These are the best ultra running movies I’ve found so far, or at least the most enjoyable. They may not be perfect in terms of production value, but watching them makes me want to be outside suffering in the middle of nowhere, even when I’m benched by injuries or trapped indoors by the pandemic. And whether you run or not, they are great stories about human character and capacity. Grab a bag of processed snacks, kick your feet up, and let the carb loading begin!
Table of Contents
- Best Ultra Running Movies by Event
- Chamonix / UTMB 2018 (17:12)
- Desert Runners / 4 Deserts Ultra 2013
- Dragon’s Back Race / DBR 2012 (1:40)
- Golden Trail Championship / GTC 2020 (1:05)
- How to Run 100 Miles / Run Rabbit Run 100 2017 (0:29)
- LIFE IN A DAY / Western States 2016 (1:03)
- Mont Blanc / UTMB CCC 2015 (0:22)
- Made to be Broken / Karl Meltzer on the AT (0:42)
- Romsdalshorn Challenge / Random (0:10)
- The Source / C. Dauwalter @ Tahoe 200 2018 (0:39)
- Touching the Void / Mountaineering (1:42)
- Unbreakable / Western States 2010 (1:46)
- World’s Toughest Race / Eco-Challenge Fiji (10 Episodes)
- Where Dreams Go to Die / 2016-17 Barkleys (1:16)
- Other Movies
- Other Lists
Best Ultra Running Movies by Event
If you’re wondering how these movies and documentaries were picked, the criteria are pretty simple. They must be inspiring, fun or at least not suck. They should have something unique to offer (for instance, they can’t all be about the Barkley Marathons, unfortunately). And…yeah, that’s about it. If a film is about one runner doing one event, it might be on this list and the best ultra-running movies by runner list (Pending). Films are alphabetical by movie name.
Chamonix / UTMB 2018 (17:12)
I included this only to show how hard it can be to make a documentary when things don’t work out. Director Billy Yang introduces the 2018 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix, where he was on site to cover the race and US runner Zach Miller.
The UTMB covers 171k (106 miles) with more than 10k meters (32k+ feet) in elevation gain, often with more than 2,500 starters. In 2018, a powerful field including Kilian Jornet and many others finished in a bloodbath of drops and injuries that resulted int a DNF for Zach. Kilian had an allergic reaction to a bee sting. As a result of the carnage, there wasn’t much of Zach’s run to document, but the film is still a fun if short introduction to the race and the camaraderie of the runners.
For an actual documentary on the 2015 race, see Billy’s Mont Blanc (below). A full list of his films can be found here on YouTube.
Desert Runners / 4 Deserts Ultra 2013
Desert Runners is available for purchase on YouTube, and covers the 2013 4 Deserts ultra running (stage race) series. It’s a good if imperfect movie notable for epic suffering across four continents, even if if all the suffering seems a bit posh. Run in the antarctic? Sure, I’ve got money lying around for that. But it’s still fun to watch those who do…especially since I’ll never run in 100+ degree weather across a desert.
If you don’t want to pay for the movie, you can get a feel for desert running from many other documentaries, including Desert Ultra in Namibia (in an entirely different race series), World’s Toughest in the Atacama, etc. Most of these documentaries lack the personality of Dessert Runners, but they still show great terrain and efforts by numerous amateur runners.
Dragon’s Back Race / DBR 2012 (1:40)
A charming find with gorgeous scenery, Dragon’s Back Race covers the 2012 Berghuas DBR across the mountainous spine of Wales. Come for the rolling green mountains, stay for the place names you can’t possibly pronounce. And you can see Wouter Hamelinck from The Race that Eats Its Young. This guy does all the fun races.
The full movie is free on Amazon Prime, along with a few other documentaries.
I’m not sure why, but I find several of these documentaries about DBR charming and highly watchable. Maybe it’s the scenery. Maybe it’s the mellow approach and friendly people. Conquering the Dragon covers the 2017 race, and another short documentary, Riding the Dragon, follows Welsh runner Huw Jack Brassington in 2018. It’s worth a watch if you want to see someone go deep into the hurt cave and come out the other side…hurting. Plus, you learn Welsh.
Golden Trail Championship / GTC 2020 (1:05)
This has a little too much production value and motivational music for my tastes, but still a good film about a cool race I knew very little about until a few years ago. The 2020 field included Jim Walmsley, Stian Angermund, Maude Mathys, Tove Alexandersson, and many other great runners.
Come for the runner interviews, stay for great scenery of the Faial Island in the Portuguese Azores…in a lot of fog. If you have some time and want to follow racers through the GTWS series races, I’d recommend watching the 2019 and 2020 series end-to-end.
How to Run 100 Miles / Run Rabbit Run 100 2017 (0:29)
This film was recommended by a reader, and he was right–it’s a great movie about running, friendship, and how one make the other tolerable even when it’s terrible. There’s some really good, high-quality suffering in here. “I hate running. I hate mountains. And I hate this ^*&^!! sandwich.” Yeah, baby.
One good quote from the overview: “In the six months leading up to the race, we figured since we weren’t naturally talented runners, the best thing we could do is work hard. So we ran 50- to 70-mile weeks all summer, and went through a full range of feelings: fear, regret, sadness, FOMO, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, pain, and joy. And gluttony, which is not a feeling, but what happens after you run 20 or more miles.” Plus they talk about pooping. Which is important. Who uses a pine cone?
LIFE IN A DAY / Western States 2016 (1:03)
Billy Yang’s great exploration of ultra athletes Magdalena Boulet, Devon Yanko, Kaci Lickteig and Anna Mae Flynn running Western States in 2016. LIFE IN A DAY makes it clear that greatness has no gender.
What I like, well, appreciate, about movies like this is seeing how even great runners struggle with things like diet and stomach issues, just like the rest of us. They just do it much faster. There’s also more serious personal content here as well, reminding us how we don’t really know people through a mere list of accomplishments.
Mont Blanc / UTMB CCC 2015 (0:22)
Nike runners David Laney, Tim Tollefson and Zach Miller showed that Americans can compete in the classic of series of European ultra running. Billy Yang covers their efforts in classic, highly personal form with characteristically gorgeous cinematography.
See the complete list of Billy Yang films here on YouTube.
Made to be Broken / Karl Meltzer on the AT (0:42)
This follows Karl Meltzer’s third attempt to run the Appalachian Trail in record time, trying to beat the FKT set by Scott Jurek in 2015. Watch the whole film on Redbull.tv. Here’s a quick post-attempt interview:
At first, the movie comes off a little emotionally flat, but as you get down the trail and the suffering starts, there’s a great theme about support, family, friends and the emotional depth it takes to set records like this–including support from past FKT-holders like David Horton.
Romsdalshorn Challenge / Random (0:10)
This short is wonderfully silly mountain race between mountain running legend Kilian Jornet and base jumper Tom Erik Heimen (who gets to fly down). Who makes the roundtrip faster? Who thought this up? How did they not die? Welcome to the Romsdalshorn Challenge.
Yeah, I know, this isn’t even ultra running. Don’t care. If you want more crazy Kilian stuff, check out his channel on YouTube.
The Source / C. Dauwalter @ Tahoe 200 2018 (0:39)
The Source follows Courtney‘s attempt to beat the FKT for the Tahoe 200 race, but it’s also about her attitude and apparently indomitable will. Did she crush the record into little puffs of trail dust? You’ll have to watch to find out. But whatever she did, she did it without eating for 140 miles. Try it. I dare you.
And of course check out An Almost Perfect Run about her attempt to set a Western States course record, because Courtney’s a beast. A very nice, mellow beast.
Touching the Void / Mountaineering (1:42)
Okay, this movie has nothing to do with running, but to me this is the defining movie about endurance, grit and just keeping moving no matter what (aka the Dori principle). Come for the crazy story. Stay for the crazy story.
And of course if you want to read the book, you should read the book. Sorry, I’m stanning a bit. Joe!!!
Unbreakable / Western States 2010 (1:46)
A very chill documentary about the 2010 running of Western States, focusing on ultra stars Hal Koerner, Geoff Roes, Anton Krupicka and Kilian Jornet. You even get to see a young Kilian break near the end, which helps show he’s human after all, and yet he still finishes faster than most human beings can even dream of.
This is a mellow film about some mellow runners kicking some serious ass. So, you know, grab a beer and get ready for some backstory.
World’s Toughest Race / Eco-Challenge Fiji (10 Episodes)
This is the series that got all of us amped about adventure racing just in time for the the show to be cancelled. There’s running. There’s biking. There’s kayaking. And then more of it, for freakin’ days. And you get to watch Bear Grylls try to motivate people as they lie on the ground and pretend they’re not dying.
If you get hooked on Eco-Challenge movies like I did, there’s a full YouTube playlist here. Highly variable quality and length is to be expected, but some (like Morocco) are really worth a few hours of your time. You know, when you’re not running.
Where Dreams Go to Die / 2016-17 Barkleys (1:16)
This is another Barkley Marathons documentary and, while not quite as awesome as The Race that Eats Its Young, it captures the grit and suffering of Gary Robbins during the 2016 and 2017 races (which continues in later years) in remarkable form. And it has one of my (still) favorite quotes of all time: “Let’s be honest, it was kind of a shit show.” A terrible, beautiful shit show.
Have other recommendations for the list? Let me know. In the meantime, here are a few that look interesting that I haven’t watched yet:
I’ve also left out several that weren’t that fun to watch, but that’s just my opinion. And there are several great movies focusing primarily on running careers vs. events that I’ve left for a separate list. This is a work in progress and will be updated as time allows, so all suggestions and feedback are welcome…
Some other lists in the meantime:
- Best Ultra Running Movies by Runner
- Best Running Documentaries by Runner’s World
- Must Watch Documentaries on Trail and Summit
- Red Bull’s Best Films (Maybe a bit biased 🙂 )
- Ultimate Ultra Running Movies on Ultra-X
- Top 10 Barkley Documentaries
And if any of the lingo gets confusing, check out our ultra running glossary.