Film Review

Running nerds rejoice with Free to Run


free-to-run-still-4Free to Run is the latest Madman Entertainment documentary about the evolution of running from the 1960s. Image – supplied.

By Kate Dzienis

Whether you’ve been running for 20 years, or are completely new to the sport, recently released to DVD (in Australia, January 11) Free to Run is a documentary worth its weight in gold about the evolution of running in the US starting from the mid 20th century.

I’ve only been participating in the sport religiously for three years, and to learn first hand about the exciting history of modern running left my jaw open and a few tears in the odd spot here and there.

Directed by Switzerland’s Pierre Morath, we’re first officially introduced to former Runner’s World publisher George Hirsh atop a balcony overlooking Central Park in New York City, reminiscing about how in the 1960s running was considered ‘weird’ and ‘odd’.

It was a surprising introduction to learn that in the swinging 60s running was seen as taboo and if you ran for exercise, you could even be thought of as a masochist.

For women, it was even seen by doctors as a form of vigorous exercise that could do a mass amount of damage whereby they would ‘definitely’ begin to grow facial hair and develop testosterone, ultimately turning into a man.

The somewhat ‘I-can’t-believe-it’ topic is a lead-in to introduce us to the legendary Kathrine Switzer, an American woman who broke conformity in a male dominated society and entered the 1967 Boston Marathon – after, of course, road running started to become more commonplace for men.

Switzer challenged the stereotype that only men should and could enter races, and despite having both her coach and boyfriend run on either side of her during the event, she was attacked by race director Jock Semple who physically attempted to remove her from the race after only just a couple miles.

It was amazing original footage used of her in the Boston Marathon that gave me goosebumps and a real insight into how one woman truly began a movement that tested gender equality.


The 99-minute flow of Free to Run sees us witness the transformation of running from a ‘weirdo’ hobby to a mainstream quest that is so widely accepted by everyone on the planet – it makes it incredibly hard to believe all the obstacles runners faced in the mid 1900s unless you watch the documentary for yourself.

From underground payments to the winners of road races to the Olympics stopping women from entering the 800-metre sprint (in 1928 officials and the media focused on one entrant who collapsed at the finish line, which gave way to the idea that the distance was too great for women; it reopened the event 32 years later, in 1960), to the birth of the New York City marathon and how running is perceived today, the sublime collection of original footage provides for a genuinely nostalgic feel.

Big names appear in front of the camera both in an historical aspect and as a present day interview, including Fred Lebow (founder of the New York City marathon) Steve Prefontaine (a middle and long distance runner who set seven different distance track records from the 2,000-metres to the 10,000-metres), Frank Shorter (1972 Olympic gold medallist for the marathon) and Joan Benoit Samuelson (gold medal winner at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the year the women’s marathon was first introduced).

The one almighty gripping moment in Free to Run, which resulted in tears welling in my eyes, was footage from those Olympic Games.

It was a most painful memory I’m sure witnesses wanted to forget, but because of the sheer determination of one runner, it never will be.

Yes, Benoit Samuelson won the first ever women’s marathon event and all mighty applause went to her for claiming gold, but it was the courage and conviction by 37th place getter Gabriela Anderson from Switzerland who with less than 400-metres to go, began to appear like she was lurching death-like.

She swayed from lane to lane, on the verge of ultimate collapse, and despite track officials approaching her to help, uncertain of their role and confused as to what to do, she would stagger away in fear of being disqualified if they touched her.

Anderson struggled, and it seemed like those few metres were taking a lifetime, but she crossed the finish line and fell, medical personnel seeing to her every need.

Switzer was one of the official Olympic commentators for the event, and revealed in Free to Run that she feared the media would begin to sensationalise women in sport again, ridiculing them and pushing the ideal that they didn’t belong on the track.

free-to-run-dvd-flatBut it was the complete opposite that ensued, and Switzer’s husband, writer Roger Robinson, told her one of the most ever inspiring thoughts she would never soon forget – ‘the first women’s Olympic marathon finally allowed women to be exhausted in public’.

Despite all the topics following on from one another, Free to Run avoids seeming disjointed, and much attention is given to each interested story.

Morath has done a superb job collating all the footage and giving a brilliant insight into modern day running.

If you’re a running nerd, geek, enthusiast, professional or amateur, Free to Run is a documentary magnificently put together and will leave you inspired to make your own mark on the world through the ever evolving wonder that is running.

5 out of 5 stars
Madman Entertainment
RRP $24.95 on DVD

*Runglobal Australia received a copy of Free to Run in exchange for an honest review. 



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