3100: Run and Become’s Sanjay Rawal on Running as Prayer (Interview)

Sanjay Rawal 3100 Run and Become

We sit down with the director of the upcoming long-distance running doc 3100: Run and Become to talk about the spirituality of running and their responsibilities toward the marginalized communities they highlight.

The Self-Transcendence Race in New York City is a grueling, unrelenting 3,100-mile race held every year around a single block in Queens – 60 miles a day, 52 days. There’s no prize money, no corporate endorsements – each of the runners who travel from around the world to participate do it for the higher purpose of self-improvement and spiritual practice. The documentary 3100: Run and Become explores this race, contrasting it with other examples of world cultures using running as a spiritual practice – the Navajo communities of Arizona, the Kalahari bushmen in Africa, Buddhist monks in Japan. It’s a riveting, inspiring doc that’ll make you want to lace up your old running shoes and jog a mile or two just because. 

We sat down with 3100 director Sanjay Rawal on the week of the film’s Chicago premiere (perfectly timed, as the Chicago Marathon starts in a few weeks) to talk about the production’s unique challenges, as well as the mindset of those who use running as prayer. Take a listen, and read the full interview below. 

(Thanks to our sponsor Backblaze as part of the Chicago Podcast Coop!)

3100: Run and Become makes its Chicago premiere Friday, September 21st at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with Rawal in attendance opening weekend for audience discussion. For more information, head to 3100film.com. 

How did this project start?

The movie is about the world’s longest running race – 3,100 miles. People have to do 60 miles a day for 52 days, all around a half-mile loop in Queens. Brutal. Brutal physically, brutal visually. I live a mile away from that race, and I’ve seen documentary crews come every three or four years, try to put something together, and fail. I didn’t know why they couldn’t bring the story out – obviously, visually there’s a lot of obstacles. But the race is very much a spiritual one, and I felt by combining a number of different narratives that were much more visually appealing – the Navajo, the Kalahari bushmen, the monks in Japan – I could bring out the essential tension about that kind of brutally horrific one half-mile block.

Are you a runner yourself, or was this you viewing it from outside?

I was a competitive runner, but I haven’t run seriously since my mid-20s. But the first step after developing the idea of the movie was to go to the Navajo nation. I met an elite ultra-marathoner named Shaun Martin, and he said, “Running is a teacher. Running is a prayer. You run on Mother Earth, you breathe in Father Sky, and running is also a celebration of life.” Now, most of us who’ve either run recreationally or competitively have never heard that from any coach or mentor. That changed my attitude towards running, and I knew if I brought that theme to the film, people would get something out of it.

There’s absolutely this universality to it, especially bringing running into something more all-encompassing like spirituality. That takes a lot of forms for a lot of us, and the way you meld these four different stories using running as a mirror for different faiths is really fascinating. What was your approach to reconciling those four divergent stories?

I like to think of the movie as Samsara meets Chariots of Fire. It’s about running, but at the same time, it’s a global exploration. We don’t have talking heads or interviews. We really worked on the idea of tandem narratives – like the classic Robert Altman [film] Nashville, or even Paul Haggis’ Crash. We felt we were more akin to PT Anderson’s Magnolia, in that some of the stories connect, but most of them don’t. But it all kind of works together.

We have the 3100-mile race as the spine, we have the Navajo runner, the Kalahari bushmen narrative, and these monks in Japan that are doing 1,000 days of running 30-some-odd thousand miles in the Highlands. And we were trying to imagine how those stories would work together – not just by theme or content, but dramatic structure. That was really important to us. I think things layer well in the movie because they all serve some dramatic role.

Also, you follow all these interesting characters, like Ashprihanal, the main subject of the Self-Transcendence Race, who himself has this sense of routine and discipline, but not the way you expect of an Olympian. What attracted you to him and the other subjects?

You know, in the edit we tried to imagine it as Star Wars. Ashprihanal is this simple paperboy from Finland, who’s trying to do the 3,100-mile race, and it’s really a hero’s journey. But he’s Luke Skywalker, where he and the race drive the narrative, but he’s not the most interesting character in the film. That might be, say, Han Solo, or Darth Vader. We looked at three other characters – a Navajo, a bushman, and a monk – as these guardians of the running world.

These guys are gripping, their quests are really short and impactful, whereas Ashprihanal’s takes place over 3,100 miles. We keep returning to him, and he advances the story, and allows us to jump into these other, more visually rich narratives. But he and I have actually been friends for twenty years. So when I learned he was running the race in 2016, I asked if we could follow his buildup to that, which was rather unusual. It wasn’t a simple thing of watching him run; he was traveling around the world. He ended up traveling to the Navajo nation to run races there, and it was a visually striking way to begin the movie.

Going back to the difference between that and something like an Olympic runner, where there’s a more altruistic, transcendental motivation for their running than just sheer competition, what do you think sets someone like that apart from the kind of runner we normally think of?

I’m not sure how many people have read the book Born to Run, that looks at the idea that men and women, physiologically, genetically, are incredible runners. At the same time, we looked at cultures that have been using running as a spiritual practice – something that I think disappeared from the West when we became agriculturalists 10,000 years ago. But for the previous 2 or 3 million, running was how we connected to nature and those energies.

I didn’t want to focus on Olympians, or famous runners, who were running for money or fame (however valid). I wanted to look at people who were running to make themselves better people. In the buildup to the Chicago Marathon, most of the people out there running aren’t doing it to even set personal bests, maybe. The marathon is the culmination of months of training and discipline, getting to know themselves both through their highs and lows. The marathon itself is a celebration. So when Shaun Martin, our Navajo, says “running’s a prayer,” that’s the discipline. “Running is a teacher” helps us get through the hardships.  And something like the Chicago Marathon is running as a celebration of life. It helps us really realize why we’re here, and connect to other people sharing the same journey.

Is that something you felt when you were doing competitive running – that sense of prayer, or meditation?

I really wish – I think a lot of us who’ve done anything in sports in high school or college, or semi-competitively, or even as weekend warriors, it’s like we’re pushed by people around us that are getting us to perform. Winning is the satisfaction, placing is the satisfaction. And if you don’t, or if you don’t feel you have any chance, there don’t seem to be a place for us in Western society. Even as athletes. But if somebody says, “do your best,” sincerely, not like ‘here’s a participation trophy,’ use it to challenge yourself and become a better person – if I’d been told that in baseball or soccer or track, I think it would have changed me at a very early age. I’m 43 now, and I’m still happy to change now, and I’ll take it when I get it.

Talk to me about the process of getting the film made – you had a successful Kickstarter, and it’s been bouncing around the festival circuit for a while.

As every documentary filmmaker would say, it’s been a difficult process. Not so much in terms of finishing the film, but [for example] the Navajo had never allowed people to film the spiritual side of their running. The monks in Japan hadn’t allowed filmmaking crews up there in more than a generation. The Kalahari bushmen, people will find in our movie, it’s now illegal [for them] to hunt. The hunters we were following, the runners, they could have been arrested if caught hunting. We have legal protections for them, of course, but people gave us really rare access. That was the most difficult challenge.

At the same time, we didn’t want to make a commercial documentary like North Face or Red Bull or Patagonia. We wanted something that was aspirational, pure, so we couldn’t go to the brands. We did a Kickstarter; we had a couple of generous philanthropists  who helped get us through to the end.

We also started at a really small film festival – the Illuminate Film Festival in Sedona. There was a filmmaker who told us that he turned down Sundance to open in Memphis for a film called Big Star which was based on the Memphis music scene. It meant so much to his characters that he premiered there that it buoyed the whole outreach component. We premiered in Sedona because our Navajo characters and their families could get the joy of coming to our opening night.

From there, we immediately launched into a theatrical run. We started in nontraditional cities like Santa Fe, Albuquerque. In each of those markets, we’ve been held over. Chicago’s the first major city we’re gonna be in – rather than starting in New York and LA, we’re ending there.

What has the response been to the doc so far?

We started in Santa Fe because of the intersection of running and Native American culture there. An Olympic champion from 1964, an Oglala Sioux runner named Billy Mills, actually flew from California for that. We were in Flagstaff, on the edge of the Navajo nation, and people said, “you know, we bring our Navajo kids here to see Thor and Ant-Man. For them to see a Navajo character on a big screen in a multiplex is almost revelatory.” We’ve been going to native communities to do five, six shows a day, and to big running cities like Boulder, Denver, Portland, and we’ve been thrilled. Everyone from the most beginning, amateur runners to famous ultramarathoners and Olympians have all come out and shown their support. So we’re super excited for the momentum that’s been building.

I don’t know how much you have to do with the film’s official website, but I visited it recently, and it’s a fascinating way to use the documentary as a call to action to start running. You have a ‘3100 Challenge,’ running tips, and so on. Was that anything you were involved with in using this doc as a core for engagement?

For better or for worse, I’m kind of involved with everything, whether it’s the website, or Facebook, or Instagram accounts. We have three things we want people to do: use this film to inspire transformation in their own life, challenge their own limits. We have a grant for Native Americans around the country to come see the film by giving them complimentary tickets. And we’re also raising resources for our bushman hunters to buy a truck, so they can register people along the Kalahari to vote.

Fascinating – what was the motivation for that? Why was that important to you?

The Southwestern Native communities and indigenous African communities put a lot on the line to let us come in – either giving us access to deep spirituality, which has always been appropriated, or (in the case of the Kalahari bushmen) putting their own lives and villages into imminent political danger. There’s a real feeling of responsibility we have not only to share their story in the fullest, deepest sense, but to give people a way to help these communities that need friends.

If you were to say to anybody, regardless of running experience, why they should see this movie, what would you say?

This movie, at its core, is about an activity that human beings have been participating in for millions of years. Especially now – I hate to be so glib, but everything’s red or blue. But if you’ve ever gone jogging at Lake Michigan, or a hike on a trail, you’re never judging anybody for their political affiliation. When you’re running, there is no red, there is no blue. You’ve got your feet, and you’ve got your breath, and that’s what everybody else has. We’re reduced to mammals and spiritual beings at the same time. I think for people who want to see a movie that’s positive, hopeful, challenging, that has lots of drama and incredible cinematography, this is not just a break from the reality but an uplifting slice of another side of humanity.

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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