If you want to get to know an ultrarunner, it takes more than spending a mile in his shoes. In fact, forget the shoes. Spend miles alongside him everywhere from the rolling asphalt of roads in farm country Nebraska to the foothills he frequents in training runs to the high, snowy peaks he revisits and explores in varying conditions.
Joel Wolpert met ultrarunner Anton Krupicka, two-time Leadville 100 Champion and second-place finisher of the Western States 100 in 2010, making a film with him for Running Times magazine in 2010 — an inspirational short called “Runner in Winter,” to keep people interested in running through the winter months.
“We got along pretty well and we’d kind of run across each other several times since that, and I had the idea of a little bit larger, a more impressionistic kind of project and he was game to do it,” Wolpert says. “We have a good time together, so it was a pretty good collaboration.”
The film Wolpert went on to direct, In the High Country, is a profile of Krupicka that, without more than a few minutes of interview with Krupicka himself, manages to become what the runner’s parents have called the truest portrait of him they’ve seen. Part of that has been a question of Wolpert’s ethos for the film — to document not the race days, the handful of events throughout the year that punctuate a runner’s life, but the miles logged day in, day out, in preparation for those.
“It’s not any one particular run that defines the lifestyle,” Wolpert says. “This is why I shied away from race footage. Because I enjoy racing and I enjoy races, but they are just, in terms of your running life, if you run just about every day, it’s just a very small fraction of what it is to live that way, and especially the way that Tony lives. I mean, he’s competitive, and he loves to race and loves to win, but he’s not really motivated by that.”
Wolpert endured the same bad weather and sleepless nights to go with Krupicka up the Flatirons and snowy, windy slopes of Longs Peak, to the creeks where he bathes and to observe as he crawls into the bed of the truck he calls home after brushing his teeth using only the truck topper’s windows as a mirror. The film is deeply connected, and bracingly honest, about how he actually lives.
Throughout the film, Krupicka has next to nothing to say — he comments a bit on the scare factor of an icy section on Longs Peak, but mostly, the only noise from him is the sound of him breathing. They did interviews, Wolpert says, but none of those shots were used in the film. Their content formed the basis for the narration. It’s Krupicka’s father, who Wolpert says had never been interviewed before, who provides an interpretation of what Krupicka’s after as he speeds up those slopes.
“His dad is aware, obviously, of Tony’s infatuation with running, but at the same time doesn’t quite understand the lifestyle, so I think it’s valuable to see Tony through his dad’s eyes,” Wolpert says. “They’re very similar characters at different stages of their life, and I think his assessment of Tony is pretty accurate. So I guess it does kind of frame it in the right way, but at the same time, I guess I like to let people draw their own conclusions and you’re presenting them with his father’s impression or interpretation of what Tony’s doing, and then you’re seeing what Tony’s doing and you can kind of be the judge of if they line up appropriately or not.”
What Krupicka’s father brings is an unrehearsed, unpracticed conversation. Krupicka, after so many interviews and so much time in front of people, has had a chance to rehearse his approach.
“He’s been in a lot of movies as far as people in his genre. … There’s a lot of him talking about running or training and interviews and we were both interested to push kind of beyond that and make it so that he’s obviously the star of the film, but it’s not just about him,” Wolpert says. “The audience can kind of read into or apply to their own lives what they want out of it, and I think that’s interesting to, rather than tell people what they’re seeing, you let them see it and they have to kind of think about it. It’s a little more uncomfortable for certain people who just want to be told what they’re seeing but I think it makes it a little deeper of a story.”
Despite embarking on this new, perhaps more challenging style, the only backlash he’s saying he’s heard is from people who wanted to be able to purchase the film immediately after its July premiere at the Dairy Center. They’re close to having DVDs now.
“I guess what’s so appealing to most people is that it’s a way of living that maybe they don’t feel is possible for themselves,” Wolpert says. “All of his decisions are based around getting up the mountains every day, and I think a lot of people read about it or watch videos about it and would love to be able to do that, but for whatever reason, be it work or family, they don’t feel they can focus that much on one objective. … He’s a kind of a reticent person to begin with, but the way that he lives kind of puts him out in the open a lot, and it’s all because of the reward that he gets from climbing big mountains or doing new lines or exploring new areas is more satisfying, or offsets the drawbacks of having to live out in the open with other people and be kind of a public figure at this point.”
It’s not a glamorous lifestyle, and for that matter, running isn’t really a glamorous sport.
“There’s not a lot of very interesting work done about running I think because it’s so simple — it’s not like a snow sport or a water sport where it’s inherently kind of aesthetic to watch,” Wolpert says. “It’s such a simple kind of task or pastime that’s accessible to anyone that I think it’s often overlooked as far as its potential for visual intrigue and stories.”
But there are stories, perhaps particularly character stories.
“With running you can’t ever coast. There’s no stopping. It’s all human motor all the time,” Wolpert says. And that draws a different kind of person to the sport. “You always have to be on just for that reason. You’re the one pushing it, even if you’re going downhill you’ve got to decide how hard you’re going to push.”
In the High Country screens in the 3-5 p.m. session on Oct. 5 at the Adventure Film Festival at the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder. See www.adventurefilm.com.