The film Life in a Day opens with immediate explanation of its title and theme. There is footage of a younger Ann Trason racing and a quote from her which says that in running ultras, we experience the highs and lows of a whole life in one day. The premise of this film, then, is that ultrarunning is intense and complex.
I want to back up here for a minute and peer into the more general present landscape of trail running videography and what I think we are seeing in it. It seems as if films about trail running are currently being made in one of two divergent ways. Most trail running videos–and certainly where the biggest dollars are being invested by those who fund them–are three to eight minutes long and packed with sequences of our sport’s sexiest runners moving in almost inhumanly fluid manners across equally sexy terrain. Sometimes there’s a brief, vestigial narrative; sometimes not. Their impact on viewers is largely physical: they proffer a big adrenaline rush and a feeling of, I don’t know entirely what just happened, but I want it. In short, they run like an extended Jeep or Toyota truck commercial.
Filmmaker Billy Yang and a couple other ‘renegades’ out there occupy the opposite end of the trail-running-videography spectrum. We’re talking about long-form, detail-centric pieces which embrace complex storylines that take 30 minutes or an hour to suss out and a more natural pacing. We’re also talking about work that asks its watchers to engage intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Life in a Day, at an more than an hour in length and operating on a dynamic theme that ultras and life are metaphors for each other, is a film of this latter variety.
It takes about six-and-a-half minutes for this film’s full scene to be set. Here we meet four talented women–Kaci Lickteig, Magda Boulet, Devon Yanko, and Anna Mae Flynn–undertaking the same event, the 2016 Western States 100. Following this, we are introduced to the film’s clever storyline, a temporally linear journey through the race, but with timeouts to dive off the race course into the lives of each of the four women. These diversions are timed impeccably, however, during a part of the race that one of the women significantly impacts, or vice versa sometimes.
As such, we visit Magda’s world first, in the East Bay of San Francisco. We learn about her progression from immigrant to world-class athlete to selfless mother who still makes time for expressing her running badassery. Then we travel across the state to the Tahoe area for a peekaboo into Anna Mae’s world. We learn she’s a school teacher, new to trail running following high-school and university-level competitive running, and we see that she stumbles across a Western States entry courtesy of third place at the 2016 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, a Golden Ticket race.
I won’t explain much more about these chapters–I think they are best lived and breathed and felt yourself. However, I will say that, for me, these visits into the lives of Magda, Anna Mae, and our other two protagonists later on are the film’s best minutes. These chapters feels like they have been rendered with obsessiveness in both their filming and editing. I recommend watching them a few times, as new details continuously reveal themselves, little pieces of these women’s homes, spirits, family, dreams, and more. Honestly, I’m not an expert at filmmaking but, in writing, revelation by a reader of new details and pieces of a story with additional re-readings is a hallmark of writing-craft expertise. As a lover of details, I could stay all day with the velvety richness of these parts of the film.
The film returns to the race, and we watch our characters run its first 30 miles. We see Kaci run with a sort of levity and grace that is exquisite, especially if you can tangibly grasp that she’s run more than a marathon here and she has several dozen miles to go. We watch Devon miss her crew and see the beginnings of the emotional and physical waves this stirs in her. We see Anna Mae travel these early miles with puppy-dog eyes, taking in as much as she can of her inaugural 100-mile journey. We never really see Magda run, and this chapter ultimately wraps with her sitting at the mile-30 aid station after dropping from the race, explaining her physical maladies and why the defending champion could not compete on this day.
The film advances to the Last Chance Aid Station, located at mile 43 on the race course, and into Devon’s story. She says she’s feeling cold and is cramping, and she attributes it to having missed her nutrition from her crew 20 miles ago and not being able to get on top of things again. The film switches out of race mode and into Devon-story mode. Devon has an unequivocally awful coming-of-age tale. I want to leave the narrative for you to experience yourself, but she lived the kind of kidhood that no one should have to and that–as we learn, for better and for worse, at times–heavily influences the rest of her life. Living a smidge of Devon’s story with her wrenches up your heart and creates a bitter feeling inside of you about humanity’s inhumanity. But just as I as a viewer get real pissed, the film reminds us that Devon’s lived through some serious shit, the kind of stuff that makes running 100 miles look like a birthday party. The film returns to the race, and we see Devon head off from the aid station in good spirits.
When you reach minute 40 of this film, get ready. The film’s pace increases–real quick. We watch race leader Kaci arc over the top of Michigan Bluff at mile 55, talk about how good she feels, scream and leap a snake lying on the trail, give previous Western States champion Stephanie Howe a sweet hug, and roll on in indivisible fashion. We see Devon cusp the race’s halfway point, her spirits lifted, and her body back in the game. We watch Anna Mae’s race end in a painful hobble dictated by tendinitis but we also see her launch into an expanded sense of self. We see her come to an understanding of herself as the arbiter of her own life’s starting and finish lines.
The film reaches its crescendo as Kaci laps the Placer High School track in Auburn, California to become the 2016 Western States 100 champion, high five-ing everyone, grinning wildly, looking up into the heavens, and running like none of the preceding 100 miles had actually occurred. We also see Devon cross in third place, filled with emotion presumably about overcoming her past, her previous DNF here, and the external and internal barriers she hurdled today.
The film has a post-script return to its theme with Magda, 13 days after her DNF and trying to use her fitness to race the Speedgoat 50k. She finishes third, but it seems to be a rough day as she sprains her ankle and looks a bit worse for the wear at times. After the race, she talks about what she takes away from this race and into life, and the fact that while life doesn’t get easier, our sport will make you better equipped to deal with it.
I’d like to now turn our attention to the giant elephant in the room. She’s waving her trunk, stomping her feet, and snortling for our attention. This is a one-hour film about female athletes. Full stop. This kind of film rarely happens in any sport. In trail running, we are more progressive with featuring our women than other sports, but something like this just doesn’t happen very often.
It needs to be said: Billy has killed it before with his long-form female narratives, and he does it again here. Thank you, Billy. I have to think that a man would be intimidated as all hell by the idea of trying to do justice to the story of not just one woman but four? If he was challenged by his gender, I could never tell.
Generally speaking, I am usually gracile with my compliments of brands because I know they have have marketing schemes behind a majority of their moves. Even if that is as least in part the case here, I don’t think I care. Hoka One One and Gu Energy put up money to support a full-length film exclusively about four women. Thank you.
A couple of critiques, first, I don’t feel that the film needs glimpses into the men’s race as means of progressing the narrative and setting the scene. No offense intended to any of those guys we see during the film, because the 2016 Western States men’s race was a helluva’ show. But this is a story about the women’s race and there are other ways to provide context without braiding men into the narrative.
I also lament that the film is California-centric, and though I find all of the women’s stories fascinating and recognize that Billy, as a Californian himself, must find it easier and cheaper to work with women in geographic proximity to him, I longed for the film to leave the state and found myself perking up when we momentarily found ourselves transported to Nebraska and Utah.
The soundtrack is fun. Some rock and roll, some banjo picking, some lift-me-up inspirationals, and, yes, even some “Ice Ice Baby.”
More than anything, I appreciate that Billy refrains from indulging in our sport’s cliches, in making scenery the central spectacle or in depicting what we do as effortless. Trail running is a beautiful sport not just when we are perched with perfect bodies in front of a forever view of rippling ranges of mountains. Our sport has so much depth and character, and it’s way in there that I think we are at our best. In our dirt and our sweat and our gashed knees and our tiredest strides, we are strong. In the camaraderie of those who remain faithful to our goals when we waver and put hands on our shoulders when we hurt, we are lovely. In whatever it is that pushes us on when things feel the hardest–our gods, our children, our past, the will of our own hearts–this is what makes us shine the brightest. Ann Trason is right: life and ultrarunning are perfect parallel metaphors.
[Author’s Note: This film debuted on December 1, 2016 at Equator Coffee & Teas in Mill Valley, California, a few days before the 2016 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. It was released online on March 8, International Women’s Day, on Billy Yang Films’s YouTube channel, and it’s embedded below.]