Running on the Sun: The Badwater 135 (2000), a film by Mel Stuart documenting the 1999 Badwater 135 ultramarathon, follows a group of runners who have decided to enter one of the world’s toughest endurance competitions. Throughout the film the runners are shown training for and competing in what is often described as “the world’s toughest foot race,” a distinction that largely rests on two factors: the distance and the conditions. Although the question is never directly posed, Stuart’s film implicitly asks the questions “why” and “how” these competitors are racing in such extreme conditions. Through a series of interviews spectators are presented with a unique look at how these competitors understand their body against the backdrop of Badwater. As the opening minutes of the film suggest, this race is appealing precisely because it challenges the body to respond under exhausting duress and finishing is far from guaranteed. In this sense, Badwater is less a showcase of virtuosity and more an opportunity to explore the potential of the body under extreme adversity.
Professional athletes like Dean Karnazes and Scott Jurek regularly race (and win) Badwater, but Stuart’s bludgeoning documentary places emphasis on the amateur, elderly, and impaired athlete. Importantly, Stuart’s choice to focus on non-professional runners highlights how the brutalizing process of running all 135 miles is a process that goes far beyond competition. For each competitor, young and old, male and female, able bodied or not, the goal is universally to seek out what is possible, to question limitations, and, ultimately come to a new understanding of one’s self. Stuart’s images—depicting bodies injured internally and externally, loss of physical coordination, and levels of exhaustion so extreme competitors hallucinate and pass out—remind us that tarrying with our limits is not easy and even risky.
In documenting bodies willingly beaten, battered, and bludgeoned by heat and pavement, this film suggests that extremity can function as a means to explore what a body is, and more importantly what it can do. The confrontation with extremity and its uncertain consequences is in large part what competitors are seeking out. Badwater’s runners want to see how their training, planning, and effort fair when confronted with a challenge so great it denies a predictable outcome. One runner describes this situation by explaining: “I’ve trained for the heat; I’ve trained for the roads; but I’m just waiting to find out what the third thing is I haven’t prepared for.” Stuart’s film suggests how endurance helps to frame extremism as a willingness to explore new limits. Further, Badwater’s demand for endurance displays the desire of these competitors to embrace extreme difficulty, to willingly seek out what is possible, to claim new potential where new thresholds are discovered through sustained effort. This film’s interest in extremism, ultimately, offers an opportunity to witness the limits of the human body redefined. In doing so, we gain valuable insight into how cinema confronts and challenges our studied notions of what in fact constitutes the “extreme.”