Extreme Action at the Limits of Endurance

Curator's Note

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.”


Really interesting, Adam. I'm wondering–following your comment to me, and momentarily leaving aside the variable of pornography–whether you consider this a torture film? If we think about torture as, say, extracting truth from the body, it seems like what you've identified in this work (particularly in the participant's quote you cite at the end) is not the extraction of a given truth, but the discovery of something not yet given–the "third thing" that perhaps doesn't obtain until its apprehension through the race itself? Is it possible, then, for spectators themselves to discover anything in watching extreme sports cinema such as this, or is witnessing traces of self/body-discovery onscreen the closest we can get to this particular limit?

Thanks for taking a look at my post Veronica. I think it's entirely appropriate to think of this documentary as a torture film. The difference here, of course, is that the Badwater participants are willingly subjecting themselves to this brutality, which speaks to an alternative conception of torture. But, as you already suggest, a race like this is always about discovering something new about one's self/body. Most of the preparation for a race like this is about quantifying every detail, managing all the variables, and preparing for the elements with scientific rigor. And yet, what a 100+ mile race--especially one in Death Valley in July--presents to runners is the unexpected. This film partly brings to our attention that these unexpected challenges also demand, to borrow your words, "the discovery of something no yet given." This is why people race Badwater. As for watching the film itself, I don't know. In part I think this is a question of interpretation. Without question films like this can plant the seed of possibility, perhaps, of "what a body can do." I don't think this is a necessary or automatic translation, but it might just inspire someone to race Badwater one day, no?

I really like that you introduced a documentary into the discussion of extreme cinema, Adam. I'm intrigued by the different kind of 'extremiities' at work in documentary and fiction film. Do you think documentary raises different issues regarding response, and the relationship between film and spectator? Like Veronica, I am interested in the kind of spectatorship solicited by your example. How do you think the viewer is positioned by such films? Is this part of a wider genre you are working on?

I certainly do think documentary works differently in this context. I want to acknowledge documentary is not an area of expertise for me, but in thinking about this week's theme I want to suggest that while it may not raise completely different issues, it does raise them in a different way. I think spectators are more intrigued if not confused by the apparent insanity they witness in a film such as Running On the Sun, as opposed to shocked or upset. The oddity of the event brings forth both awe and humor, and while I can't speak to any decisive or lasting effect this might have, it certainly questions how "extreme cinema" is more about a body exploring experiential terrain as opposed to merely enduring it.

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