Continental drift

‘5 Races, 5 Continents’ explores what motivates ultrarunners, whatever country they call home

Photo courtesy of The African Attachment

Somewhere over the more than two years of interviews that went into making 5 Races 5, Continents, which tracks toward the emotional core of trail running, the conversation among the filmmakers and one of their central subjects, Killian Jornet, turned to the growing popularity of the sport.

“Killian said it to me — it was one of the things he said to us when we were discussing the growth of the sport and making money from it — ‘There’s a lot easier ways to make money than run 100 miles,’ so I don’t think it’s something you could run for money,” says Dean Leslie, director of 5 Races, 5 Continents and co-founder, with Greg Fell, of The African Attachment, an independent film production company. “It’s got to be a lot more than that because of the mental strength needed to run something like that, so you’ve got to have this deeply underlying passion wanting to take you there. That’s one of the intriguing things about the sport.”

5 Races, 5 Continents is a 10-minute, music-laden meditation on trail running and, particularly, running those trails for 100 miles at a time up mountain passes and in bad weather. A shorter cut created by request for the Banff Film Festival screens in Boulder Feb. 27. The film explores the many intriguing things about a sport that’s only just entering the American consciousness. The film blends footage of runners in Australia, Africa, Europe, Asia and North America with interviews with those runners that cut right to the meat of their motivation, in so much as that’s even possible.

“What we concentrate on filming is more the reasons why, and no one can answer straight away why you do it, it’s more a case of discussing random things,” Leslie says.

The film started as a series of web episodes for Salomon Running following Jornet, but while the film shadows Jornet closely, the soul of what they’re tapping into — a tight-knit community that looks different but is fundamentally the same across the world — really emerges in hearing how Jornet’s perspectives match those of other runners, whatever corner of the globe they call home. Those conversations, which include Boulder-area residents Scott Jurek, Geoff Roes and Joe Grant, explore the idea of life as movement and running through the mountains as the simple, effective and efficient way of exploring the world.

“It seems to me like Greg and Dean are constantly working on two, three projects down the line, and over the past two and a half or so years I’ve probably chatted with them and done interviews with them on three or four different projects they’ve been working on, and this just sort of morphed out of some of that,” Roes says. “My favorite thing about this film and this project is the way it sort of showcases trail ultrarunning around the world. … I think it is relatively new in most places, certainly in the U.S. it’s been much more of a niche, kind of like cultish thing until fairly recently.”

Among the races Leslie and Fell visited was the Leadville 100 in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the Hard Rock 100 race in the Sierra Nevada in California.

“Those were probably some of my favorite memories of filming because I think the American trail running community is just so cool and so down to earth, and the guys who run it are just such cool guys,” Leslie says.

Grant was interviewed both at the Hard Rock 100 and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), which circumnavigates Mont Blanc, traveling through three countries to do so.

On the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc | Photo courtesy of The African Attachment

“The first time I ran 100 miles was UTMB,” he says. “I was really taken by the course — you’re running around Mont Blanc, it’s just a very iconic mountain, so I went into it, I think, a little bit naïve, in terms of I wasn’t worried at all about the distance and it was more just like, ‘Oh we’re running around this incredible mountain.’ … I got to mile 70 and didn’t really know what was happening to me. I couldn’t really put down any food any more, and I just ran through the whole night, and so it was a bit odd from a physical standpoint because I wasn’t really quite sure sort of where my limits were. Am I doing real damage to myself or am I going to collapse here and be taken out on a stretcher or something? Or am I just being kind of soft here and I should just march it in? And that is the battle that you have when it’s a new distance and you’re not quite sure, two-thirds of the way in, whether you’re going to be able to do this or not.”

The full race distance gets broken down into smaller goals of subsequent aid stations, exiting the borders of Switzerland or Italy, or simply completing the task at hand — missing the rocks on the trail while continuing to put one foot in front of another.

“It’s just a long walk, really, you’re sort of jogging along and hiking the uphills and then running the downs, and so when you kind of break it down it’s very simple,” Grant says. “You just — you eat, you drink, you run, and so I like to think that I can do that, you know?”

5 Races, 5 Continents is just a taste of a much larger body of work that’s appeared in Salomon Running’s episodes and was informed by the work Fell and Leslie did on Wandering Fever, which focuses on their lifelong friend Ryan Sandes and his rocket-speed leap into the forefront of the ultrarunning scene. Their footage on Sandes got the attention of Salomon Running, one of his sponsors.

“It was good timing — they were actually looking for a film crew at the time,” Leslie says. “They emailed asking us to join in the 5 Races, 5 Continents project. It was quite last minute and fairly loose, but the initial mail was kind of, ‘We’re shooting on five continents following Killian Jornet around the world, and would you like to shoot it?’ And our response was, obviously, ‘Of course.’”

Two weeks later, they were in Australia, having met no one, including Jornet. They’ve released episodes on Salomon Running TV that focus on each race individually. And while Australia stands out for the challenge of sleep deprivation — Leslie says they were on the road for nine days and got a full night’s sleep perhaps four of them — the Leadville 100, which was filmed for Wandering Fever instead of 5 Races, stood out for its own reasons. It’s the ending of Wandering Fever, which added some emotion, and the course itself posed challenges in terms of altitude and a late-night arrival followed by an early morning race start.

“It’s maybe not the most beautiful out of all the races, but there’s something there, I think it’s a mixture of the history and the people, and that’s always going to trump anything,” Leslie says. “There’s not a lot of people at the finish line, but it’s probably, it’s almost like the UTMB is so big that you lost that connection that you would have because it’s such a spectacle. At Leadville, you have a lump in your throat when you’re standing at the finish line. That’s one of the things I love about the sport is you can get all these different experiences.”

Dean Leslie | Photo courtesy of The African Attachment

“If I was to never race again, I wouldn’t say it wouldn’t bother me, I enjoy racing, but truly just being out in the mountains is kind of what drives me,” Grant says. “But there’s this community coming together aspect that I think is really powerful, particularly since it’s quite a small community, so you tend to know a lot of people and feel pretty at home.”

Grant started as a climber and hiker, and transitioned to running as a way to simplify his experience in the mountains, reducing the amount of gear.

“I wouldn’t say that initially running was secondary, but it was more just kind of, OK, this is a way to engage with this environment in a primary sort of way and stripped-down way,” he says. “There’s not a lot of things between you and that experience. It’s very, very primal in some ways … I think the racing aspect is interesting because of the community appeal. I’m not a particularly competitive person, but I do like the framework of the race that enables you to push yourself, and it enables you to kind of share this experience with other people, and it’s a very different sort of thing when you’ve got a catered race where every five, six miles you’ve got an aid station and there’s support, so you can really just kind of run and experience that. Whereas when you’re by yourself in the mountains you’re dealing with a lot of other factors, and it’s not that you’re not pushing yourself hard, it’s just a different type of effort because you have to get yourself up the hill and there’s no real contingency plan other than, well, either I can do this or I can’t.”

And while the sport may be blossoming into increasing popularity and notoriety, the boundaries it draws — and the requirement, particularly in trail running, to go it alone and be comfortable alone ­— will thin the starting line crowds.

“Even when you’re competing with hundreds of other people, it’s much more individual, and so I think it caters to people who primarily want to kind of have that experience and people that are comfortable being out on their own,” Roes says. “I just think that it’s kind of the spiritual thread that weaves through going out in the mountains by yourself for a long period of time. I think that’s just a huge, inherent part of the sport, and people who don’t have that that get into ultrarunning, they don’t tend to, I think, stay as passionate about it. If you don’t have this larger thing pulling you into it, it’s pretty easy to get emotionally and/or physically just completely burnt out on it. It’s a really grueling thing to do, so there has to be something larger driving you.”

5 Races 5 Continents is screening at the Banff Film Festival on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the Boulder Theater. Tickets are sold out to both nights of the film festival. Episodes from 5 Races, 5 Continents are available at

Boulder does Banff

As with so many outdoor endeavors, Boulder is well represented in the Banff Film Festival.

The latest installment from the Camp Four Collective, which includes Boulder resident Renan Ozturk, is The Denali Experiment, in which freeride skiers and snowboarders team up with mountaineers to climb up and ski down Denali in Alaska.

Gimp Monkeys records the first all-disabled summit of the route Zodiac on the southeast face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Unicorn Sashimi is a visual feast of deep powder skiing in Japan set to a pulsating soundtrack of Japanese drums, and features Boulder- and Colorado-based athletes and filmmakers.

Admire the insanity in Reel Rock’s Wide Boyz, about two guys from Britain who come to the U.S. solely to climb off-widths, having spent months training on man-made off-width cracks in their basement. Their main testpiece: an almost entirely horizontal crack in the Utah desert that Steve “Crusher” Bartlett did the first aid ascent of.

There’s no Boulder connection — that we know of — for Lily Shreds Tailside, but when else are you going to get to see a tiny dog drafting off the rear wheel of a mountain bike? Bad ass.

More information is available at