Last Updated on December 18, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Reality check: not everyone has 24/7 access to gorgeous trails, stunning vistas, and endless miles in the fresh air. Some runners battle things like less than ideal weather, childcare issues, or simply geographical setbacks (i.e. no trails to run on). And therefore, they (we) sometimes have to put in our training miles on a treadmills.
Do you know what makes those monotonous treadmill miles fly by? Watching inspiring running documentaries and even short videos that allow us to mentally check out and pretend we are running on gorgeous trails, past stunning vistas, in the crisp, fresh air. Hearing inspiring stories of people who have overcome hardships to finish races, or simply just had an incredible day that happened to be caught on video.
Or at least, that’s what works for me.
Confession: I have to put in a ton more treadmill time than desired in order to get my share of climbing / vertical mileage because let’s face it, Myrtle Beach (where I live) is FLAT. But I refuse to let my hometown topography put me at a disadvantage, even if it means sacrificing trail time for treadmill time.
Below is my personal list of the best road, trail, & ultra running documentaries that I’ve found (so far) for both motivation and treadmill distraction.
1. DEAD LAST: The Yeti Trail Runners Movie
If you haven’t heard of the Yeti Trail Runners, you know what you are missing. Jason Green and the Yeti’s are the punk rock of trail and ultrarunning. Simultaneously irreverent, vulgar and yet accepting of everyone, with a devotion to community above competition.
This short documentary will hit your right in the heart, and remind you of the incredible nature of the ultrarunning community.
2. Running 507 Miles | Choose Strong
In 2022, pro-ultrarunner Sally McRae sets out to push her own limits while celebrating her mother’s legacy – running 507 miles across 5 races in 81 days.
3. Why Do These People Run For 24h in a Basement?
That’s the question. As any ultrarunner will tell you, the answer is: “why not?”. And after watching this short film, I’m on the hunt for a basement 24 hour race here in the states…
4. 250 miles | Eric Senseman | THE LONG WAY HOME
Follow elite running Eric Senseman as he runs the Cocodona 250. Turns out, 250 miles is a long way to run, even for the pros.
5. For the Team
Alright, I snuck an adventure racing film in here. Trust me, it’s a great watch no matter what your specific endurance sport.
“For The Team” is documentary that reveals the underlying mechanics of the 6x World Adventuring Racing Champions from New Zealand. You’ll take away some new tactics and approaches to staying mentally strong during your next endurance event.
6. Chasing Pounumu
An inspiring documentary following a back-of-the-packer who is seeking redemption at the Tarawera 100 mile ultramarathon. Watching elites race is motivating, but seeing every-day-runners overcome huge struggles to achieve their goals? There’s nothing quite like it.
7. Never Die Easy -The ‘Most Elusive’ Man in North America
Dag Aabye is a septuagenarian Ultra Marathon champion who lives completely off the grid. Two filmmakers track him down and create this mini documentary. Stay with the slow start, 8 minutes in will give you chills. And Dag’s advice about how to live life is absolutely inspiring.
8. Transamericana with Rickey Gates
During a time of political unrest, ultrarunner Ricky Gates decides to head out and run 3700 miles across America to truly see see for himself what the people, and this country, are all about in order to try understand and empathize with his fellow Americans.
This is powerful film, and a reminder of the good that does still exist in this world.
Unbreakable: The Western States 100 is a classic. This film follows the four lead men: Hal Koerner, Geoff Roes, Anton Krupicka, and Kilian Jornet, on their quests to win the win the Western States 100-mile run.
10. The Unknown – The Hardrock 100
This film by Billy Yang follows elite ultrarunner Timothy Olson as he races the brutal, yet beautiful, Hardrock 100. Watch this one on the treadmill -the awe-inspiring views of the Colorado Rockies will make you forget you’re running inside.
11. Wildcard: The Story of Western States F7
Who doesn’t love a story of a mostly unknown, an underdog, the wildcard?
12. Finding the Limit
Finding The Limit is a documentary filmed at the 2019 Bigs Backyard Ultra. Runners have an hour to complete a 4.166667-mile trail loop during the day and a road loop at night. The loops repeat until there is one runner left, so having a plan of not quitting almost guarantees a victory.
13. Rooted – The Story of HURT
Absolutely gorgeous trails, and a feel-good community vibe. The story of the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team, and how a community of runners came together to create the HURT 100.
14. Fastest Known Time
Salomon athlete Jeanelle Hazlett attempts to establish a new Fastest Know Time (FKT) on Mount Brunswick, British Columbia. Inspiring? Of course. But the views? Equally as incredible.
15. Lighthouse In The Dark
This documentary follows Welsh ultrarunner, Rhys Jenkins on his 870-mile Wales Coast Path FKT attempt. Watch this one for inspiration to break through mental and physical limits, and achieve the impossible.
16. Where Dreams Go to Die
Most of you have already heard the story about the time Gary Robbins missed finishing the Barkley Marathons by 6 seconds (after 60 hours) . But actually seeing the footage from that (almost) finish will make you cry. Or at least it made me cry.
17. Chasing 400: The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning
Ultrarunner Justin Kinner tackles the Grand Slam: four of the oldest 100 mile ultramarathons in the United States. The “Slam” includes Old Dominion 100 in Virginia, the Western States Endurance Race 100 in California, Leadville 100 in Colorado, and Wasatch 100 in Utah, all in the span of one Summer.
18. Undefeated: Journey to the Death Race
From the description: “Participants of the Canadian Death Race endure dangerous elements and face everything from massive mountain elevation shifts, grizzly bears, other wild animals, and the ever-changing weather to push themselves to their personal limits”
A lot of races claim to be the “toughest in the world”, but how many races include GRIZZLY BEARS?
19. My First 200 Miler in the Italian Alps -Tour Des Geants
I’m typically not a fan of the first person, “selfie” type of videos, but Jeff Pelletier does a fantastic job with this film, documenting his first 200 miler, at the 2018 330 km TOR Des Geants in the Italian Alps.
Note to self: go to Italy and run.
20. The Triple Crown of 200’s
Can you wrap your mind around running 200 miles at once? Neither can. But try this: wrap your mind around running THREE 200 mile races over 2 months time. That’s the Triple Crown of 200s. This short film chronicles Team Altra Employee, Mike McKnight, during his pursuit of finishing Bigfoot 200, Tahoe 200, and Moab 240.
21. For Rangers Ultra
The For Rangers Ultra Marathon is a 230km 5 day self sufficient race through some of the most protected wildlife conservancies in Kenya. All funds raised at this non-profit race go straight to the welfare of wildlife rangers and Rhino Conservation around the world.
The For Rangers Ultra Documentary covers the story of 70 international ultra runners as they battle their way through trails teeming with wildlife.
22. Birdy’s Backyard Ultra
Birdy’s Backyard Ultra is a 6.71k run around a lake, on the hour, every hour until the last one standing, that takes place in Lake Towerrinning, Western Australia.
This film follow 5 runners at the 2020 event as they share what it takes to attempt this format of ultra marathon running that is more a battle of mental determination, grit and strength than physical ability.
23. Found On 49
First of all, let’s all take a moment to talk about Jim Walmsley’s incredible running form and stride. Even 60 freaking miles into a 100 miler. But this is another documentary that ends in heartbreak…and it might make you cry (I’m such a sap). Regardless, Walmsley’s poise and humble attitude despite a really unlucky turn of events (pun intended) is inspiring.
24. Last Woman Standing
This film follows ultrarunner and breast cancer survivor Nicky Spinks, as she attempts to become the first-ever woman to complete The Barkley Marathons.
A Billy Yang film about ultrarunner Zach Miller. Zach burst onto the ultrarunning scene with a stunning and surprising win at the 2013 JFK 50 Mile Race. Since then, he’s gone on to race in some of the biggest international mountain ultramarathons in the world, including the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).
26. Beautifully Brutal
The ultra running documentary film about the ultra marathon around the Llŷn Peninsula in North West Wales. Ultra runners take on the 50, 75 and 100 mile journeys around the stunning Welsh Coastal Path.
27. Keys 100
Not all ultras are run on trails! This ultra-marathon is a 100-mile foot race that travels from Key Largo to Key West along the Florida Keys.
28. Heavy As Lead
Heavy as Lead is the story of Jason Cohen, who went from 300lbs to just a short 7 years later found himself running the Leadville Trail 100.
29. Kroger’s Canteen
Another quick look at Hardrock 100. Kroger’s Canteen – an aid station perched on a tiny ledge, 13,100ft above sea level. The volunteers at this aid station are as badass as the runners!
30. Western Time
This film by Billy Yang follows elite athlete Sally McRae as she races the Western States 100. Despite being a professional runner, Sally is one of the most relatable athletes I’ve ever come across. Except, of course, for the fact that she can run 100 miles faster than I could ever dream of. This documentary will get you right in the feels.
31. The 100 Mile King
A fun and lighthearted film about the incredible and inspirational 29 hour run of the oldest finisher in Western States Endurance Run history, Nick Bassett. I can only hope to still be running, never mind running sub 30 hour 100 milers, at his age!
32. Alone Together
Trail runner Marcos Ferro takes on the challenge to cross the famous Huayhuash trail in the mighty Peruvian Andes. While running non-stop, he’ll discover there are always lessons to be learned between his two loves in life; running and family.
33. The Packhorse Trail
The Packhorse Trail is a short documentary film retracing an ancient bridleway of the somewhat forgotten, altered or lost Packhorse Route through Edale, Derwent and over Moscar into Sheffield.
The route is approximately 46.4km, and takes in a modest amount of climb, circa 1600m of ascent. Nick Goddard runs the 46.4km route and along the way, stops off at key landmarks, marker stones and crosses to share their history and importance.
34. The Magic Is Leadville
Have you ever wondered about the history behind the Leadville 100? This documentary will suck you in and have you googling “how to enter the Leadville 100 lottery” in no time!
35. The Wasatch Tahoe Project
In this short documentary, Altra athlete Ben Light attempts to finish the Wasatch 100 Miler and the Tahoe 200 Mile Endurance Run back to back, in one weekend.
If you want to see the dirty, brutal, raw side of ultra running, this is it. I can’t even imagine how tired this guy must have been, and was glad to see I’m not the only one that may or may not snap at my poor spouse, who was simply trying to get me to eat food, during some late night ultra running hours.
36. Marathon De Sables
This film follows the 2016 Marathon De Sables, a six-day, 251 km ultramarathon, held every year in southern Morocco, in the Sahara Desert.
37. Leadman: The Dave Mackey Story
Billy Yang does an incredible job documenting the true stories behind ultra running. This documentary follows Dave Mackey, an elite ultra runner, lost his leg during an unfortunate and freak trail running accident.
Post amputation, Dave promises himself that he’s going to tackle the Leadman challenge: a series of 5 intense endurance races over the course of one year in Leadville, Colorado.
Warning: this one will make you tear up.
38. Ice Ultra
The Ice Ultra, a yearly, 230km, 5-day race inside the Arctic circle, takes place in Swedish Lapland. It’s Europe’s last remaining wilderness and the heartland of the indigenous Sámi people. This area, Jokkmokk municipality, an area the size of Wales but with a population of only around three thousand, can experience daytime temperatures as low as -40°c and the days are short.
Ice Ultra follows the runners and race teams of the 2018 event.
39. Mount Marathon
Mount Marathon is a 5K held in Seward, Alaska, and I’m kind of obsessed with this race, I won’t lie. . Yes, it’s “just” a 5K. But I guarantee you’ve never seen a 5K like this before. It’s definitely in the top 5 races I would love to run before I die. Here’s a short video…
…but if you want a longer one, watch this:
and if you want an even LONGER one, watch this:
Yeah, I just gave you three separate documentaries about a 5K. But it’s the most kickass 5K I’ve ever seen, so it deserves three shout-outs.
40. Burning Man Ultramarathon
Did you know there’s an ultramarathon held every year during the Burning Man festival?
41. The Double – Jeff Browning – Western States 100 and Hardrock 100
Altra elite runner Jeff Browning attempts to break the combined time record for Western States and Hardrock 100. The views of both courses – unbelievable. Definitely better than a treadmill.
42. The Source
The Source is a documentary film that explores elite ultra runner Courtney Dauwalter’s “source” behind her motivation to crush 200+ mile races, while in some cases, beating all the men and the women.
43. Life In A Day
Life in a Day, another Billy Yang film, follows four top women—Magdalena Boulet, Kaci Lickteig, Devon Yanko and Anna Mae Flynn—through their journeys at the 2016 Western States 100. Despite the fact that all four of these ladies are elites who have earned a golden ticket into the race, many of the stories and struggles they share are 100% relatable. Another tear jerker, keep tissues handy.
44. The 2914 Gorge Waterfalls 50K
Watch this one simply for the views. Holy cow, that’s one green forest!
45. The Original
Want to hear the story of how 100 mile races “came to be” from the man who started it in the first place? Let Gordon Ainsleigh tell you himself.
46. No Business 100
The views alone will make you want to add this growing-in-popularity 100 miler to your “must race” list!
47. Finding Traction
I love this one not ONLY because it’s Vermont (my home state) but because Nikki Kimball is a badass.
Finding Traction presents the inspirational story of ultra runner Nikki Kimball’s quest to become the fastest person in history to run America’s oldest hiking trail, Vermont’s 273-mile Long Trail.
48. Running The Wainwrights
In June 2019 ultrarunner Paul Tierney set out on an epic adventure to summit all 214 Alfred Wainwright Lake District peaks in one go. His goal was to try and beat the record time of 6 days 13 hours and 1 minute, set five years earlier by fellow fell runner Steve Birkinshaw.
49. Running on the Sun (Badwater)
Come for the awesome footage of 90’s shoes and running gear. Stay for the incredible inspiration of the athletes followed in this nearly 2 hour documentary (great for a long run!)
50. Burro Racing
Because why not. Quote of the movie: “It’s hard chasing an ass up a mountain side, I tell ya!”
51. The Bob Graham Round: Running the Fells with Friends
Tony Holt attempts the iconic Bob Graham Round: a 66 mile ultra distance mountain challenge taking in 42 of England’s Lake District fells with 27,000ft of ascent, which must be completed within 24 hours.
52. Once is Enough
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” -Mae West
“Once is Enough” follows comedian Jeffrey Binney who decides to tackle the Leadville 100 after losing his mother to obesity caused heart disease. This documentary is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
53. Conquering the Dragon
This 2017 film follows racers tackling the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race, a 5-day journey is 315 kilometres long with 15,500 metres of ascent across wild, trackless, remote and mountainous terrain in Wales.
54. Mont Blanc CCC UTMB
What ultrarunner DOESN’T have UTMB or CCC on their bucket list? This documentary follows Nike athletes David Laney (UTMB), Tim Tollefson (CCC) and Zach Miller (CCC) set out to prove that American men can compete and compete well in the imposing European mountains.
55. A Decade On
In 2006, Brain Morrison held the lead of the Western States 100 miler for final 20 miles of the race. But just a few hundred meters from the finish line, he collapsed. His crew tried to help him, supporting his weight as he ultimately crossed the finish in first place with a time of just over 18 hours. But, his run was deemed a DNF because he had not completed the race under his own power.
Morrison would DNF Western States three more times, in 2007, 2008 and 2009. This documentary follows him in 2016, on his 5th attempt to finally, officially, finish WSER.
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Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.