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On June 24, 1989, then-28-year-old Ann Trason finished 10th overall at the 1989 Western States 100. She was the first woman ever to finish top 10 at the historic ultra, and the entire trail-running community took note (she would go on to win first female another 13 times, a record that still stands).
These days, it’s not so unusual to see women finishing top-10 alongside their male competitors, or even winning races outright. Just in the first few months of 2017, female competitors topped the podium at the Bandera 100K and Brazos Bend 50, among other races.
This still-deepening field of elite female trail ultrarunners inspired a movie by Los Angeles-based trail runner and filmmaker Billy Yang.
Life in a Day follows four top women—Magdalena Boulet, Kaci Lickteig, Devon Yanko and Anna Mae Flynn—through their journeys at the 2016 Western States 100. Alongside the drama and suspense of race day, Yang manages to capture the deeply personal stories that each woman brings with her to the start line, and to show the honest, human side of their race experiences.
In anticipation of the film’s March 8 release, Trail Runner caught up with Yang to find out how he kept up with Kaci Lickteig, what it’s like to film such a competitive race and what he hopes people take away from the film.
Why did you pick these four women, in particular?
I think most of us who pay attention to this sport can [attest] that the women’s side has been under-represented in many aspects of media. While I recognized the opportunity to tell [the women’s] side of the race, I was also just naturally drawn to these four women, as athletes and as potential role models. I felt their stories needed be told.
Magda was always on my list. Her past as an immigrant, U.S. Olympian, Vice President of Product Development at GU Energy and as a mother/wife intrigued me, and I couldn’t wait to get to know her better. Devon’s fiery personality and passion for running was always evident to me, and I knew she would be very competitive in an already stacked field. Kaci fascinated me on many levels, in particular her ability to be the competitor she is while living in a state like Nebraska. The biggest unknown for me was Anna Mae. But after meeting her briefly at Lake Sonoma and asking mutual friends about her, I knew she would be a great fit.
It was also really important to me to give a nod to the past, particularly to the great Ann Trason, for showing us what women are capable of.
Logistically, how do you capture all the footage during the race?
[Western States] is extremely tough [to shoot], because many of the early aid stations are on opposite sides of the canyon. I worked with three other freelance videographers and we split into two teams of two.
Between mile 38 and 55, I made the decision to run on the course. Points like Devil’s Thumb [at mile 47.8] and Last Chance [at mile 43.3] … you can’t get there unless by foot. I left with Kaci from mile 38 and ran with her for a little while, with just a small steady-cam. The day that Kaci had, there was no way that I could keep up. So I just slowed down, took in the scenery and waited for the next runner or the next checkpoint.
How do you approach this kind of live storytelling, where the narrative is unfolding in real-time on race day?
You capture as much as you can and don’t worry too much about the final product. I liken filmmaking to being a chef on those cooking-competition shows. Best-case scenario, you get truffles and really nice Cornish game hens, or something. But most of the time you get super-minimal ingredients, and you have to make something cohesive out of them.
When Kaci was so far ahead of the field, my team would have to leave an aid station early, before they were able to capture footage of any other runners. You have to adjust to what the day gives you.
What was the most intense moment in filming this project?
The most intense moment in the entire filming process was when Devon told me her story [before race day]. I said, “I know there’s a dark spot in your past, and we can talk about, or not talk about it.” She just opened up.
On race day, the most intense moments were with Devon at Last Chance, and with Anna Mae at Devil’s Thumb [editor’s note: both women endured rough patches at the aforementioned aid stations]. I hiked and filmed Anna Mae at length, starting about a mile out from Devil’s Thumb down into El Dorado Creek aid station, at which point her ankle [tendinitis] no longer allowed her to run. In those miles, as runners poured past us, she showed so much grit and determination. I know she definitely left it all out there.
During intense moments of the race, how do you handle being the guy with the camera?
I try to be a fly on the wall. It’s natural to want to talk to the subjects, but I also really respect the integrity of the competition, and don’t want to affect—either positively or adversely—the natural progression of their journey and day.
There was one point [at Devil’s Thumb aid station] when Anna looked at me—she was looking for me to say something encouraging—and I just told her, “This a 100 miles.”
I try to mostly observe, because it’s not fair to other athletes for [these four women] to have an additional person out there.
What do you want people to take away from this film?
My hope is to show that strength can manifest itself in many different ways. The obvious [display of strength] is training like a beast and letting loose on race day. But sometimes strength means pulling the plug with so much invested in that one day; or owning and embracing the dark moments of your past and seeing them as necessary stepping-stones into becoming the person you are today; and, when all else fails, despite your best efforts, picking yourself up and trying again.
These four remarkable people showed me the power of both hard work and vulnerability. My hope is that it will inspire future generations of young boys and girls to do the same.
It’s more than just competition. I ultimately want to transcend our sport, and discuss questions like: What drives us? What are our stories?
You can put a camera on a fast person, but without a story—without connecting with the athlete—there’s not a whole lot of substance.
On Thursday, June 22, Yang will be hosting a film screening and Q&A at the Palisade Ballroom at the Village in Squaw Valley. Lickteig, Yanko and Boulet will be there to answer questions.