How To Run 50 Miles: new running doc on BBC iPlayer

·7-min read
Photo credit: Comic Relief - Getty Images
Photo credit: Comic Relief - Getty Images

How hard would it be for a novice runner to run an ultramarathon on just more than a month’s training? That’s what BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ Reece Parkinson and film producer Jim Farthing set out to discover in 2020.

Parkinson would be the case study; Farthing would capture the whole thing on camera; and the documentary would be called How to Run 55 Miles.

Only in ultrarunning, as in life, things rarely go as planned. First, there was a shocking diagnosis: midway through training, Parkinson discovered he was type 1 diabetic. Then there was a global pandemic, leading to the cancellation of their intended race, the 55-mile Cheviot Goat. A documentary was made but its title had to be changed. How Not to Run 55 Miles came out in February this year, with the pair’s ultrarunning ambitions seemingly caught in limbo.

But Parkinson and Farthing were not finished. This summer they made their ultrarunning dream a reality, Parkinson taking on the EDDUM 50-miler in mid-Wales.

The drama of the race is captured in their new documentary, How to Run 50 Miles, available to watch on BBC iPlayer. It takes an unflinching look at the brutal reality of ultrarunning and should be compulsory viewing for anyone thinking of taking on an epic endurance challenge.

RW caught up with the pair to talk training, losing your temper and, er, Gandalf.

Reece, please remind us why you signed up for this?

RP: During part one of the documentary, we were looking for that reason why and it never really came until I got diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. That became the reason why. As soon as I got it, I was in hospital and knew that I now had to complete this race because the support I got from other diabetics online was just amazing.

Jim, what motivated you to make a film about Reece’s ultrarunning journey?

JF: I remember Reece putting out a tweet or an Instagram message saying, “I want to do an ultra.” I’d already been looking at ultras myself and thought, “There’s a documentary in this.” I hadn’t seen much about it on the BBC before, particularly for young audiences, so I thought let’s do this and see what happens. Because if you’re setting out to run 50 or 55 miles for the first time, it’s probably not going to be plain sailing.

Jim, when Reece first said he wanted to train for this in such a short timeframe, did you question whether it was possible?

JF: This entire process of making the documentary I’ve been anxious about the end result. I knew it was a massive undertaking. I’d run the London Marathon off the back of three months of consistent training, but that was on concrete, in the daytime. The closer we got to the first potential ultra [the Cheviot Goat], I started to wonder: “Is this a good idea?” Then Reece got diabetes out of nowhere. So, it’s been wild the entire time.

Did you ever doubt it, Reece?

RP: [Signing up for] the Cheviot Goat was extreme naivety on my part. I didn’t measure it up to anything, other than a marathon practice run. I thought, “Well, I guess it will be like two of them.” There’s a guy, Jack, in the documentary, a PT, and he said something amazing. Jim asked him a question, “Do you think Reece can do it?” Jack said: “He’s so naïve that it’s actually a positive thing.” If we all knew that one day we’ll have a health scare; that one day we’ll break up with our girlfriends and it’s going to be painful; that one day our parents will pass away – if we knew all this when we were in our mothers’ wombs, we wouldn’t have wanted to come into this world. Being naïve can actually be a strength.

The race is quite remote and small scale, which means you were on your own a lot. Why did you pick it?

JF: The timeline for getting the documentary out narrowed down the options a bit, as did the distance we were looking for. Reece and I both wanted it to be away from London, so we had a handful of options and we settled on the EDUUM 50. It’s in an unspoilt, fairly unknown part of Wales. It was also a bonus that it’s only an hour and a half from where I’m currently living!

Reece, how did it feel when you finally got beyond the marathon distance and into ultra territory?

I know we’ve been joking about my lack of training, but it wasn’t as if I did no training for this. I’d run a few marathons here and there in the build-up; I just wasn’t sticking to the “get 30 miles on the weekend, then get another 20 done the following day” kind of thing. My work is quite sporadic – I might have to do a radio show in London and then go up to Manchester to film something – so I needed running to work around that. Two weeks before the race, we did a practice run. It was between a couple of checkpoints, about 16 miles in total. I didn’t know this, but it was the easiest part of the race on nice gravelly road. So I think I started to get a bit confident and think I had it in the bag. Then it got to the race, and I quickly began to understand what a trail really is: it’s not a normal park – a trail is somewhere you can break your ankle at any moment. I thought: “What the hell? Who enjoys running on this?”

And you were running largely on your own, too…

I don’t think I’d ever been to an area as a remote as this. I’ve never been camping. I live in Kent, which has lots of countryside, but I’m not in deep Kent, so I’d never been in a position where my phone wouldn’t work and there was no one around me. Another runner, who saw I was struggling, said: “Don’t worry, you could walk it in from here in another 14 hours?” I was, like, “Fourteen hours?! I was already seven hours in.” So that got me running again.

Jim, the relationship between you and Reece gets a little fractious towards the end of the race. Was it hard to balance your responsibilities as a filmmaker with the natural desire to help a friend?

It was a tricky balance. I joined Reece for the last 14 or so miles of the race. I knew he’d been struggling. I thought I’d film, help navigate and keep him company. It was getting to the stage where Reece wasn’t overly keen on having a camera in his face the whole time, which is totally understandable as it’s probably the last thing you want when you’re struggling. I think we reached breaking point when I asked him to pose for a picture 44 miles in.

It’s a great part of the documentary, though, because the latter stages of an ultramarathon often bring out raw emotion in people. To capture it in an honest way gives the film an authenticity.

Thank you. I was a bit worried that I might get some backlash over this: “He’s so rude”; “Why’s he talking like that to the guy that’s helping him?” Everything else I do tends to be positive and uplifting; this is the first time I’ve watched something of myself on camera where I’m more negative. Only very close friends and family have seen that side of me.

Reece, we have to ask you about the wizard’s staff you seem to have commandeered in the final miles of the race. Were you trying to channel Gandalf?

I think Jim gave me the stick. I was like, “I’m going to complete this no matter what.” And using the stick helped to take the weight off my legs. I don’t know how long I used it for but it did really help, even if it was a placebo effect!

Well, it worked. You made it to the finish. How did it feel?

Ah, man, that feeling is priceless. It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of. Kissing that sign, chatting to everyone, having a hot drink. You can’t buy that feeling; you have to earn it. And earning it makes you part of a special club for life.

How to Run 50 Miles is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

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