Under the creative guidance of executive producer Mark Jonathan Harris (three-time Academy Award winner) and producers Gwendolen Twist (of marathon documentary Spirit of the Marathon and Spirit of the Marathon II fame) and Yanfeng (Yan) Zhang (an Ironman finisher as well as a filmmaker), triathlon is headed for the big screen. The iron-distance focused triathlon documentary, slated for release in early 2015, will hone in on the journey of a handful of athletes–both professional and amateur–as they prepare for and race the 30th anniversary of Challenge Roth on July 20, 2014. Featured athletes include triathlon’s golden couple two-time Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae and Ironman champion Tim O’Donnell, Ironman champion and new father Luke McKenzie, Challenged Athletes Foundation spokesperson and first above-knee amputee Ironman finisher Rudy Garcia-Tolson, top Chinese age group iron-distance competitor Qi Dang and iron-distance rookie Bessy Leszczynski. Also lending a hand in the film’s production is Emmy Award winning filmmaker Peter Henning, well known and admired for his work capturing the sport’s heart-wrenching drama through NBC’s Ironman World Championship coverage, a broadcast he helmed for more than a decade.
I had a chance to chat with producer Twist to delve into her experience with the film-in-progress and to learn a bit about the challenges and rewards of chasing multi-sport athletes through their swim, bike and run repertoire.
Triathlete.com: I know that Yan is a triathlete and a marathon runner, and you’re a marathoner as well, but I believe this is your first experience really getting to know the sport of triathlon, correct?
GT: That is correct. I know very little about it. I am definitely well educated in the marathon world and I’m part of that world, but getting thrown into this environment has definitely been different–and also very inspiring. I have to say I might be getting the bug! Obviously right now I’m filming, and I am a marathon runner so I’m still training for my marathons, but each time I film somebody else and I see them swimming or see them biking I think: I could probably do that! I think it will most likely be in my future.
Triathlete.com: You’re about halfway into filming. Is there anything that has surprised you about triathletes?
GT: You’re probably going to laugh, but I thought that the triathletes that we’ve been filming might have a little bit more of an attitude or arrogance about them. But everyone that I’ve met is so humble and so generous and they’ve just embraced me and embraced the film. I was worried there might be a negative aspect because I’m from the marathon world and not triathlon–a little bit of, “You don’t know our sport.” So I was a little hesitant at first. I felt I had to come in and justify myself in order to have that credibility, to defend that I am the right person for the job and that I will do the sport justice. But within about 10 minutes I realized I didn’t need to do that. Everyone’s just thrilled that their sport is going to get some justice and that what I was able to do for marathons I’ll be able to do for triathlon. They’ve brought me into the fold and accepted me, so much so that I truly feel like even though I haven’t done a triathlon yet I’m part of the triathlon family. And they’ve made me want to do one, because I feel like if these people are this cool, then I want to be in a race where there are a lot of like-minded people. It’s not a closed-door club. They’re like, “Come on in!” I really feel like they’ve embraced me and welcomed me into the family and if I misstep somewhere, they’re there to catch me and guide me and show me what this sport is all about. And this sport is doable. It’s not actually that scary, and people do embrace you. Everybody needs to have this experience, to be part of this club, and that’s what I want to show a broader audience. So I’m excited! Can you tell?
Triathlete.com: What about the training required to reach the goal of an iron-distance–has that been eye-opening for you?
GT: You know, with the way Kona is talked about as the Superbowl of the sport, I came into it thinking that the sport is very daunting and not for everybody; that you need to have a certain mind to do it. But I’m noticing that’s not the case at all. And that’s one of the barriers I want to sort of break down–to show that anyone can do it and that anything’s possible. Like with Bessy, our first-timer–people are going to see that she can do it and think: I can do it, too. But also, hanging around Rinny and TO and those guys, it makes me think: Holy cow! They’re running marathons at right around the same times as me, but I’m only doing one event! They’re doing it after they just swam and biked. I need to step up my game a little here! When I was in the running world I felt very fit, but I get around these guys and I feel so lazy!
Triathlete.com: As a filmmaker, are there any unique challenges in following these athletes?
GT: Well yeah, because in marathons they’re just running. And really, there are only two speeds–the really fast athletes and then the everyday runners. When I did the marathon films I got a motorcycle for the fast people and I got little Pedi cabs or golf carts for the slower ones. But with these guys, I have to get a boat for the swim and I have to get an underwater camera guy to get some of those cool shots. For the run it’s the same thing with motorcycles or golf carts. For the bikes I’ll have motorcycles and a helicopter. For my first film I just used a helicopter for the pretty shots, but now I’m going to need a helicopter just to catch up to them on the bikes! It’s a totally different world, having to film three different events and all within about 15 hours. I used to say filming was like a marathon in itself, but with this event I find it much more challenging and much more difficult. But in a way it’s also so much more fun because I’m more challenged and I get to be a little more creative and do a lot more different stuff than with my other films.
Triathlete.com: Will you try to talk to the athletes while they’re racing, or just during downtime interviews?
GT: No, not really. I will follow them throughout the whole course, so for example if they show that facial expression of: God, why am I out here? I can capture it. But for the most part I just let them be in their world. Usually when I film them I’m just a fly on the wall and they go about their daily activities. When I go to film them I say, “OK, what are you going to do today?” They might say, “We’re going grocery shopping, but that’s boring.” But I’m like, “No, no–let’s go film you grocery shopping.” People are going to want to see what they eat and how they eat. I mean when I go grocery shopping I have two grocery bags. When Rinny and TO go, they’ve shopped for just two days and they have a full load. Four huge things of blueberries! They just consume so much food. So that was kind of visually interesting and fun. I try to be a fly on the wall and just let them interact and do what they do without really knowing that I’m there, and then I do a little movie magic. I’ll sit down with them and do an interview and I’ll say, “Tell me about grocery shopping. How much food do you eat? What foods do you like and not like?” Then when I show footage of them grocery shopping, I’ll overlay Rinny saying, “Oh my God I love blueberries! I can never get enough blueberries.” And you’ll see her grabbing four buckets of blueberries and putting them in the cart.
Triathlete.com: What are your plans at Challenge Atlantic City this weekend?
GT: Like in my first film, halfway through the film the athletes go and do a race to sort of see where they’re at in their preparation. That’s kind of what we’re going to do here. Challenge Family has really opened their arms and embraced us, so we wanted to include the Challenge Atlantic City race in our film since it’s their first time in the U.S. and to show that there’s more than just Ironman–there are other options out there. Rinny and Timothy and Rudy are all going to be there, so it will be great for us to capture them racing. One of the things I really like is that Rinny and TO are racing with everyday people and I just love the idea of them interacting with everyday people on their teams and being team players. They’re doing it for charity and I love that they’re not at all snotty about it–they’re just going to be team players and do the best that they can. I feel like that will be great on camera–to show that they’re approachable, that they’re not untouchable.
Triathlete.com: Do you think you’re prepared for the emotion and intensity of Challenge Roth–one of the most iconic events in the sport and the culmination of your entire project? I know you’ll be glued to these athletes all day, so do you have a sense of what that will be like for you?
GT: I have a sense. I think it’s going to be totally awesome! The film ending is just going to be huge–this big spectacle–and I’m so excited for that.
If you’d like to help support the triathlon film project–and potentially see your name in the film’s credits–here’s how: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/challenge-roth-triathlon-documentary