The Oscars: Best Running Movies

Ten of the best running movies

From Marathon Man to Forrest Gump, we complete a circuit of the best running-themed films. What's your favorite?
Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Since the moment Eadweard Muybridge captured a man sprinting in 1887 runners have worn a path across the cinematic landscape. Whether on the pristine oval of an Olympic running track, a dusty patch in a prison rec yard or the damp tarmac of a rural country road, film has documented the sweat and solitude of running in all its pain and glory.

Here are 10 of the best.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner 

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Opening with the sound of Tom Courtenay's feet thudding against a bleak rural lane, Tony Richardson and Alan Sillitoe's 1962 British New Wave classic is one of the most poetic running films in cinematic history. As Colin Smith, a petty delinquent, Courtenay gives a compelling perfomance in this class-conscious commentary on late-50s British society. After being sent to a reformatory for his part in a bakery robbery, Smith turns to long-distance running to escape the drudgery of his confinement. His talent is spotted by the governor who offers the promise of early release if he runs for the reformatory in a race against a public school. In the final, stunning denouement, Smith's freedom and independence are resolved by his race performance in the most unpredictable way.

Marathon Man

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"Is it safe?" Probably not when you have a Nazi war criminal drilling holes in your teeth. Dustin Hoffman plays Columbia grad student and running obsessive Thomas "Babe" Levy, who is hounded by Laurence Olivier's sinister Dr Christian Szell over a briefcase of missing diamonds. An early scene shows Hoffmann pushing himself around Central Park. All that training and his ability to recall the feats of Ethiopian Olympic legend Abebe Bikila winning in Rome and Tokyo give him the endurance to escape his tormentors. Director John Schlesinger intercuts footage of a petrified, bloody Hoffman with the placid Bikila from the Tokyo Olympiad official film to striking effect.

Forrest Gump

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After childhood sweetheart Jenny Curran (Robin Wright) leaves Tom Hanks's sweet Forrest Gump halfway through Robert Zemeckis's Oscar-laden drama, he sets off on an epic run lasting three years, two months, 14 days, and 16 hours. More than your average Sunday morning wheeze-fest. Forrest finally stops running when, after covering 15,248 miles, he has managed to "put his past behind him". The sequence manages to be beautiful and amusing in its exploration of the catharsis of running. Anyone who fancies emulating Forrest can do so with the help of the fastidious people at the Centives economics blog who have created the ultimate MapMyRun style analysis of Forrest's running route.

The Robber

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German director Benjamin Heisenberg's film is based on real-life 80s Austrian bank-robber and gifted marathon runner Johnann Kastenberger. Adapted from the novel by Martin Prinz, the quiet yet kinetic and visually elegant film mixes the robber's getaways with races from his earlier life as a potential marathon runner. Adrenaline and ecstasy at their best and worst are shown in this examination of a man who "only feels truly alive, truly himself, truly free when he is running". Or stealing loads of cash from a Viennese bank.

Prefontaine/Without Limits

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These two biopics of maverick American 5000m runner Steve Prefontaine were released a year apart and there is little to separate the two. Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne's Without Limits perhaps has the edge thanks to a glossier production, but Steve "Hoop Dreams" James's film also has its merits. Both deal with Pre's bolshy frontrunning tactics, spectacular 1972 Munich Olympic disappointment and tragic, fatal car crash at 24. As a sideline, in Without Limits you can also witness the birth of Nike through Donald Sutherland's portrayal of Bill Bowerman, Pre's Oregon running coach and co-founder of the sportswear giant.

Run Fatboy Run

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In perhaps the funniest take on the pain of long-distance running, David Schwimmer casts boyish British Everyman Simon Pegg as an affable loser who decides to run a marathon in an attempt to prove his worth to his ex-fiancee Thandie Newton. Some of the biggest laughs come from the familiar pitfalls of the amateur marathoner – blisters and hitting the wall.

On the Edge

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Showcasing some exemplary sports-movie dialogue – "I'm going to take your bloated carcass and teach you how to be a mountain racer!" – this tale of running redemption casts Bruce Dern as an unfairly disgraced athlete attempting to reclaim the glory he was denied. At the ripe age of 44 he enters a fictional version of the Dipsea Race in Marin County, a gruelling seven-mile slog over hazardous mountain terrain. The sequences of the sinewy Dern, a real life ultramarathon runner, padding along the glorious California coastline are a joy to behold.

The Jericho Mile

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An early breakthrough for Michael Mann, this Emmy-winning made-for-TV movie features Peter Strauss as Larry "Rain" Murphy, a loner sent to prison for murdering his abusive father. After the warden discovers his talent for running, he is given a chance to train for the Olympic trials. Multiple running scenes mixed with a real-life prison backdrop create an upbeat sports drama worthy of the accolades it received.

The Athlete

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As well as inspiring Dustin Hoffman's getaway in the aforementioned Marathon Man, Abebe Bikila has his own movie. Blending biopic, autobiography drama and documentary to create a portrait of the first African to win an Olympic gold medal, the film features stunning canters through the Abyssinian plateau. Juxtaposing those Olympic triumphs with the heartwrenching loss of Bikila's legs in a late-career car accident adds power too.

Chariots Of Fire

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You didn't think we'd forget did you? Despite the best efforts of Mr Bean, this British classic is still one of the most exciting running films ever made. Charting the lives of British Olympians Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams in the lead up to their triumph at the 1924 Paris Olympics, Chariots of Fire is the go-to post-run recovery movie. Vangelis and excessive slow motion. What more could you want?

And if that movie marathon doesn't tire you out you can put in some extra miles alongside younger incarnations of Michael Douglas in Running and Brad Pitt in Across the Tracks

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