All the great sports books and films have at their core a big preparatory workout sequence. Rocky’s most famous moment? His “cardio work” (as boxers call running) to what are now known as the “Rocky steps.” The training sequence is akin to the first big battle scene in an action film; it sets the table for who the character is – and just what they are up against. Usually, the stakes are so high that the training is as unbelievable as Rocky’s run, which, if really executed, would have been just shy of 50K. At least Rocky was jogging – the legendary 60 x 400 m workout from the most celebrated running novel of all-time, Once a Runner would probably kill most people. As would Gary Robbins’s very real pre-Barkley Marathons fitness test: an overnight run up and down a mountain in North Vancouver, until he accumulated 20,000 feet of elevation. By the end of this sequence in Where Dreams Go to Die, the pressure is high, and Robbins is ready conquer the biggest race of his life. Of course, it doesn’t go according to the script.
Filmmaker Ethan Newberry (of Ginger Runner YouTube fame) followed Robbins to the 100-mile Barkley Marathons for both of the Vancouver-based ultrarunner’s attempts at one of the hardest races in the world. The first half of this funny and dramatic documentary unpacks how Robbins came to be obsessed with the unusual Tennessee race, which requires runners to spend 60 hours in a harsh mountain range, searching for books in order to tear out pages to prove they’ve finished each loop of the course. Only 15 people have ever completed the race, and after two attempts – spoiler alert – Robbins isn’t one of them. The fact that Newberry and Robbins were able to craft such a gripping and fun film out of a situation pretty much every viewer already knows the ending to is a compliment to their storytelling.
What Where Dreams Go to Die does best is allow Robbins to be the brash, charming yet self-effacing running star he is, and this scene needs so badly. The trust Robbins must have in Newberry is evident in both the film, which unflinchingly documents the elite runner’s lowest moments, and because they have subsequently toured the film together. It was unsurprising that Where Dreams Go to Die was as sellout hit across North America, as its expertly crafted and wisely paced. The only disappointment, if you can call it that, is that the film ends on an obvious cliffhanger, leaving viewers counting the days until Robbins heads back out to the Tennessee mountains. Will he snatch his dream of finishing back from the clutches of death? We’ll find out in the spring.