Greetings again from the darkness. When former Yale University high-jumper Sam Fox announces he is setting out to break the speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail, he does so with a confidence-bordering-on-arrogance that seems to be a natural trait amongst endurance athletes. This was 2011 and Sam’s goal was to raise $250,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, a quite personal cause, given that his mother Lucy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT) is 2653 miles long and connects Canada to Mexico via Washington, Oregon, and California, across the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. Yes, it’s roughly 100 marathons covering some rugged terrain, so we can’t help but chuckle when Sam initially states that he’s not worried about the physical challenge, only the mental aspects of covering 44 miles per day for 60 days to break the record.
Running, hiking, and climbing every day for 2 months is more than most of us can imagine. We see Sam after Day 1 when he has traveled 66 miles in 21 hours, and the reality of his journey strikes us, as well as him. Sam has been described as ultra-competitive, and he’s told us his mother is his motivation. Thru-hiking is a serious endeavor and Sam’s support group includes his girlfriend Chloe, and two good friends John and Eric, who have agreed to assist with food, water, communication, logistics, navigation, and any other obstacles that arise. They are even handling his social media, which is being used as a promotional tool for fundraising.
This is director Marion Mauran’s first film, and in addition to selecting a fascinating subject, she gets lucky in that the PCT record-holder Scott Williamson (who deserves his own film) is not only a few days ahead of Sam on the trail, but he also agrees to be interviewed for the film. Mr. Williamson’s personal story is jaw-dropping, and he makes for a very interesting contrast in personality to Sam Fox. They each have their own motivations for taking on the trail, and Mr. Williamson is quite introspective, while the irritable Mr. Fox appears to seek and appreciate the spotlight. Unfortunately, we get no film of Williamson on the trail, but some of the segments of Fox filming himself provide terrific insight into the struggles.
Weather, rattlesnakes, bears, foot and leg injuries, and solitude are some of the obstacles faced, and when John gets hospitalized with shingles, Sam’s dad jumps in. We quickly see where Sam gets his determination, as the no-nonsense patriarch offers up his philosophy of pushing one’s self to the limit. Director Mauran and her crew mix in some breathtaking shots along the way, with the beauty of nature set against the pain and struggles of Sam’s trek.
We can’t help but compare this to the fantastic 2018 film FREE SOLO chronicling Alex Honnold’s climb of El Capitan in Yosemite. These are individuals that push through pain and mental turmoil, and take themselves to limits most of us can’t fathom. Ms. Mauran’s film might have been even more impactful had the parallels and contrasts between Sam Fox and Scott Williamson been further explored, but what we see is more than enough for us to sit back in our recliners and marvel at the spirit and commitment of endurance athletes.