The 25 Greatest Running Movies Ever
Running movies are all the rage right now. We ranked the 25 best movies of all time, drawing on our past viewing experiences, renting a few on iTunes, watching some on Netflix and buying a few DVDs. Several that just missed the cut can be found among our honorable mentions.
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(This list includes only running documentaries and feature-length movies with a major running theme. However, we also serve up a list of 10 notable films with significant running scenes, like “Forest Gump,” “Rocky,” “Grease” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”)
25. Running America (2010)
An accurate title for a crazy feat, this documentary follows ultrarunning veterans Marshall Ulrich and Charlie Engle as they attempt to set a new speed record for crossing the country on foot in 2008. Filled with ups and downs, as well as unexpected political and patriotic fervor amid the 2008 election season, Ulrich, then 57, wound up completing the 3,063-mile journey from San Francisco to New York City in 52.5 days, the third-fastest time ever and the fastest ever by a masters runner. Although inspiring (and perhaps a little reckless at times), the raw scenes capture more of the journey’s lows than highs and accurately depicts the human spirit that perseveres even when the body has given up.
24. Running on the Sun (2000)
The Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley National Park and the extreme desert terrain that surrounds it is unlike any race in the world. The race stretches 135 miles from Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level to Whitney Portal, 8,360 feet high. Every July a few hearty souls challenge themselves through punishing heat and seemingly masochistic conditions while trying to reach the finish line (and then, for some, the top of Mount Whitney at 14,505 feet above sea level). Some endure the challenge and reach their destiny, while some fail only to return again and again. What Mel Stuart’s documentary accurately portrays is that the race—and ultrarunning—is a celebration of the everlasting perseverance of the human will over the temporary aches and pains of the human body.
23. Marathon Man (1976)
Fanatical runner Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) unwittingly gets caught up with Nazis and stolen diamonds and needs his lung-and-leg power to escape the bad guys in the streets of New York City. This suspenseful thriller, directed by John Schlesinger, was adapted by William Goldman’s novel of the same name. It’s a well-written film full of nail-biting intrigue and violent clashes (although some of the violence was scaled back in the final edits), but in the end Levy survives, the diamonds are lost in a New York City water treatment plant and the end credits roll on Levy’s jogging route as a backdrop. Some of the racing scenes in the film were created from footage from the 1964 Olympic Marathon in Rome.
22. Run, Fatboy, Run (2007)
Comedian Simon Pegg may have run from zombies in “Shaun of the Dead,” but his greatest challenge is running a marathon to win back the love of his life in this comedy directed by David Schwimmer. Full of racing puns and inside jokes, this comedy follows Pegg’s character, Dennis Doyle, who goes from being unmotivated and lazy to a determined marathoner as he trains for the Nike River Marathon (a fictional marathon meant to represent the London Marathon).
21. Transcend (2014)
Running allowed 2:06:13 marathoner Wesley Korir to escape the grinding poverty of Kenya. But after winning multiple American marathons—including the 2012 Boston Marathon—he risked everything and returned home to help his fellow Kenyans create better lives for themselves. In what is the biggest challenge of his young life, Korir took on a well-financed, big-party candidate to earn a seat in Kenyan Parliament with the hopes of playing a role in reshaping life in his native country. His story is told with help from running greats like Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Mo Farah, Ryan Hall and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. Korir, a U.S. resident who graduated from the University of Louisville in 2008, founded the Kenyan Kids Foundation and has worked with Kenyan dairy farmers to improve production.
20. Running (1979)
A film about struggle and triumphs in all aspects of life, this “running-changed-my-life” movie was produced during the original American running boom of the 1970s. A young Michael Douglas plays fictional marathoner Michael Andropolis, who is in the midst of a divorce and career breakdown while he trains for the chance to run in the marathon at the 1976 Olympics. Against all odds, he reaches the Olympics and is running well in the race until he falls, leaving him injured and presumably out of the race. But after being tended to by medics, Andropolis gets back on his feet and finishes the race hours after it ended. In the ultimate feel-good finish and a tribute to his perseverance, he’s greeted by a stadium full of cheering spectators and his ex-wife.
19. Across the Tracks (1991)
Before Brad Pitt became a star, he appeared in this 1991 American film about two brothers who use running to reconcile their differences. Joe (Pitt) is the older of the two, a good student and high school track star set on winning a scholarship to Stanford University. Billy (Ricky Schroder), on the other hand, has a delinquent past, but is introduced to running by Joe as a means to leave the rebellious life behind. A story about brothers and competitors, this movie provides a unique perspective on family, talent and sportsmanship.
18. The Long Green Line (2008)
This compelling documentary tells the story of the most successful high school cross-country coach in the U.S., Joe Newton of York High School in suburban Chicago. While profiling the team during the 2005 season, filmmakers Matthew Arnold and Brady Hallogren (who both ran for Newton’s program in the 1990s) capture the excitement of the school’s pursuit of its 25th state title in 50 years under the leadership of twins Matt and Eric Dettman, the team’s top two runners who are headed to the University of Oregon after they graduate. But the film also depicts Newton as a wise old sage who offers life lessons to his charges, even those among the 200-runner team who never get a sniff of the seven-member championship team. In a nutshell, high school cross-country offers coming-of-age opportunities and the historic York program, especially with the extreme highs and lows of the 2005 season and the guidance of their still-crafty coach (who was 76 at the time the movie was filmed), is at the pinnacle of the sport and culture of high school running.
17. Saint Ralph (2004)
This Canadian drama is about a teenage boy who trains for the 1954 Boston Marathon with the hope that winning the race will serve up a miracle to help his mother awaken from a coma. Initially a troublemaker, Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher) is forced to join the high school cross-country team at his strict Catholic high school. He’s not a very good runner, but he trains hard, reads books about running and takes cues from Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott), a former world-class marathoner who had to quit the sport because of a knee injury. Despite controversy surrounding his interest in running the Boston Marathon—his headmaster threatens to kick him out of school—Ralph eventually runs the race and places second after battling with the previous year’s winner. He presents the medal to his mother, who—yes—miraculously awakens from the coma.
16. Run For Your Life (2008)
Fred Lebow gave his heart and soul to the New York City Marathon. He helped that race grow from 55 finishers in its inaugural year in 1970 to one of the largest races in the world by the time he succumbed to brain cancer in 1994. Filmmaker Judd Ehrlich brings Lebow’s remarkable story to life—from immigrant to avid marathon runner to entrepreneurial president of the New York City Road Runners—in this touching documentary. Few individuals have done as much for running as Lebow, and, as this film suggests, his legacy will be felt for a long time.
15. 4 Minute Mile (2014)
Released at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival, this edgy movie directed by Charles-Oliver Michaud focuses on downtrodden high school runner Drew (Kelly Blatz) who’s struggling to overcome poverty and the perils of inner-city life. Running is his only outlet, but he isn’t getting any support from his troubled older brother, Wes (Cam Gigandet), and unstable widowed mom, Claire (Kim Basinger). It isn’t until he connects with a reclusive neighbor (Richard Jenkins), a washed-up track coach with his own demons that he starts to realize his potential. They bond, and Drew appears on the verge of greatness before other trouble arises. Co-written by Jeff Van Wie (a record-setting New York high school runner and All-American at Notre Dame) and Josh Campbell (“The Chronicles of Narnia”), this movie is engaging, credible and anything but predictable. Sure it’s another underdog sports movie, but running is not an afterthought. Instead, it’s the conduit through which several gritty stories play out, and the authenticity of most of the running scenes provides a powerful, emotional glue that holds the film together.
14. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
This is a classic black and white British film based on the book written by Alan Sillitoe in 1959. (Sillitoe also wrote the screenplay.) It tells the story of rebellious teenager Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), who hails from a dismal home in a working-class community. In what doubles as a literary metaphor, he turns to long-distance running as a means of both emotional and physical escape. It’s a convoluted tale that includes the boy deliberately losing a race he could have won in the name of being a free spirit.
13. Unbreakable: The Western States 100 (2011)
The 2010 Western States 100 was one for the ages—with Alaska’s Geoff Roes winning by outlasting Colorado’s Anton Krupicka and upstart young Spaniard Kilian Jornet—and filmmaker J.B. Benna was there to capture all of the drama. Benna’s effort was groundbreaking, both in the filming of the race—multiple camera locations and angles helped tell a complete story—and the editing of the film. It walks the line between powerful documentary and live-action race reporting by meshing good pre-race backstory, great cinematography and candid interviews into a linear format that follows the race. (Benna has also produced a documentary on David Horton’s 2,700-mile run of The Pacific Crest Trail and produced the film of Dean Karnazes’ 50 Marathons in 50 States in 50 Days.)
12. Jim Ryun: America's Greatest Miler (1999)
This documentary highlights Jim Ryun’s amazing story of becoming a world-class miler while still in high school. Ryun was the first high school runner in the world to run a sub-4-minute mile and his 3:55.3 mark stood as a high school record for 36 years. He ran in three Olympics and earned a silver medal in the 1500 in 1968. The film shows Ryun as a talented physical specimen, but also as a young athlete with maturity and gumption beyond his years. One of the highlights of this film is the exclusive footage of Ryun’s record setting 3:58.3 mile run at the Kansas state championships.
11. 100 Seconds to Beat the World: The David Rudisha Story (2014)
Produced by the BBC, this hour-long documentary tells the amazing story of young Kenyan track star David Rudisha, who shattered the world record in the 800-meter run (in an astonishing 1:40:91) en route to winning gold in the event at the London Olympics in 2012. The honest and up-close documentary includes footage and interviews over a 10-year period starting in 2005, when Rudisha arrived at missionary Brother Colm O’Connell’s training camp as a shy 16-year-old with little training under his belt. He was intent on following in his father’s footsteps as an Olympic competitor (his father earned a silver medal at the 1968 Olympics running on Kenya’s 4x400-meter relay) and as a Masai warrior. In telling Rudisha’s story, this documentary also shows a glimpse of what running means to aspiring Kenyan teens who are lucky enough to attend a secondary school. Among the highlights are interviews with former British middle-distance greats Seb Coe and Steve Cram, as well as footage of Rudisha’s early workouts, time trials and races dating back to 2005.
10. Endurance (1999)
Who better to portray Ethiopian long-distance runner, marathoner and Olympic champion Haile Gebresalssie’s life than the great athlete himself. From growing up on a rural Ethiopian farm to his 1996 Olympic victory in Atlanta, this late-1990s Disney-produced film uses real people from Gebresalssie’s life—his father, brother and wife all play themselves—to re-create the chain of events that led to his successful running career. Not quite a documentary, the only real footage used in the film is Gebresalssie’s epic gold-medal win in Atlanta. Otherwise all other scenes were scripted and staged. The movie was co-written and co-directed by award-winning filmmakers Leslie Woodhead and Bud Greenspan. With hindsight, the only unfortunate aspect of this film is that it was made early in Geb’s career, so it doesn’t include his thrilling victory in the 10,000-meter run at the 2000 Olympics or his two marathon world records. But the running footage is strong, and his story and career are amazing from any vantage point.
9. On the Edge (1986)
Longtime runner Bruce Dern stars in this fictional story about a runner, Wes Holman, who is unfairly banned from an amateur competition and seeks redemption by running a grueling 7.2-mile Cielo Sea Race 20 years later. The race is based off the Dipsea, the oldest trail race in the U.S., known for its unique time-handicapping starting order. Among the best parts of the film is aerial race footage (from the 1984 Dipsea Race) of the beautiful yet treacherous Dipsea trail that leads runners from Mill Valley, Calif., down to Stinson Beach along the Pacific Ocean. The backstory, soundtrack and the tagline (“Feel the pain, live the dream, share the glory”) are a bit sappy and awkward, but the running scenes and Dern’s performance are compelling.
8. Running Brave (1983)
Based on the story of Billy Mills winning gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, this historical biopic is about rooting for the underdog. Billy Mills was the second Native American (after Jim Thorpe) to win an Olympic gold medal, and his 1964 victory in the 10,000-meter run is considered one of the greatest upsets in track history. Although we know the outcome of the big race in the movie, the climax is nevertheless gripping. Although Mills’ place in history is secure, this film helped put his story in perspective 20 years after the fact once running became a mainstream participatory sport.
7. Personal Best (1982)
This provocative and critically acclaimed film showcases a fictional group of female track athletes training for the 1980 U.S. Olympic trials. The film earned praise for its authentic portrayal of women’s sports in the early 1980s and the sometimes-complex relationships between athletes and coaches. The movie centers around Chris Cahill (played by Mariel Hemingway), an athlete caught between the advice of her coach Terry Tinghoff (played by Scott Glenn) and that of her friend, competitor and part-time lover Tory Skinner (played by Patrice Donnelly, a 1976 Olympic hurdler). Some scenes were filmed at Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus, as well as at Track Town Pizza in Eugene, Ore. Several top American athletes appeared in the film, including sprinter Evelyn Ashford and marathoner Kenny Moore (the latter of whom played swimmer Denny Stite, a secondary love interest of Cahill’s). Ultimately the athletes are left only with their “personal best” marks after the U.S. boycotts the 1980 Olympics.
6. Prefontaine (1997)
The first of two biographical movies made in the late 1990s about American track legend Steve Prefontaine (played by Jared Leto), “Prefontaine” chronicles Pre’s short running career up until his death at the age of 24. The story is told in a quasi-documentary theme from the point of view of three-time U.S. Olympian Bill Dellinger (Ed O’Neill), who was an assistant coach while Pre was at the University of Oregon, and Nancy Alleman, who was Pre’s girlfriend when he died. The film has even greater meaning as it also explores the amateur status of American elite runners in the 1970s compared to top international athletes, who were provided everything they needed to train and compete at an elite level. It typically gets rated below “Without Limits,” which came out in 1998 and included a higher-profile cast, but it is still entertaining and well-done (Leto plays a very convincing Pre and R. Lee Ermey is quite good as Bill Bowerman) for a major motion picture on running.
5. Spirit of the Marathon (2007)
Whether you’re running a marathon for the first time or have run dozens, this is the movie to watch for training motivation. This 2007 documentary (directed by Jon Dunham) explores the significance of the 26.2-distance race as it follows six marathoners training for and competing in the 2005 Chicago Marathon. Elite runners Deena Kastor and Daniel Njenga are featured in the film as well as local Chicagoans who round out the six. This movie should be a part of every runner’s marathon training plan. Also noteworthy, the 2013 sequel, “Spirit of the Marathon II,” reprises the concept, following seven runners from around the world as they prepare for the Rome Marathon. This film definitely captures the resolve of age-group runners everywhere.
4. The Jericho Mile (1979)
This Emmy Award-wining made-for-TV film profiles Larry Murphy, a man serving a life sentence at Folsom Prison for shooting his father. But he feels the crime was justified because his father was raping his stepsister. None of that backstory matters, except that it helps define Murphy, a loner who spends his free time running around the prison yard, as a man of conviction and determination. When prison officials realize Murphy (played by Peter Strauss) is capable of being a national-class miler, a track is built and he beats Frank Davies, America’s fastest miler, in a match race on the prison grounds. Although Murphy never gets a chance to run in the U.S. Olympic Trials, he winds up running a solo mile faster than Davies’ Olympic-qualifying time. The film, directed by Michael Mann (who also directed “Thief,” “Heat,” “Collateral” and “Miami Vice”), gets high marks for character development, cinematic tension and a genuine portrayal of running. The running scenes are powerful, authentic and inspiring, especially Murphy’s climactic solo time trial set against “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.
3. Without Limits (1998)
Released a year after “Prefontaine” in 1998, “Without Limits” is also a biographical portrayal of Steve Prefontaine’s life. While both Pre biopics are entertaining, this one is the better and more authentic of the two. It was co-written and co-produced by Robert Towne (who also wrote and produced “Personal Best”) and two-time Olympic marathoner and former University of Oregon runner Kenny Moore. The film (produced by Tom Cruise) focuses more on the relationship between Pre (played by Billy Crudup) and his coach Bill Bowerman (played by Donald Sutherland, who received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor for the role). There’s a little bit more hyperbole in this film than “Prefontaine,” but it’s a more technically accurate film and also serves up some interesting vignettes about the early days of Nike.
2. Chariots of Fire (1981)
A running movie classic, the 1981 British historical drama tells the fact-based story of two athletes in the 1924 Olympics, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jewish Englishman who runs to overcome a prevailing prejudice of Jews. Winner of four Academy Awards, this powerful film will inspire any runner with its interwoven themes of devotion, commitment, integrity and sacrifice. It’s also, of course, well-known for its Academy Award-winning original score by internationally acclaimed composer Vangelis, which has been used in countless slow-motion running scenes (and parodies) since. While there are many great running scenes in the film (including the beach-running scene tied to the title song), the famous race around the college courtyard ranks as one of the best of the film.
1: Fire on the Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story (1995)
This documentary was released about 20 years after the death of Steve Prefontaine and helped reignite the hysteria surrounding the American icon. It came out a couple of years before the two large-scale Hollywood films about Pre (“Without Limits” and “Prefontaine”), and what makes this one so much better is it depicts him as much more real and raw. Using rare footage and commentary with former teammates, rivals and coaches—including a candid interview with late University of Oregon coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman—it serves up an authentic biography of the runner and rebel who died in his prime in a tragic car accident.