Pierre Morath’s Free to Run, a documentary loosely framed around the stories of individuals who helped to redefine running as a populist sport, begins with a man reminiscing about a time, in the late 1960s, when he was lucky to encounter four or five other runners over the course of an hour run around Central Park. As he speaks, he looks out at the park from the balcony of a high-rise, and if you can imagine how expensive the real estate upon which he stands must cost, then the doc’s final moments, about the contentious cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, are especially provocative for what they acknowledge about running in New York City: that it isn’t a poor person’s sport.
If Morath only scratches the surface on how running, particularly the marathon, has become an elitist enterprise, it’s because Free to Run casts too wide a net for it to sufficiently process the resonances of its many parts. The documentary charts how far running has come from the days when a man couldn’t jog down a New York City street with his shirt off without being suspected of being a pervert. And when it isn’t celebrating Kathrine Switzer and how her historic participation in the Boston Marathon helped the world of running to open its doors to women, the film chronicles the rise of running magazines like Spiridon. Morath even finds time to honor Steve Prefontaine, from his collegiate days to his untimely death in a car accident in 1975.
Free to Run’s strongest thread is its tracing of the advances that women like Switzer, Bobbi Gibb, and Gabriela Andersen-Schiess have made in the world of running, because it’s the closest the film comes to grappling with the way our prejudices are institutionalized. Elsewhere, though, the film frustrates for how little it pushes back against the dubious assertions made by its talking heads, such as one man’s uproariously romantic view of running as a “miracle” that somehow united New York’s five boroughs during the city’s darkest days. When Morath intercuts into the proceedings archival footage of Mario Cuomo declaring that running will actually shorten one’s lifetime, he’s simply operating from the vantage of enlightened, and condescending, hindsight.
From the days when “oddballs” realized they could score endorphin highs by running the Big Apple’s streets, to the New York City Marathon’s present-day status as the world’s premier running event, Free to Run offers a useful primer on long-distance running’s evolution as a fitness and competitive institution. But the folksy pop music that’s liberally caked atop its various threads, namely a stretch that hippy-dippily regards how the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s movements appeared to be in conversation with one another, goes a long way in explaining why the film is prone to acknowledge, say, Nike’s first track endorsement of Prefontaine without pointedly marking the moment as a step in running’s increasing corporatization. Free to Run’s caginess is a weakness that results from an inherently nostalgic sense of reverie.