was priceless.) Aside from the fact that you’re a writer, what made you want to create a whole book about your approach?

Great question. I wanted to write this book, because I felt compelled, almost obligated, to point out something very important to my fellow runners. Why? Because I feel a strong sense of loyalty to this community and want to help give back to it in some way. As I went to expos and lined up on the starting line of races, I saw thousands of well-intentioned people who thought (and had been conditioned to believe) that they could run faster if they spent their hard-earned money on solutions. Here in the United States, we tend to think that technology can make life easier for us in all facets of our lives, but I don’t necessarily think this is the case with running. I really didn’t see the “run simple” approach going on anywhere I went. I saw ads in running magazines and a whole lot of salesmanship going on in expos for GPS watches, technical tee shirts, specially designed running shoes, and electrolyte-infused jellybeans. I saw more and more of my fellow runners donning headphones and heart-rate monitor straps. I overheard conversations about “power songs” and witnessed people poring over biometric data that they collected during their runs in the effort to draw conclusions about their running that I think are quite basic to grasp. I think offering people this perspective and getting them to at least consider a simpler approach was worthy of a book.

3. Your book argues that many runners have become overly dependent on high-tech apparel and food and gadgets and so forth. What do think are the most egregious examples of this? Live-tweeting one’s runs? Monitoring heart rate 24/7? Ingesting expensive, specially formulated recovery foods after a 3-mile jog?

One that comes to mind is the time I saw a guy line up for the start of a one-mile road race wearing headphones. I can begin to understand people who want to listen to music after six hours of running, but why do you need to listen to music for six or so minutes? Are those two songs really going help you pass the time? Can’t you get motivated from just listening to the huffing of runners around you and the roar of the crowd? Another egregious example is the time I watched a track race (3000m event, I believe) and some guy was wearing a GPS watch. It’s a track for crying out loud; you get pace feedback every lap!

4. Your sample training schedules seem good to me, but are not what I’d call “simple” — there are 16 different types of workouts listed, plus cross-training exercises. To reconcile this with the simplicity theme, I’d say that you advocate keeping each individual day relatively simple (e.g., not worrying about exact paces and heart rates) while still pushing for lots of variety in any given month of training. Is that about right? Do you think a lot of serious runners are stuck in a rut of doing essentially the same workouts every week, and need to shake things up a bit?

To me, simplicity requires some level of method. A runner can’t just be told to run simple and then left with no ideas of what that means. I put forth 16 different types of sample workouts in order to get the reader thinking about how to apply the principles I espouse. Each of the workouts map to three key concepts: “race”, “rest”, and “just run”. I don’t expect the reader to memorize these workouts and try to figure out exactly when they should be doing exactly what. However, I do want runners to ask themselves every day which of the three concepts their body and mind crave and then run accordingly. I hope that eventually, after some degree of experimentation, readers come up with their own types of runs they should be conducting on the race, rest, or just run days. I debated for a long time whether or not to put sample training plans in the book, because I think sample plans can lure people into believing in what I call “running recipes” (e.g., If I follow the plan exactly, I will reach my race goal). But I believe putting plans in the book was ultimately necessary since it can help people see how to put everything together. That being said, I think each runner needs to come up with their own plan and that their plan doesn’t necessarily have to be a daily schedule; it can be much more abstract. As to your second question: absolutely. I think many serious runners reach plateaus and don’t alter their workouts or approach that much in order to break through. Why? Because most of us are creatures of habit. We pretty much run the same routes and do the same workouts. We have our dearly held routines. Forgoing them entails taking risks, and so I believe instead of significantly altering the approach, runners rush to the store for a solution.

5. The part of the book that seems most contrary to my notion of simplicity is in Chapter 7, where you suggest creating and studying wind maps and elevation maps for your race courses. I claim that the kind of runner you’re cultivating — one who reads his/her body well without high-tech aids — can run through changes in wind and elevation simply and effectively by sticking to a constant effort (aside from any drafting opportunities that arise). To what extent is this complementary to or in conflict with your view?

Yeah, I know it seems odd that a book espousing simplicity has a runner studying the race course the day before (or running on it in training) and creating a wind/elevation map. But a race is usually a pretty important event and so why not be prepared for it? By suggesting these ideas, I’m trying to set the reader up for success and help them as much as possible reach their goal. Thoreau, no stranger to simplicity, once penned that “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” So if you are exchanging large chunks of your life training in the pursuit of a race goal, then the price to attain it is high, and therefore the person should come prepared with knowledge. Running simple doesn’t equal racing ignorant. (e.g., I didn’t know there was going to be a 20mph headwind and a mile-long hill!)

6. Your book provides training schedules, but your ultimate goal is to help people create their own schedules based upon their individual goals and bodies. I applaud this, but it will be hard for some people to make this transition. What sort of feedback on this have you gotten from readers? What are the main difficulties (if any) that they have faced?

I’ve had a few people write me to say that they PR’d after reading the book, which was music to my ears. Most people tell me that they are unable to follow the schedules to a tee, which is great, because that’s what I want. Their main challenge with going out on their own has been keeping up the confidence that they are doing the right thing on a daily basis.

7. The book also provides examples of and interviews with runners and coaches who employ principles similar to yours. Who is your all-time favorite example of a “simple runner,” and why?

It’s hard to come up with an all-time favorite “simple” runner. I guess my top choice is Japanese marathoner Yuki Kawauichi. I tried to interview him for the book, but unfortunately couldn’t connect with him. Why Kawauchi? He became a 2:08 marathoner while holding down a full-time job. His approach to training is surprisingly simple (just three structured weekly workouts: one long run, one speed session, and one soft-surface trail for recovery). He doesn’t train with gadgets; he doesn’t run on an Alter-G treadmill. He isn’t out promoting whatever product. To him, it’s all about putting in the miles and believing in yourself. I wish there were more pros like him.

8. Your main target audience for this book is people who want to achieve their racing potential. How would you modify your advice for people who aren’t particularly interested in races?

Do fewer “race” workouts in favor of more “just run” workouts. Racing is all about attaining comfort at a particular pace. If people don’t want to race, then don’t focus on that aspect, but I still would argue that this type of runner should at least do one “race” workout a week as breaking up the pace is good for preventing burnout.

9. Ultramarathons, especially trail ultras, could be considered the ultimate in simple running: enjoying nature for hours at a time, with competition and exact pace an afterthought for many participants. On the other hand, issues like refueling, maintaining the right body temperature, and seeing in the dark become more important in ultras, and can be addressed with the specialized products that you normally avoid. You’ve done a few ultras; what are your thoughts?

I recently did my first 24-hour race. I didn’t run with a headlamp (the course was lit). The only thing I carried was an 8-oz bottle. My fuel was whatever they had for me at the aid stations. I wore trainers with thousands of miles on them and my holy shirts/shorts were what I’ve been wearing for a nearly decade, so at least I practice what I preach! That being said, I think entering into the ultra realm requires some element of “gearing up”. There’s nothing wrong with getting a nice headlamp for night running and there’s nothing wrong with doing some research about finding the right fuel to consume, but I still think all runners should “gear down”. Most ultras do a great job supporting runners. Aid stations are stocked with pretty much everything a runner needs. The weight of carrying things for 100 miles, no matter how small, can add up to a significant amount, so I would suggest that ultra runners look at paring down in a race. They can best do this by experimenting in training.

10. “Run Simple” ends with a chapter of questions that readers might have, along with your answers. What additional Q&A would you now add, based on reactions to the book?

I would probably spend some more time clarifying why I have so many sample workouts in a book that supposedly espouses simplicity. I can see why some readers would be confused by that and I believe I need to add some more clarification about the purpose of these workouts.

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Related:
review of “Run Simple” (iRunFar.com)
The Most Dangerous Man in Running, and The Book He Wrote (RunBlogRun.com)

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Recent interviews

January 5, 2013

One of the highlights of my Christmas break in Oklahoma was meeting children’s musician Monty Harper in person after years of intermittent contact via the Internet. Monty became my latest victim in SingAboutScience.org’s “Science Songster” series; other recent interviewees have included Baba Brinkman and my old friend Do Peterson.

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Q&A with “Unbreakable” director JB Benna

December 15, 2011

I was so captivated by JB Benna’s new film “Unbreakable” that I decided to interview Benna via email if possible. He kindly agreed, and the interview is below.

Poster for WS100 film

GJC: You had originally hoped to make a Western States film by racing and filming the entire course in 2009. Why didn’t that work out, and how did your movie evolve into the story of four top contenders at the 2010 race?

JBB: In 2009, after filming at Western States on other film crews in 2006 and 2007, I decided the week prior to the race that I was going to try to make a film. I figured that I had been lucky enough to get in on the lottery and did not know when I was going to have another chance to film the remote areas of the course that no one ever sees. So I hired three other cinematographers and we decided, as in previous Western States films, to try to cover a cross section of the race from front runners, to mid pack, to the back of the pack and I would carry a camera and document my day in a first person perspective. Aside from the fact that this greatly affected my own performance, the footage from the small camera was shaky and not very usable. To compound this, after I watched all of the hours and hours of footage, I realized that I only had 2-3 shots of any given person, one at the start, one in the middle and one at the finish. You simply cannot tell a compelling story of a large group of people with only a few shots of each of them. Furthermore, my crew was so burned out after filming for 48 hours without sleep that I had to literally beg them to come back in 2010 and promise we would be done by midnight. So when the field came together a few weeks before the 2010 race, I immediately knew that in order to tell a story about what it is like to run Western States in a way it had never been seen, we would need to double our cameras and narrow our focus to a small group of runners with similar paces, so that we could get enough shots to tell a story. Furthermore, someone was going to have to run long sections of the trail to capture the action outside of the aid stations. Lucky for me I was literally in the best shape of my life, and had just come off my first ultra win at Angel Island 50k and was ramping up for what would be a 9-hour PR at the Burning River 100 miler. So ultimately I ended up running 34 miles that day with a 10-pound professional camera and mounted shotgun microphone. Some of the shots from 2009 did make it into the film, so it was not a total failure.

GJC: “Unbreakable” is a heroic effort in that you captured a lot of mid-race on-the-trail footage. As you know, the Western States Board of Directors takes their stewardship of the race very seriously! Was it difficult to obtain their permission to film the race in this way? Likewise, did the runners themselves require any persuasion to give you such extensive access to their lives? Geoff Roes looked to me as though he was trying to be helpful but not entirely comfortable with the spotlight.

JBB: The Western States Board does take the stewardship of the race very seriously and it took me years of filming at the race to earn their trust and respect. The first few years that I filmed there we were told that we could not go more than a few hundred yards out of the aid station to film, which is limiting, but understandable. You see, Western States gets a lot of media coverage from outside sources that do not understand the sport, nor respect the environment; for them it is all about getting the shot. In fact in 2009, one of my camera guys caught on film one such outside film crew interfering in the race. It was at No Hands Bridge at the 2009 race as Hal Koerner was just miles away from winning his second title. The camera guy yells at Hal and says “Hey stop right there so we can get this shot.” Hal, looking out of it and stunned, actually stops. The camera guy then asks him to back up and run toward them again. Hal accommodated them and still won the race, but I was flabbergasted and stunned at the film crew’s audacity. I have always made it a point, as a participant in the sport of ultrarunning, to approach every film from a very humble, low-key, and non-intrusive way. I don’t use steady cams, or dollies, or cranes. It’s just me with a camera running or spending time with these guys — no more, no less.

The runners were also very accommodating. I was already really good friends with Hal and had talked to him about wanting to do something on him, so when this opportunity came up he was very helpful. I knew Tony through Hal and some time we spent together at some post race dinners, so he was also very easy to work with. Geoff, I knew a little less, but had made a YouTube video about him and Uli Steidl battling at the 2009 North Face Endurance Challenge 50. So we had talked a bit after he saw this. The first time we met in person was when I did the interview at his campsite, so you can tell he is a little more uncomfortable during that initial interview. However, after the epic race, and seeing me out there, and asking for feedback, and confiding in me throughout the day, we hit it off right away. Geoff was a lot more comfortable and open when I visited him in Alaska a few months later. Geoff and Corlé were so kind and accommodating they made me meals and let me sleep on the floor of their little studio-sized house; they are great. Kilian I did not know at all, but again there was some kind of bond that happened out there that day, when they would see me even more often then their crews and I was out there again this year filming Kilian in his 2011 win, we connected even more and he is a great guy.

GJC: What do you think are the biggest differences between “Unbreakable” and your previous ultrarunning films (on David Horton running the Pacific Crest Trail and Dean Karnazes running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days)? Did those projects teach you any particular lessons that you applied to “Unbreakable”?

JBB: I have learned so much from my previous projects. As Kilian says in the final scene of “Unbreakable,” “When you win it’s not positive because it’s just perfect, but when you lose you learn a lot.” This could not be more true for the experience I have gained in the making of “The Runner” and “UtraMarathon Man.” “The Runner” was a very simple organic project that took shape after I had already finished filming it. With that project, I mostly just gained the confidence that I could mange such a massive undertaking successfully. I also learned all the necessary steps that were required to produce, filming, writing, sound, original music, music licensing, editing, color correction, design, DVD creation, replication, sales, distribution, marketing, festivals, etc, etc, etc…. The biggest thing I learned with “UltraMarathon Man” was humility and simplicity. I got wrapped up into this project with three days until it kicked off, without knowing Dean or The North Face folks I would be working with. I feel like I did a really good job on the film under the circumstances, but it was a fight from start to finish. Mostly I learned that I spent way too much money and I learned that you have to know when to say enough is enough. So when I started working on “Unbreakable,” my wife Jennifer and I agreed that I would do as much of the work on it that I could by myself and that we would keep the budget as low as possible, we would try to keep it simple and organic and focused on the core of our sport and what we love. The bottom line was that we decided to make the film that we wanted to see.

GJC: Devoted ultrarunners will adore “Unbreakable,” but I have no idea whether the general public will ever hear of it, much less watch it. What kind of market penetration is necessary for you to break even? Do you need to sell 10,000 DVDs?

JBB: Breaking even has always been a relative term for me as these are primarily passion projects. If the definition of breaking even is covering the actual cash that we spent on the film, then these projects break even when we sell about 5000 copies. However, if you look at the amount of time that I personally spend on these projects with no pay, then none of our projects has ever broken even as this would probably be in the 15,000-20,000 unit range. With only four or five thousand ultrarunners, it is a tough market without PBS grants or ABC commercial revenue (makers of the two previous high-quality Western States films). So that being said, until our sport grows, there probably will not be too many high-quality feature-length projects. But I knew that when I started and that is why I wanted to make this film for all of us who love this sport. This is without a doubt my last UltraRunning film that I produce in this self-funded, all-in manner, but I feel like this film will resonate with people even years from now and that is satisfying.

GJC: You’ve spent a lot of time around elite ultramarathoners. Aside from their relatively limited ability to profit financially from their talent, do they as a group seem different from most other elite athletes? If so, how?

JBB: I love ultramarathons because of their friendly competitive nature and I think that “Unbreakable” showcases this as each guy chats before the race and congratulates each other after the race. The sport is so small, most of the competitors know each other and even if they don’t they respect each other. This is evident in that Geoff, Anton, and Kilian had never met before the race and now they all get together socially and train together as the opportunities present themselves.

GJC: Your film covers the 2010 race in remarkable depth. If you had to distill the race down to a single thought or paragraph, what would it be?

JBB: It was an epic showcase of the finest running I have ever seen. The day was a perfect storm, the sport’s four best athletes all competing against each other for the first time, at ultrarunning’s most important event. We could not have known the last-minute drama that would unfold, nor how monumental a day it would be for the sport. Despite this, it was in filming and spending time with each of the athletes in their hometowns that I was truly inspired by their passion, grace, and humility.