Tonight I skipped Pilates class to attend the nationwide premier showing of the documentary film My Run, directed by Tim VandeSteeg, which tells the story of Terry Hitchcock, a widower who decided to run from Minnesota to Georgia to raise awareness about the plight of single parents even though he had health problems, had never been a runner, and looked more like St. Nick than Scott Jurek. Hitchcock describes his run as 75 consecutive marathons, though in reality he ran 75 back-to-back ultras, since a typical day involved 27 to 30 miles of running–a distance that took his support crew half an hour to traverse in a car, but took him eight hours of painful run/walking.
Terry was woefully undertrained. Before the kickoff of this endurance stunt, he had never run further than 12 miles in one go, was on blood pressure medication, and carried around a pot belly (which never melted away the entire 75 days he spent on the road). A funny scene tells us that he was the annual last place finisher in the local Kaiser Roll 10k. He suffered a heart attack during his training for his transcontinental run, and then perhaps he had another one during his travels (the doctors could never confirm it). He describes every “marathon” he ran as being extremely painful, and no wonder: on day 65 of his endeavor he learns that he had been running with stress fractures in both ankles and in one kneecap. Less than a quarter through his run, his entire support crew quit and headed home, leaving just his eldest teenaged son to be his roadie. In a blunt confession towards the end of the film, Terry says us that he had no good days running, what he had were “good moments,” and that he thought about quitting every single day he was out there. How and why he persisted is explained to the viewers like this: he was driven, he met people along the way who were touched by his cause, and he had a great love for his children.
For the most part, this movie is not actually about running, nor is it actually for runners. Films like The Spirit of the Marathon, Chariots of Fire, Prefontaine, or Run For Your Life are much more inspirational and satisfying for us. While Terry’s run is indisputably a stunning physical feat, I wouldn’t call him a “runner” (the film doesn’t tell us if he kept up the activity after his southbound bipedal passage). There weren’t any real training tips to glean, he ate 6000+ calories a day (which sounds high to me, even for 30 miles a day) but drank no water, ran wearing knee braces and a breathing strip, and in one scene we see him stretching but he was doing it wrong. To me, the documentary dragged when it spent too much time on the grief and challenges the family went through when Hitchcock’s wife died, and on the logistical and motivational challenges that faced him and his crew during the run (the subject of the ultra runner’s support crew is treated in a much more thorough, interesting fashion in Running on the Sun).
For me, there were two takeaways in this film which made it worth the 90 minutes and $15. While I maintain that I see no reason to ever run further than 26.2 miles, I still would like to understand why other people see the reason to do so. Terry spoke about the mental challenge of getting out there, day after day, grinding through 27-plus painful miles, and he offered this elegant way to understand how our minds adapt to the distance and pull us through: Consider the run as the answer to a question. Q: why am I out here on Day 50, running 30 miles again? A: the run. In other words, you question the run, so you go out and run to think of your answer; therefore, the run is the answer. It’s a beautiful way to approach the long run, creating a Möbius strip for our minds to slip along as we travel 20, 25 or 30 miles.
The other takeaway was the notion of reflection and faith, and how those practices sustained him. He was still having Ah-ha Moments, still learning things about himself and human nature on his 39th run (he’d already gone nearly 1200 miles), and enjoying flashes of grace–being paced by a black bear for a few hundred yards, jogging safely through the most dangerous neighborhood of St. Louis, and wisely asking President Clinton why there wasn’t a Secretary of Children in his Cabinet.
As his son said at the end of the film, being a child with a dead mother and a hapless dad doesn’t seclude or alienate you, but it does make you who you are. Terry and his children were forged once by a death, then were forged again by a great run. I believe that, if you’re doing it right, whether you run 75 marathons in 75 days or one marathon in 75 years, running makes you who you are. So perhaps in that context, Terry Hitchcock is one amazing runner.