Director: Bill Gallagher
Runtime: 88 min.
Guor Mading Maker was just 9 or 10 when he broke free and ran—ran for his life.
He’d already been on the run since he was 8, making his way through war-torn Sudan without a mother or father to lean on. He’d collect nuts and mangos in the forest and sell them on the streets, earning just enough to survive. When a Sudanese soldier offered him a place to stay and a job–to wash clothes and clean the house—Guor jumped at it like a lifeline. But the soldier refused to pay, and Guor became a slave, in fear of his life.
“If I had a weapon or something there, a knife or something, I would’ve ended my life,” he recalled in Bill Gallagher’s powerful documentary Runner. “My thought is I’d rather die running.”
So he broke through the flimsy wall of the soldier’s house and ran—ran, eventually, all the way to the United States, to high school, to college, to the 2012 Olympic Games. And in the course of all that running, Guor Mading Maker, also known as Guor Marial, became a hero to a new country: The country of South Sudan.
Gallagher’s documentary runs, too. And even though it seemingly sprints effortlessly and engagingly through its 90-minute runtime, the story it chronicles feels like a marathon, itself.
I’ve run a handful of marathons myself—much, much more slowly than Guor does, of course, but still I’ve done them. I know that you don’t need to be a world-class athlete to finish one. But you do need to be willing to endure, to deal with unexpected hardships and have the heart and determination and, let’s face it, the flat-out pain tolerance to keep putting one foot in front of the other, mile after mile.
Gallagher’s doc covers some incredible territory, from Guor’s devastated country to bucolic New Hampshire and, finally, back home again. Through it all, Guor deals with unimaginable hardship: Out on his own at 8, he lost seven of his eight siblings to a war that ultimately killed 2 million Sudanese. His front teeth had been knocked out by a rifle butt. When he started running 10-kilometer runs in college, he admits that he’d laugh with his teammates, but “inside me, my heart is always on fire.”
But he dealt with other sorts of challenges, too. By the time Guor qualified for the 2012 Olympics, the country of Sudan had split into two different nations. But South Sudan, Guor’s predominantly Christian homeland, didn’t have an Olympic committee. The International Olympic Committee said that Guor could compete under the old flag of Sudan—something that Guor flatly refused to do.
“I got this chance,” he says in the doc. “God brought me all the way here. It’s my turn to do great things for the country. I cannot walk away from it. That’s what makes me, every single day, put the shoes on and run.”
Guor’s challenges weren’t over after the 2012 Olympics. More awaited him, all chronicled dutifully and sometimes painfully by Gallagher. But Guor pushes through, like marathoners do. He forges on. He breaks through walls and fights through pain and sees his way to each and every finish line—one hard, courageous and inspirational step at a time.
Written by Paul Asay