“What are you doing? Why are you doing this to yourself? This really hurts!”
Anna Liptak’s documentary, I’m Not A Runner, tells the story of six South Australian women who pushed through their emotional and physical comfort zones to compete at the New York City Marathon. An Adelaide fitness trainer of 15 years, Liptak was the instigator, convincing her amateur running club that they could take on the internationally renowned event.
She’d run over 20 marathons, but many of the 60 participants, aged 18 to 73, that she was taking to the marathon had barely notched up two-kilometre runs. Her own mother, 72-year-old Margaret, was one of the 60 who engaged in 12 months of preparation before taking part in one of the world’s most famous events.
“It was a beautiful day, absolutely beautiful. It was a perfect day,” Liptak recalls. “It’s hard to explain the energy of New York. It feels like they’ve paid the whole of New York to come out onto the streets and cheer you on. Most of the people we took along are at the back of the track, so there’s people crossing the lines right at the back which can be 7, 8 or 9 hours and people stand out there cheering all that time. That energy [of the spectators] lifts you and lifts your feet off the ground.”
The notoriously rigorous 42.2-kilometre race was won that year by Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa in 2:05:59 and Kenyan Mary Keitany in 2:22:48. It was an unseasonably hot, humid day in November thronging with thousands of runners aged from their teens through to their 80s.
“You’re caught between the exhilaration of it, and the pain of it,” says one of the participants. She may have been speaking about the effect on viewers. The beauty of these women is that they are our neighbours, friends, sisters, daughters and mothers. Their self-doubts and life circumstances are so relatable, and that is the message: whether it’s a heart-wrenching divorce, job loss, morbid obesity, addictions or your own crippling self-criticism, you can run a marathon.
Many of Liptak’s 60-strong coterie had been training with her long enough to believe and trust in her, so when Liptak and executive producer James Wakelin proposed filming the preparation and the event, it wasn’t hard to extend that trust to the camera-wielding crew. The result was over 1000 hours of footage gathered from one-on-one interviews between the subjects and the camera, GoPro footage, and footage filmed by various volunteers between the end of 2017 and the New York City Marathon in 2018.
“We actually took that four years to make the movie because it’s been made by a very, very small group of volunteers,” explains Liptak. “Two of us, [or] really, three of us [with Director Johnny Taranto]… It’s a passion project, self-funded and completely independent.”
With extensive footage and no clear storyline, Taranto stepped in to sculpt the unwieldy raw material into the heart-rending documentary that resulted. He assisted Liptak and Wakelin to whittle the focus down to six women’s stories.
“The movie is about strength, tenacity and learning to trust your body,” Liptak explains. Nowhere are those traits more evident than in Marika’s journey.
“Marika is a mother of five children who at that stage, was quite young. Her husband had just left her. She was living off $700 a week with five children so she was on the brink of a mental breakdown, I can imagine. She somehow pulled herself together through exercise with the group that we have. Someone suggested that she should become a police officer.”
Then 46, Marika expressed her doubts that she’d be capable, but with the encouragement of a police officer, and fellow member of her fitness group, she finished the police academy training, and the New York City Marathon. “She had a knee reconstruction 12 months out from the marathon and that in itself is very hard to get past, but she did,” adds Liptak.
There were on-camera confessions that surprised even the makers of the documentary.
“Ann talked about her mental battle throughout the movie. She submitted a video which we all didn’t see for quite a few weeks. It was really a breakdown about whether she was enough to do the run, enough to do anything… Tamara Lee caught us by surprise in one of her first [video] posts, when she talks about being housebound, and how she doesn’t like going out and wasn’t working. Some of them gave us these beautiful moments of raw stories that are so relatable to all of us.”
Liptak’s intention in life is to inspire everyday people to appreciate their potential, whatever their obstacles. Through I’m Not A Runner, her message is clear to viewers:
“They can take on challenges in life and absolutely do anything if they have the motivation and determination to not let other people tell you you can’t, because you can. Ward off those voices in your head and stand up and say ‘yes you can’. You can achieve anything you want to; you just have to find that strength in the beginning. All that support is out there in society, you just have to seek it out.”
I’m Not A Runner is airing at 4pm, Saturday 20 February on SBS.