Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Film Review: Unbreakable: The Western States 100

"Unbreakable: The Western States 100" tells the story of the 2010 "Super Bowl of Ultrarunning," following four elite ultrarunners in their quest for the coveted cougar trophy. Produced and distributed by Journeyfilm and directed by JB Benna, whose previous work includes "The Runner" and "Ultramarathon Man," "Unbreakable" was released in December, with private showings nationwide, and has captured great interest in the ultrarunning community (trailer below).

Having watched "Unbreakable" three times, I believe this is a very good film--just as good, if not better, than "Running on the Sun." In fact, "Unbreakable" seems to get better with each viewing. The main characters are Kilian Jornet of Spain, Hal Koerner of Ashland, Oregon, Anton Krupicka of Boulder, Colorado, and Geoff Roes of Juneau, Alaska and Nederland, Colorado, as well as the founder of the Western States Endurance Run, Gordy Ainsleigh.

Going into the 2010 race, Jornet, Koerner, Krupicka and Roes were the four men many predicted would duke it out for the win. And did they ever. We now know that Roes prevailed in dramatic, record-setting fashion, passing a still-strong Krupicka late in the race, while a dehydrated Jornet faded to third (only to win the 2011 race) and an injured Koerner dropped. Hardly could better drama have played out for Benna and his production team on that hot June day in the mountains and canyons of Northern California.

But "Unbreakable" is far more than a blow-by-blow of that epic 2010 Western States race. At various points throughout the film, we see the heroes living their daily lives. We see the ever-popular Koerner, a small-business owner working hard to grow his specialty running shop while training with his ultrarunner girlfriend, Carly, herself an accomplished athlete. Krupicka, when not running those spectacular, well-traveled Boulder peaks shirtless, is a graduate student who loves spending time with his girlfriend, Jocelyn. The somewhat camera-shy Roes, in the midst of a historically great stretch of wins at the time, works at a natural grocery store as a cook, loves hanging out with his girlfiend, Corle, and her daughter, and running with a small group of Juneau-area ultrarunners who call themselves "the geezers." We see the young Spanish-speaking Kilian, whose scenes are subtitled, doing the unimaginable on difficult mountain trails and telling of how his parents shaped who he is today--the best long-distance mountain runner in the world. Benna goes to great lengths to welcome us into these athletes' lives, providing critical context around the 2010 Western States race. Along the way, we are treated to unique contributions from the likes of Scott Jurek (seven-time winner of Western States), Tim Twietmeyer, Dave Horton, Ainsleigh and others. A shirtless Ainsleigh, standing on the course itself, tells us how the event evolved, emotionally recounting his struggles to finish a 1974 100-mile horse race on foot--marking the start of the Western States Endurance Run.

Benna deserves credit not only for the skill with which he tells and shows the runners' interesting stories, but also for the care he took in bringing the viewer right into the action. The dramatic cinematography, the on-trail footage, the on-the-fly interviews with crew and spectators along the course, and especially the music add rich flavor and greatly enhance the drama unfolding before your very eyes. The scene when Roes, having just taken the lead from the seemingly unbeatable Krupicka, explodes out of the woods and enters the Highway 49 aid station full of energy and determination, shocking onlookers, is perhaps the high point of the film's drama. What we see--what we experience, feel and hear--in this one moment in time is Benna at his very best.
I have but a few complaints about "Unbreakable." Most notable are the misuse of apostrophes in some of the subtitles in the Jornet scenes. For example, there are a few occasions when "its" should be "it's." (Follow-up note to reader: According to Benna, "Most of the Kilian footage already had subtitles burned in by the French production team, so not much we could do there.") I also think the text in the beginning looks a bit amateurish when compared to the professional-looking film itself. These are small issues--and they are quite inconsequential when compared to the great quality of this interesting, compelling, fascinating and endearing film. (I hereby offer my proofreading, editing and writing services to JB for future projects.)

To JB Benna and the Journeyfilm crew, I say, "Bravo!"

"Unbreakable: The Western States 100" is highly recommended for both ultrarunners and the general public and is on sale for $24.99 plus shipping at


  1. I just finished watching it for the second time. I think you're right, it gets better after the first viewing. I thought a few pre-race parts were a tad slow but the ending more than makes up for it. I'm glad I bought it.

  2. Well, in all fairness then, I'm pretty sure that it's Tim Twietmeyer and not Twin...

  3. Patrick: Good catch! Thanks! I'm embarrassed by my typo, especially when Tim is one of my ultrarunning heroes. Tim, if you're reading this, my sincerest apologies! :-)