Ethan Newberry, the Ginger Runner, recently released a full-length documentary called Where Dreams Go to Die. And y'all, it is magnificent. I expected it to be good, but after
seeing experiencing it, I rank it up there with Spirit of the Marathon and Desert Runners in terms of being one of the best running documentaries out there.
Ethan has become one of my favorite YouTube creators. He's charismatic, knowledgeable, and puts together some really interesting videos. This guy legit understands cinematography and is a real filmmaker. That's saying a lot coming from me, given that I am generally unimpressed by YouTube. At least as a platform for quality film. (Oh, hush — I did a lot of master's and Ph.D. work in film and TV studies.) And Where Dreams Go to Die has maybe started to change my opinion on what you can find there.
Whose Dreams? Why Are They Dead? What's Going on Now?
The title is a bit melodramatic, but then again, the race it's chronicling is, too. WDGTD is a pseudo-follow-up to the 2014 doc The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (It's on Amazon for free if you have Prime. Check it out.) Ethan's documentary doesn't really explain what the Barkley Marathons are, though. It's a good idea to watch The Barkley Marathons first if you wanna know what the heck is going on. This one is a great doc, too, so you'll have fun with it. Unlike those poor runners. Hah!
In a nutshell, the Barkley is an ultra-marathon trail race set in the mountains of east Tennessee at Frozen Head State Park.
A brief interlude from Beej
Let me pause here for just one second: I grew up in Tennessee, maybe 4 hours from Frozen Head. I traveled all over the state for school and vacations and just funsies. Especially eastern Tennessee. I've driven past Frozen Head State Park multiple times in my life, and spent a lot of time in the surrounding area.
And never once — never — did I hear about this race. When they say it wasn't known, they mean it. It wasn't publicized or talked about in the general culture of the state, and even now after the documentary has made the rounds, it's still not. I just wanted you to hear it from a local's perspective.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled documentary review.
Every year, race director Lazarus Lake chooses 40 people to do 5 laps on an unmarked trail that's somewhere between 25 and 35 miles (probably), finding hidden books and bringing back specific pages from them (up to 13 books so far, as of 2017), and doing it all in under 60 hours.
Oh, and you have no idea what the start time will be because there's a 12-hour window, and the elevation difference across the 5 loops is like climbing/descending Mt. Everest twice, you can't use GPS, and there's only one aid-station in a single fire tower. It's intense and kinda nuts.
Where Dreams Go to Die follows two years of attempts by Gary Robbins, a celebrated ultra-runner, as he takes some hella abuse by this race, mentally and physically. It's engrossing, and I am so gonna watch this one a bunch more.
Neato Sales Tactics
You can buy WDGTD for $7 right now. There's an $11 edition where you can download a commentary track that'll be out in April or May — that's the one I opted for. But if you're short on cash and more patien than I am, the whole thing will be free on YouTube later this year. But I wanted to support Ethan because I watch his channel all the time and haven't yet donated to his Patreon.
I am always a fan of folks who give content away for free just to enrich the culture. And I think this one really does enrich the culture around running. Even though I am not an ultra runner, nor will I ever be.
It's a Personal Story
Whereas the original documentary about Barkley covered the race itself, getting it all set up, and featured some people and their stories, WDGTD is specifically about this one dude's attempts at it.
That kind of makes it way more interesting for me, and it shows just how grueling and intense this thing actually is. The first one does, too, but Ethan and Gary really make you feel this experience more than I expected I would.
I mean, I was lying on a couch, snuggled up on a Sunday afternoon, watching this after a 10-mile run that I was particularly proud of, and this made me have all the feels, even through my endorphin-fueled happytime.
While I can't quite wrap my mind around the mentality of why anyone would want to abuse themselves over and over and over again via this race, I can appreciate it a lot more than I could before watching this (and I've watched and read a lot on ultra-running over the years.
Pretty as a Picture
Where Dreams Go to Die is a beautifully shot movie, too. It reminds me in some ways of the food documentary Ingredients that convinced my wife and me to go to Portland, OR on vacation a few years back.
The quality of the storytelling in the film is superb, and it's obvious that the Ginger Runner has really honed in on what makes a runner a runner — and it ain't the number of miles put on shoes.
He cuts scenes together in a way that would and should make Zack Snyder cry. There's an understanding of how to use the camera in a way that it becomes a participant in the storytelling, rather than a simple tool to convey some moving pictures.
That kind of artisty and care in filmmaking elevates a documentary from being something I watch once to something I will return to over and over again to really have an experience with it.
Basically, What I'm Saying Is Watch "Where Dreams Go to Die"
Go now. Watch it asap. WDGTD is excellent in so many ways. The film has made me want to dig in on a lot more personal stories of ultra-runners as opposed to just the overview I've known so far (outside of the mega-famous ones like Dean Karnazes and such).
Running has always been a meditative and almost spiritual activity for me, and that idea is really exemplified by Where Dreams Go to Die. Ethan and Gary truly capture the emotional and mental aspect of the sport in a way that Spirit of the Marathon just couldn't, despite how great it is.
So yeah. Support awesome creators like Ethan by checking out Where Dreams Go to Die, and then head over to his YouTube channel and watch some of his other docs. I fully intend to watch as many of them as I can, as soon as I can.
If any of this sounds remotely interesting, shell out the $7 (or wait until it's free on YouTube, if you want to). You'll really enjoy this one. I think it's pretty obvious that I did.
Overall Rating: A+
Post image credit Ethan Newberry, wheredreamsgotodie.com