GALO: Desert Runners shows some somber and real world moments. What was your reaction after these events took place? Especially with emotions running high, were the runners open to talking about their personal experiences and being vulnerable?

JS: We — and when I say we, I mean me and my cameraman — were the whole crew. It was a really intense year with everybody. We all became friends and got really close, and they’ve all said we were as much a part of their experience as running was. We really bonded all together. So, when bad stuff happened, it really affected all of us. It was hard. And yes, they all were really open and vulnerable. I think the most important thing for me, no matter what film I’m making, is that the people that I’m filming trust me and want to trust me, and know that they can say anything to me. We really built those relationships during the movie. Most of them say that most of the time they didn’t realize the camera was there anymore, and that we were all in it together.

GALO: Toward the beginning of the documentary, in the Atacama Desert, Dave says, “Why can’t you train your mind? You can, I’m sure of it.” Limitations and what is possible versus impossible is a huge theme throughout the film. Have you ever achieved something that at first you thought was out of your reach?

JS: Yeah, like finishing this film [laughs]. The thing people always ask me [is] if I’m a runner, and I’m not a runner. This film is about running, but it’s not about running. It’s about so much more than that. I feel like the rules are the same, and the thing that I really learned out there from all these people is that the only difference between the people who finished and the people who didn’t finish had nothing to do with fitness; it had entirely to do with the fact that they believed they would finish. And because they knew they would finish, they never doubted [it] for a minute. It changed their relationship with what they were doing. If they hit a really hard time, or something bad came up, it wasn’t, “oh no, am I going to be able to finish?” Instead, it was, “what do I need to do next, because I am going to finish.” That difference in mindset is the thing that differentiated the people who didn’t finish from the people who did.

It raises questions of determination. I feel like I do bring that into my work, too. Making films is really hard work. You hit a lot of potholes and obstacles, and things get in your way. It’s really hard a lot of the time, but I never thought for a minute that I wasn’t going to finish the film; it was just a matter of when [laughs]. You just keep moving forward. I think it’s true for anybody in life, no matter what goal you pick for yourself, the rules are the same.

GALO: Before starting in the Last Desert in Antarctica, Tremaine says, “In some ways, I hope it can be as rough as it can be.” These runners are very passionate and determined — what sort of mindset does endurance running entail? Why do you think the Grand Slam runners put themselves through this suffering and sacrifice, and think they have to prove that they can push themselves to the limit?

JS: One of the things I thought about when I was out there is this idea of our world [being] so busy right now, and people have so many things that they’ve created around themselves to make things convenient and comfortable all the time. And yet, I do think there’s this innate human need to know that you can survive on some level without all that. I think that’s a big piece of it for these people. They are shedding off all that comfort and convenience that we have every day because there’s something in their struggle that makes [them] feel alive. I feel like every single one of them would say that’s true; that when you’re out there, the things you learn about yourself through the struggle are so much more profound than the things you learn in daily life. Everybody has different reasons for pushing themselves out there, but for each one of them that reason is really strong and important, and that’s the thing that drives them. I don’t think you would do that if you didn’t have a really strong reason to know that you could.

GALO: Describe the experience of being in these vast, beautiful, but harsh desert environments. Was there one location in particular that was your favorite, or one that made filming difficult?

JS: The Atacama Desert was probably my favorite. It was breathtakingly beautiful and I’ve never been anywhere like that in my life. Just the terrain there and the people in Chile [were] so special. Probably because it was our first trip and we weren’t as tired and more excited; everything felt new. I thought it was pretty brutal with just two of us. We lived just like the runners did. We slept in tents on the ground; we didn’t shower for seven days; we were packing all our own stuff; we were eating pretty dried food; and we were still filming all of this. We were the first people up in the morning and the last ones to bed at night. We were going, going, going all the time. We had 4-wheel drive vehicles that took us up and down the course for the most part, but a lot of times they couldn’t reach where the runners were, so we did a lot of hiking, running, and climbing sand dunes. We were hot, dirty and disgusting. You felt like you couldn’t complain because at least you weren’t running a marathon every day. At the same time, we were out there for much longer hours than the runners were, but again, you felt like you couldn’t complain, but it was pretty brutal.

Every desert has its highs and lows. The Antarctic trip was definitely my least favorite experience ever. I feel bad complaining because part of me thinks it is cool going to Antarctica, but the other part of me is thinking that it’s the worst trip. We were stuck on a boat for 12 days (getting there and getting back) through the roughest waters on planet Earth. I can’t believe we did it and didn’t kill each other.

(Interview continued on next page)