The list of assembled characters reads like what has to be a series of monologues, not an ensemble cast: Diné in Arizona, monks in Japan, ultramarathon runners in New York City and Bushmen in Africa. And in truth, in the documentary 3100: Run and Become, which debuts in Santa Fe on Aug. 17, they only brush past one another. Yet, they're somehow in conversation, each adding on to what the others have said for a cumulative sentiment that's shared across cultures.
"Running was prayer, and there was no way to survive without prayer," says film director Sanjay Rawal. "There wasn't a concept of sitting silently in a monastery or on a pew and praying passively. It was the idea that your body helped to unlock energies and experiences for your spirit and vice versa."
The threads wove together often through coincidence as Rawal began an exploration of ultrarunning that started with the film's namesake event, the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, which requires road runners to average 60 miles per day to complete 3,100 miles in 52 days, all on a half-mile loop around a New York City block.
Rawal lives a mile and a half from their route—it's on sidewalks he regularly runs, and he'd watched it for more than a decade. He befriended and was baffled by its competitors, including the 2015 winner, Ashprihanal Aalto.
"It's a frightening race to stop and watch because you see how inadequate you are as a runner and how you have no desire to test your strength that way," Rawal says. "At the same time, it's fundamentally fascinating how and why someone would do that."
He followed two runners in the 2016 race, Aalto and Shamita Achenbach-König, who had never run the event before but also had never quit a race she'd started. The two circle the same patches of sidewalk past chain link fence-rimmed basketball courts and school buildings during a "heat dome" of days with temperatures peaking at 100 degrees.
"For me, the goal is to transform myself, to become a better person, and running itself is the meditation," Aalto says in the film.
The event is named for its founder, who believed that peace could be attained through meditation as well as through art and sports. It's not a journey, one of this year's runners said on a video posted to the film's site; it's a pilgrimage, and every step is part of the ritual.
Achenbach-König, a 51-year-old cellist from Vienna, struggled as hot temperatures threatened her health. In the film her will to continue seems to speak directly to Japan's "marathon monks," who commit to hiking circles around a peak for 1,000 days, knowing that tradition requires suicide if they fail. The film shares remarkable access to a monk 700 miles into his journey, filming him on the trail with prayer beads in hand, and in conversation with his advisor.
The story moves quickly to the Southwest desert. A book on the history of the Pueblo Revolt that mentioned how running coordinated the Pueblos brought Rawal's interest here. Speaking with Shaun Martin, an ultrarunner and board member of Wings of America, a nonprofit that encourages Native youth to run, brought the filmmakers to Arizona. There, the film captures the 55-km ultramarathon through Canyon de Chelly—an unsponsored, prize-free race run just to experience the canyon—and Martin on a solo run to retrace the path his father followed when he fled boarding school for his family's ancestral homesite.
The run Martin's father took to save himself from an effort to erase his culture is echoed now in the African desert. Bushmen in Kalahari Desert have hunted for thousands of years with spears and in a footrace with their prey that sometimes sees them running for days at a time, but the government has banned the practice. The tribes argue it cuts them off from not just a key food source, but from an experience they believe gives them access to the power of nature and the blessings of their ancestors. They break the law to teach their children how to hunt this way, too.
That running draws people to a higher place Rawal found in the observation that people accept rather than question one another's motivations when they pass on the trail. Whether it's Bushmen or Diné, what they could achieve in the past—the trade routes that required running 60 miles in a day or the hunts wherein they chased antelope across the desert—bends understanding of what is humanly possible. And today, people test that running laps around a city block in the summer heat on a course that is no doubt as punishing as it is maddeningly repetitive.
In all of them, "you're getting happiness out of what you're doing, and you're running with a deep well of joy or bliss or freedom," says Rawal, who has also completed multi-day races. "It's not the idea of pushing yourself to a limit. It's the idea of experiencing what it means to go beyond limits."
Wings of America Fundraising Dinner and Conversation
with Oglala Lakota and Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, Indigenous activists, artist Roxanne Swentzell and author N Scott Momaday: 6 pm Thursday Aug. 16. $175.
Hotel Santa Fe,
1501 Paseo de Peralta;
3100: Run and Become:
Various times Aug. 17-23. $8-$11.
Center for Contemporary Arts,
1050 Old Pecos Trail,