Not too many films have been made about, or even touched on, the sport of cross-country, but the McFarland, USA movie got it absolutely right.
When commercials started running for this film, it immediately piqued my interest because of its cross-country subject matter. This is a road not too many films have run down. Getting it right would be important and the McFarland, USA movie delivered in that regard.
Among the things that rang very true in this based-on-a-true-story 2015 movie were a number of details that would likely be known only to those who have run cross-country. These include the following highlights.
Going out too fast at the beginning of the race, then running out of gas and having to struggle to the finish. This happened to me in a United States Track and Field Federation all-comers mile and all I can say is it is good while it lasts. Which is not for long.
Falling down during the race. I have seen a guy fall on a hairpin turn on a wet, muddy, and slippery course and get his head stepped on by the guy behind him. Good thing this was a lower level race where no one was wearing spikes.
People stopping during the race. In McFarland, USA the coach, played perfectly by Kevin Costner, congratulates one of his struggling runners for not stopping in the race. Yes, stopping to walk is a thing. In our high school invitational, teams from all over the State of Kansas came to compete. On our course, there was a part that dropped out of sight of any spectators or coaches. When we got there in the race, suddenly several guys in front of me just started walking. I remember thinking, “You guys came all the way up here from Wichita just to walk in the race?”
Blasting by people going either up or down hills. Up the hill you can grit it out to pass less committed runners. Down the hill, let gravity help you explode.
Really tough courses. Cross-country is not run on the flat. There is elevation change. The mountain course depicted in McFarland, USA looked diabolical. The California terrain the McFarland team traveled to was really tough with huge elevation changes. McFarland was basically in the flat lands of the farm fields, so the coach had to devise simulated hill training. My high school course was reputed to be the toughest in Kansas. It started with a steep, quarter-mile run straight uphill and then you did that again after the first mile. Now you know why some guys started walking.
Length of practice runs. McFarland’s practices were eight to ten miles. That sounds about par for the course. Our practices were nine miles a day. That is a lot tougher than sitting at home and watching Gilligan’s Island while munching a candy bar in preparation for My 600-lb Life glory.
The tension before the starting gun. It is palpable. Just to prove I refuse to use clichés.
The right shoes. This was a big deal for the McFarland team. The kids basically had one pair of shoes to work in the fields, go to school, and run in. Getting them proper, dedicated, distance running shoes was crucial. When I ran, everybody I ever saw wore light blue Adidas training shoes. Nike was only just beginning to manufacture shoes.
Uniforms. You don’t need much. And McFarland didn’t have much. Later on in the film, some of the talented local women appear to have custom-made the team some very nice warm-ups.
Cross-country is hard. The true-life McFarland runners were a hardscrabble bunch. They were extremely tough. The actors in the movie got a work-out, too. The actor playing Thomas Valles, a lead character and the top runner on the team, actually looks like a top-flight athlete. He is Carlos Pratts, who you might remember as the son, Gus Ruiz, on The Bridge.
Cross-country is its own reward. Anyone who has ever run will know the feeling. Imagine a training run, in the quiet of a cool autumn night, among the trees, stringing together 300, 400, and 500 yard sprints down the spongy fairways of a country-club golf course, the moon lighting your highly illicit way. McFarland was too blue collar for that, but the guys at their arch-nemesis in the movie, Palo Alto High School, could undoubtedly attest. Biff, can you confirm?
McFarland, USA is about the only feature film I can think of, offhand, that tells the story of a high school cross-country team. However, a couple of other films I have seen have touched on cross-country or even featured it to some extent.
One of these is Without Limits, the story of Oregon track star, Steve Prefontaine. The battle of wills between Prefontaine and his coach, Bill Bowerman, starts early in the film at a track meet filmed on location at Hayward Field at the University of Oregon. The scene of Bowerman trying to rein-in his young star lap after lap as the race winds down to the gun lap is some of the best sports film ever made and really captures the highest level of competition. Incidentally, the movie also shows some of the beginnings of Nike and how it got off the ground. Billy Crudup is excellent as Pre and the same goes for Donald Sutherland as Coach Bowerman. I think Without Limits might be the best sports movie I have ever seen.
Another notable film, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, ultimately captures some of the essence of cross-country with excellent scenes of long distance runs through the woods. There is some really stunning black and white cinematography of the English countryside including a train running through a valley below while the principals look-on from high-above. This little bit of film, in and of itself, makes seeing the movie worthwhile. The film only becomes a sports film, if it ever really does at all, in the latter parts of the film. Before that, it is the story of a young delinquent’s life of petty crime and subsequent reform school. Ultimately, the film is about a hard case with an attitude problem, probably Tom Courtenay’s most famous role. This movie, along with Without Limits, is highly recommended.
The McFarland, USA movie is also a respectful and interesting look at a close-knit Mexican-American community deep in the heart of the truck farms of California. In an era of all things Kardashian, America can actually be proud of places like McFarland. The young men of the cross-country team were a tough bunch because of their rigorous work in the fields, picking produce every day, in addition to going to high school. The movie also touches on the low-rider culture and quinceañera, which is the fifteen birthday celebration for Hispanic girls.
Quinceañera is interesting cultural subject matter in its own right. If you are interested in this, then check out the aptly titled movie, Quinceañera. Please note, however, that it is rated R, an ironic incongruity. It stars Emily Rios, who does an outstanding job as 15-year-old Magdalena. She has been a key part of television shows such as Breaking Bad, The Bridge, and Men of a Certain Age, as well as some other very popular television shows.
For anyone who ran cross-country, at any level, McFarland, USA is a must-see movie. Disney did a great service to the sport, here. Many details ring true. For everyone else, it is a window into a tough sport that gets little attention. A window that allows a view of what it is like to run cross-country without actually having to run nine miles a day to get there.