Spirit of the Marathon

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DocuWeek, Los Angeles

Runners from all walks of life enliven Jon Dunham's "Spirit of the Marathon," an enthusiastic account of the art of long-distance running that's intended to reach a broad audience, but is probably best suited to race enthusiasts.

The film recently completed Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles, and was briefly exhibited in 500 theaters nationwide for two dates earlier this year, grossing a remarkable $1 million. Lacking a distributor, a similar, tightly targeted release strategy appears the best bet for further theatrical exposure, although broadcast potential remains strong and DVD sales will provide ample opportunity for replays.

Focusing on the 2005 Chicago Marathon, filmmaker and veteran marathoner Jon Dunham strategically profiles a half-dozen runners to set the stage for the race. Dunham highlights elite road warriors Daniel Njenga, a Kenyan who lives and trains in Japan, and California-based Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor, along with a selection of Chicago-area amateur and first-time competitors.

Dunham also includes archival materials that create an incisive and revealing history of the logistical challenges and political maneuverings that have taken the 26.2-mile race from relative obscurity to world-class event. Renowned runners and record-holders like Frank Shorter, Joan Benoit-Samuelson, Bill Rogers and Paula Radcliffe contextualize the physical and mental demands that both elite and amateur runners face in preparing for and competing in the event.

While not all the contenders profiled are equally compelling, they face similar hurdles with training regimens, injuries and developing their endurance -- issues that are further compounded for 70-something repeat marathoner Jerry Meyers and single mom Leah Caille. The film strikes an admirable balance profiling male and female competitors, consistently acclaiming the amateur athletes' aspirations to compete in the same field as the pros.

By the time the Chicago Marathon starting gun goes off, the runners' personal goals are clear and attainable, creating an enjoyably vicarious appreciation for their determination and skill. The race scenes are the film's most exhilarating, as Dunham's camera teams weave in and out of the pack, tracking individual marathoners. Editor Christo Brock adeptly intercuts Dunham's HD footage with broadcast video of the race leaders, including medal contenders Njenga and Kastor.

Production company: Calico 1880/Twist Films
Director: Jon Dunham
Producers: Jon Dunham, Gwendolen Twist
Executive producer: Mark Jonathan Harris
Directors of photography: Jon Dunham, Sarah Levy
Music: Jeff Beal
Editor: Christo Brock
Rated PG, 104 minutes.

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