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Isaac, Angel, Lauren, Talia, Cole …
As Tom Mitchell stumbled his way through the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe, he recited names off of laminated cards, each bearing a photo of a different child.
He would recite one for each of the next 200 miles.
Five years earlier, Mitchell had never run a race in his life. Now, age 50, the Washington, D.C.-native was in the midst of the Tahoe 200, a 200-mile race around Lake Tahoe, through California and Nevada. (He still doesn’t consider himself a runner).
He was doing so to raise awareness for childhood cancer, and to raise money for his nonprofit organization, the Stillbrave Childhood Cancer Foundation, which provides non-medical assistance to families whose children are battling cancer.
Mitchell, who goes by the nickname Tattoo Tom, started Stillbrave eight years ago, after his daughter Shayla, died of Hodgkins Lymphoma at the age of 18. Today, the organization helps pay rent, car bills, grocery bills and more, for families who are struggling under the financial burden of their children’s cancer treatment.
Each mile of Tom’s race was dedicated to a different child who had battled cancer, was currently battling cancer or had lost his/her battle to cancer.
“Every parent that’s got a kid in my race, they just want one thing: they want somebody to try,” Mitchell says, in this documentary about his journey. “They don’t want somebody to cure [cancer] tomorrow … they just want someone to try.”
Broadcast journalist Jay Korff met Tom several years ago, through his job as a reporter for ABC7 News in Washington, D.C. “I did a series of stories on Gabriella Miller, a 10-year-old girl who, while battling brain cancer, publicly called on our country’s policy leaders to invest more money in childhood cancer research,” Korff says. “Just weeks before her passing, she challenged me to use my platform as a storyteller to help suffering children.”
He met Mitchell at her memorial service. At the time, Mitchell was preparing to run his first 100, to raise funds for his foundation.
In 2014, Korff made a short documentary about Tom’s journey at the Mohican 100 in Ohio. A year later, he followed him to Lake Tahoe, where Mitchell would embark on the Tahoe 200.
“I felt morally obligated to do it as it combined the two things I love: telling stories and trail racing.”
Now, two years after Mitchell completed the Tahoe 200, Korff’s film is being released (the full film is available for rent or purchase on Vimeo). Trail Runner caught up with Korff to learn about the filming process, and what it’s like to capture a 200-mile race.
How did your broadcast journalism experience transfer over to filmmaking?
Oddly enough, filming Tom during Mohican and Tahoe were the first times I’d picked up a camera since my first reporting gig back in Montana. This time I was shooting on a much more complex DSLR with multiple lenses. And let me tell you, It was a very steep learning curve trying to figure out how to operate that complex camera.
Logistically, how did you approach filming the Tahoe 200?
I approached filming as if I were racing the event myself. Luckily, I have about a dozen ultras under my belt, so I have some experience with endurance events.
I brought all my own food and water, slept in an SUV and navigated the course primarily on a mountain bike. My routine was efficient but exhausting. I arrived at each aid station a couple hours before Tom. I mountain biked a couple miles into the course, got video of Tom, rode back to the same aid station, asked him questions, got video of him leaving, chased him for another mile or so, returned back to the same aid station, packed up all my gear and then headed to the next aid station to start the process all over again. I think I covered about 75 miles of the 205-mile course.
Along the way, I filmed and interviewed other competitors. The most poignant interview for me was with Stephen Jones who was killed only months later in an avalanche. That part of the film is especially meaningful to me.
How did your own background in ultrarunning influence or benefit the filming process?
There’s no way I could have properly prepared for and filmed this arduous event without years of racing behind me. Still, all the training and racing in the world never quite prepares you for the emotional bomb that hits you when you start to fall apart.
When it comes to sleep, I’m an eight-hours-a-night kind of guy. I think I averaged about 90 minutes a night for the four nights of the Tahoe 200. I really started to lose my mind on day three and four of the race, exactly when Tom started melting down. I don’t know how the competitors do it.
The key to keeping me together during the Tahoe 200 was crewmember Laura Owens. Her son Cole had died of cancer only weeks before the Tahoe 200. She kept us all grounded and inspired. How could any of us quit on her or her son?
What was the highlight of the filming process?
Like so much in life, it boils down to friendship and advocacy.
The friendships I made during race, especially with members of Tom’s crew, remain strong. I also remain deeply inspired by and grateful to the broader trail running community—folks who truly understand how to push themselves and care for others simultaneously.
As for advocacy, a portion of proceeds from the film will go to childhood cancer foundations supporting families in crisis and researchers hoping to make that next breakthrough. This film certainly isn’t about me or Tom. It’s about helping children suffering needlessly.
During Tom’s low moments, how did you handle being the guy with the camera pointed in his face?
As a big-city reporter, you learn to develop a thick skin. I certainly didn’t like or appreciate Tom yelling at me (he’s apologized profusely since then). But I wasn’t there for me or for him. I was there for children suffering beyond measure in chemotherapy clinics across the country—children who have no choice in the raw deal they’ve been handed.
These types of races open the soul for inspection. You really find out who you are when you are physically, emotionally and mentally wiped out.
What do you hope people take from this film?
Endure will resonate deeply with trail runners, with anyone who has ever challenged themselves physically, or anyone who has faced a medical crisis.
More than anything, the film causes us to look deep inside ourselves and ask, “Are we doing enough to help lift up others?”