On the Edge (Spoilers!)

I saved this one until last. I highly recommend this movie, but it is hard to get. It’s available as a DVD through Netflix. For about a million dollars, you can buy a copy on Amazon. So, if you’ve seen it already or you’re not likely to see it, read on!

I love how the reveals are timed in this movie. There is foreshadowing, and most of the (easy, plot-driven) questions that I had were answered. We find out in due time that Wes was disqualified from the ‘64 Olympics because he was “framed” as a professional. This was because he was rocking the boat about clandestine payments to athletes. Wes wanted payments to be in the open. He doesn’t ever articulate it, but my perspective is he wanted athletes to be able to make a living doing what they love: running and competing.

Because Wes was a trouble-maker, he was exposed for accepting airline tickets from a sponsor. And then we find out he was framed by the current Cielo-Sea race director, who tries to keep him out of the race. Wes formally appeals to have his amateur status re-instated, but there is no chance (really) that will happen. Wes confronts the director and then leaves the fee and the form with him. Since the director will not accept his entry, Wes winds up sneaking into the race with his age group, already running as he crosses the starting line. This creates quite a stir and the commentators pick up on it. They figure out in short order who it is, fill in some of the back story, and start commenting about the controversy around amateur status.

The dialog in the movie is sparse, and I like it. I often don’t say much to my parents. And it is in one of these exchanges between Wes and his dad that we find out about Wes’s mom. Wes says, “I was up on the mountain this morning.” And they talked about having picnics up there and the orchids his mom loved. They are the same orchids that Wes has been running past during his training. It is a few days before the race, and Wes’s dad re-tells the story of “bloody Thursday.” Wes has heard it a thousand times, but we are getting it for the first time. Wes’s mom was on the picket line, when some scabs came through. A fight broke out, and she took hold of a guy’s hand and bit down on his thumb. She stood her ground. After a moment, Wes reaches out to hold his dad’s hand. The story of her fight with the scabs on bloody Thursday is foreshadowing for the race to come.

As the race progresses, the officials decide they have to get Wes out of the race, and they will use force if necessary. First, they actually tackle him, but the other runners immediately help him get loose and back up. Then, they are off and running as a (wolf) pack until late in the race. It is his dedication to running (past and current) that inspires his competitors to come to his aid.

I love these scenes where they are running together. Of course, I love watching the lead pack run in just about any race. And I love running in a pack in races. One of the moments that is seared in my mind is the opening mile of Hospital Hill in 2013 when I fell into a trance watching the feet of the runners in front of me. There was part of me that was watching and thinking, “I can’t believe I am running this fast. It’s too easy.” And then I stopped thinking.

After the first attempt to get Wes out of the race, there is a second one which is rather humorous. The race officials call ahead to a couple of guys and tell them to watch for the guy in all black and pull him out of the race. At this point, Wes is running in the pack. The two of them are on the radio and looking at the pack coming. They obviously don’t want to get in the way… and they don’t. They basically say, “Here he comes. There he goes.”

Within sight of the finish line, Wes has broken away from the pack and has a commanding lead. But then he stops and looks back. Several of the runners catch up with him, Wes reaches out to them, and they run holding hands until they cross the finish line. Really this was too much. And the music doesn’t help. The nice touch is that his dad and coach are there to see him finish. And he would’ve won… And maybe in the sequel he signs a Nike contract and has a kid. Who knows? One of my problems with the finish relates to an embarrassing story from my youth. My dad reminds me of it, occasionally, saying, “Let’s race to tie.”

When I was in fifth grade, there was a city-wide elementary track meet. You qualified to represent the school if you got first place in an event at your school. The coveted spot for the 100 yard dash was, without a doubt, going to the uber-athlete. But on qualifying day, he was sick. So my best friend and I were the only ones in the race vying for the spot. I was likely going to win, but he convinced me to “race to tie,” so that they would have to send us both. Being the naïve, free-spirit that I was back then, I agreed. (Honestly, I’m still a naïve, free-spirit. And now I hug trees, too.)

We raced, making a good show of it, but near the end he surged a little, and I covered his surges a couple of times, still racing to tie. We crossed the finish line side by side. It was a photo finish – only there was no photo. The gym teacher was literally taken aback. He kind of stood up straight, looked puzzled for a while, and then declared my friend the winner. At the time we talked about how we were so close and how we ran neck and neck. I mentioned that he kept on seeming to surge ahead, but he covered by saying he thought I was doing the same thing and he was just trying to stay even.

Later when I was telling my dad about this, he basically told me I was a fool. Of course my friend tried to trick me into a “tie race” so that he could beat me. He really didn’t have a chance otherwise. So, there have been no more races to tie in my life.

Nevertheless, On the Edge got me thinking a lot about purpose, satisfaction, and even retirement. It made me wonder, do we call our best runners “elites” (not “pros”) because there was such a stigma to being a paid (professional) runner? The movie has sparked a landslide of questions in my mind that I haven’t fully answered: What are you paid to do? Does it compromise you? Are you willing to bite the hand (thumb) of the hand that competes with you, feeds you, or pays you? Who are you competing against? What would you do if one of the people in your race were unfairly removed from competition? In the course of a lifetime (race), who will you help? And who will you help (make stronger) by trying to hinder them?

And most significantly, it makes me wonder if I am still climbing Mt. Tamalpais or if I have crested the summit. In any case, we won’t be racing to tie, but we will meet again – in the sea.

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