Marathon runner inspired by Zhivago, Chariots of Fire

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 26, 2008

What an overwhelming response there has been to last week’s column on James Bond and my favourite movies. Emotions run high among our coffee companions when it comes to who is the best 007, with Sean Connery taking the prize. Many wrote to extol their own favourite titles, with Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, and The Sound of Music right up there at the top of their lists.

And while some decried the desensitizing effect many of the more violent films are having on our culture – one reader compared television coverage of the 9/11 events to watching a Bruce Willis Die Hard film – others praised the positive, life-changing effects of films like Les Misérables and Doctor Zhivago.

Ah yes, Doctor Zhivago. Let me tell you about how that film opened up an especially enjoyable coffee cup visit I had this past weekend.

I was standing in line at Guy’s Bakery in Cochrane for my usual Saturday mug of dark roast, when Bill Gibb, fresh in from his morning run, joined me, thanked me for the column on movies, and went on to single out Doctor Zhivago as the film that profoundly influenced his worldview when he was only 15.

In a subsequent e-mail, Bill, a consultant to the natural gas compression industry, shared with me why good filmmaking is so important to him:

“In reflecting on my own experiences over the years and comparing them to yours,  it was interesting to note that the original film makers’ intent to send a message, stir an emotion, cause one to reflect on personal values, create an interest, leave us with a long-lasting impression, etc., was more effective than they could have ever imagined.”

Bill sees an intimate connection between film and books, good books leading to good films, and good films motivating “an incredible resurgence in reading books.”

In both cases, he says, foundations are laid for entering upon new adventures in life.

 “The first of the true adventure movies (Indiana Jones series) rekindled the underlying spirit of adventure that dwells in most people’s souls and hearts – a rebirth of the imagination and its power to entertain beyond what any screen could offer. In looking back at Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, and then into the modern age of literature, the short fictional stories of the Hardy Boys, and for the girls, Nancy Drew Mysteries, it should be of no surprise that Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars have become so popular.  

“The telling of our own story is at the very foundation of who we are and how we got here. When others tell their stories we stop to listen, as this is what connects all of us.”

For Bill and his wife, Donna, it’s more than just stories and movies that connect them, however. Bill and Donna are serious runners – marathon runners – and their own stories are as engaging as a great motion picture.

In my first conversation with Bill a year ago, he enthralled me with his account of the Paris Marathon he had just run in. He tells me he has run marathons with as few as 127 people, in Canmore, and as many as 40,000, in Berlin. Regardless of the size, he says, “the feeling is the same at the start line and the finish line.”

He speaks with enormous satisfaction about the “big honour” that was his and Donna’s to be among representatives of so many nations while participating in the top three marathons on the planet: the Flora London Marathon, the Berlin Marathon, and the New York City Marathon.

“Our goal in these events has always been this,” he says: “be in the moment, savour every view, smile at the people who have come out to support the runners, and above all, never lose sight of the finish line.”

As Bill and I compared notes, it was clear that we jointly treasured another memorable film, Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981), regarded by many as the greatest Olympics film ever made.

“This movie was a milestone and heralded the arrival of what we now call the running boom phenomena,” Bill says. “It put a spotlight on running, an activity that was thought to be the preserve of the elite athlete – track and field, short track runners, sprinters, college level, Olympic level only.

“Like the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme from Chariots of Fire is instantly recognizable, often played along the marathon courses, and it can bring on a flood of emotion to those who can relate.” 

I’ll close for now with those inspiring words spoken by Chariots runner Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson): “Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.”

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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