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Keeping up with Athletes in an 100-Mile Foot Race

“Ultra” is a short documentary that follows in the footsteps of two “ultramarathoners” from New York City who compete in 100-mile foot races. Produced by Milos Balac and Ben Teitelbaum, students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the film is part of The 100 Project, a video series produced by journalism students for the journalism school’s centennial.

An ultramarathon denotes any race longer than a marathon’s standard 26.2 miles — there’s even an annual 3,100-mile, 51-day race in Queens — but a mystique surrounds the number 100. Fascinated by the people who push their bodies further than most of us could ever imagine, Ben Teitelbaum and I decided to make a short documentary on running 100 miles.

Columbia University graduate journalism student Ben Teitelbaum strapped a portable camera to his forehead and rode on a bicycle alongside ultramarathoners training for a 100-mile race on the streets of New York. Photo courtesy of Milos Balac.

In a city like New York, where traffic never stops, road rules are rarely obeyed, and pedestrians crisscross the streets as if they’re playing a real-life game of Frogger, filming long-distance runners was no easy feat. And with limited resources (no dollies or helicopters), we had to get creative.

The project started with trips to Chelsea and Jackson Heights (quite the schlep from Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus) to see how Carol Buonanno and Shane Skowron train to run incredible distances. The cameras were rolling as Carol, preparing for her first 100-mile race, woke up at 5 a.m. and immediately hit the pavement, having slept in her running clothes. Ben strapped a portable GoPro camera onto his head and biked alongside Carol for miles.

To get tracking shots of Shane running in Queens, we attached bungee cords to a skateboard. I put my life on the line and sat on the skateboard with the camera, as Ben pulled me along by bicycle through pouring rain.

Teitelbaum's filmmaking partner, Milos Balac, also a graduate student in Columbia University's School of Journalism, rode a skateboard tethered to Teitelbaum's bicycle to capture tracking shots of runners. Photo courtesy of Milos Balac.

Things got serious with a trip to Philadelphia, as Carol and Shane competed in the Philly 100-Mile Endurance Run, a grueling 12-lap race in Fairmount Park around the picturesque Schuylkill River.

Ben and I arrived a day in advance to scope out the course, armed with two cameras, a collection of batteries, and our Welsh friend and colleague, Tomos Lewis (to whom we are eternally grateful). After a 4 a.m. wake up call, the three of us were at the starting line when the race started early on a clear April morning. Taking turns behind the wheel of a car, we tried to drive next to the runners as much as traffic would permit, hopping out at strategic points to catch them in action. When the roadways around the course closed for several hours, we broke out running sneakers and rollerblades, shadowing Carol and Shane as best we could by foot.

Although the sheer length of the race would seem to allow for plenty of time to get all the necessary shots, we were in an almost constant state of scramble. There were pit stops and pratfalls, lost runners and unintentional naps. There was also the allure of filming the beautiful scenery – vivid flower blossoms, stately statues, the sun glistening on the river as crew teams rowed by – instead of the race itself.

As the race finished in the wee hours of the morning, roughly a full day after it began, we felt a combination of exhaustion, delirium, relief and triumph. And then everyone finally got to go to bed.

Milos Balac and Ben Teitelbaum are students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Their film is part of The 100 Project, a video series produced by journalism students for the journalism school’s centennial.

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