Desert Runners, a documentary film from director Jennifer Steinman, is not just about running in extreme conditions and crossing the finish line just to say that you did. More than that, it is a film that explores the inspiring stories of four non-professional runners — Dave, the witty and gangly lad from Ireland; Ricky, the athletic ex-professional baseball player from the U.S.; the strong-willed, spunky Samantha from Australia; and the tenaciously compassionate Tremaine from England — pushing themselves to the utmost limits and daring greatly to complete the daunting Four Deserts “Grand Slam” Ultramarathon Series.

Convincing themselves that they can conquer the impossible, these runners abandon all conventional thinking and attempt to run, walk or crawl 155 miles in each of the four cruelest, most remote deserts in the world in just one year — the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Gobi Desert in China, the Sahara Desert in Egypt, and the Last Desert, located on the continent of Antarctica. These are, respectively, the driest, windiest, hottest and coldest deserts on the planet. They will fight outer battles against sand dunes taller than the Empire State Building, jagged rock formations and harsh temperatures, as well as inner conflicts against their own minds and hearts, carrying nothing but what they need to survive in a 20-pound pack on their back.

Steinman, filmmaker, producer and editor, captures in Desert Runners with simple, yet captivating cinematography, the beautiful vulnerability of the human spirit. Despite the defiance of all things physical and the looming doubtfulness that fitness does not play a major part in these races — especially with some runners who’ve never even run a marathon in their life — with Steinman’s 18 years of experience in television and directing, it is no wonder that this documentary’s brilliance shines through and is acknowledged by winning Best of the Fest at its world premiere in Edinburgh, as well as the Audience Awards for Best Documentary at both the Vancouver and Hamptons International Film Festivals. She began her career as a staff editor at CBS and worked her way up to co-founding (with director Geralyn Pezanoski) the production company Smush Media, as well as added to her pedigree a Telly Award and Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Editing. Desert Runners, which aired on DirecTV on November 21st, is only her second feature-length documentary. Like the runners, her perseverance and endurance paid off, making her the accomplished filmmaker that she is today and this film is one of the finest documentaries on the mindset of an endurance runner and what it means to push boundaries.

Desert Runners only scratches the surface of these runners’ journeys to self-discovery, but Steinman takes GALO deeper into their compelling stories through the runner mentality needed to conquer both personal and physical obstacles, the steadfast bonds formed along the way, and how their emotional journeys and passion taught her the power of believing in oneself.

Editorial Note: Portions of the interview have been edited and shortened.

GALO: How did you first hear of the Four Deserts Ultramarathon Series? What made you think it would be a good subject for a documentary?

Jennifer Steinman: I was at a health and nutrition conference and Dave O’Brien, one of the characters in my movie, was a speaker. He was talking about a race that he had done 10 years earlier in his 40s; a race across the Sahara Desert. I had never heard of these desert ultramarathons before; I thought marathons were the ultimate. I was captivated by them and the fact that this guy, who doesn’t look particularly athletic to me — kind of gangly, funny and dorky — would have done one of these. And he decided that next year, he would try to run not just one of these races, but the hardest ultramarathon series in the world: four races in one year. And by the way, only one guy in the world has done this before, and he’s a professional athlete. My filmmaker brain was like, ‘now that is a story.’ So I just went up to him after the conference and said, “Have you thought about trying to film what you’re going to do next year because it sounds insane and crazy.” So, we just started talking. Originally, I thought it was going to be a film just about Dave, and so I followed him to the first desert.

Once I got there, that’s where I saw all the other people. I thought it was going to be a bunch of elite athletes with chiseled bodies and superhuman talents, but when I got there I realized [that] these are all real, ordinary people who decided for a variety of reasons that they wanted to do this. I was just really drawn to this idea of: Why do they want to do it? What makes them think they can? What makes someone think that they can do something that other people would say is impossible? What are our perceived limitations that we have for ourselves? Why do I think that I can do something that you think you can’t, [and vice versa]? Where does that come from and how do we decide what’s possible for us? That whole [idea] is kind of what first pulled me on the first race.

GALO: What made you decide to follow the stories of these four people — Dave from Ireland, Samantha from Australia, Ricky from the U.S., and Tremaine from the U.K. — specifically? Did you originally follow the stories of all of the “Grand Slammers” and then edit some out?

JS: Originally, I thought it was going to be a movie just about Dave, and when we went to the first desert, I think my working title for the film was “Dave in the Desert.” When we got to the first desert, Dave turns to us and says, “So I didn’t really have time to train that much.” I turned to my partner and we were like, “oh, my God, he’s not going to make it! We flew all the way to Chile to make a movie about this guy and he’s going to be out on the first day!”

And so, I started talking to everybody and started shooting everybody, because we had to find other interesting people as fast as we could. And at that point, we didn’t have any funding and didn’t know if we were going to make it to all four deserts, or if we were going to do something about the Atacama Desert. We started talking to so many interesting people. When we came back from that race and we were able to raise money to go to the other three deserts, I knew it was going to be more of a story about the Grand Slammers. We did start off following the Grand Slammers, and those four [people] just really shone through as having the most compelling personal stories on top of their running stories. By the time we got to China, we knew it was going to be the four of them.

(Interview continued on next page)