If you’re a fan of HOKA’s Northern Arizona Elite squad, it’s probably due equally to the team’s athletic performances and its social media presence. Coached by Ben Rosario, the marathon-focused, Flagstaff, Arizona-based crew “gets it.” Modern track fans want more than a record-smashing automaton to cheer for. (Someone like Galen Rupp can only get by with his Twitter account consisting of a string of cryptic dispatches from 2012 because he’s an Olympic medalist twice over.)
While NAZ Elite athletes have long been fixtures near the front of just about any U.S. championship race over 5,000 meters, and they’ve now got an Olympian among their ranks, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are untold thousands of runners on the roads every day donning Steph Bruce’s “GRIT” shirts or eating burritos for an opportunity to riff with Scott Fauble on Twitter.
You know the runners’ self-styled slogans. You’re familiar with the jokey intra-team beefs. But beyond that, you feel like you know these athletes on a personal level. That’s a testament to the humanity and transparency of the team’s stars.
But there’s a limit to how much of an athlete’s story can be conveyed if they are its protagonist, narrator, and editor. Sometimes it takes a near-omniscient third-party to point a goddamn camera in your face during your highest highs and lowest lows to paint the full picture.
Enter: A Time and a Place, the directorial debut by my dear pals Stephen Kersh and Ryan Sterner. Folks, it’s an excellent film.
A Time and a Place is about the lives of Steph Bruce, Kellyn Taylor, Aliphine Tuliamuk, Scott Fauble, Scott Smith, and Sid Vaughn over the four months leading up to the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials.
You will enjoy watching it. You’ll feel like it reaffirms the team’s personalities you’re already familiar with but adds a third dimension to them. You’ll possibly cry when you see Aliphine charging to victory. You’ll almost assuredly cry when you see her simultaneously celebrating with and consoling her teammates who just missed out on qualifying.
But—and I apologize for going this route—A Time and a Place is capital “A” About the single-minded pursuit of a dream, the ironclad bonds you form with those who were a part of that journey, the pure elation that comes from accomplishing exactly what you set out to do and the heartbreak that comes from just falling short.
You know how the story ends, but somehow that makes everything that leads up to even more compelling. In fact, you continually gawk, go “Well shucks,” and marvel at the fact that for 16 weeks, Stephen and Ryan had the good fortune to be embedded daily in the training group that would soon produce the top American marathoner in Aliphine. And they were around enough to shoot eight terabytes of footage—we’re talking days, if not weeks of source material.
And if that’s not allegorical of the very subject of their documentary, I don’t know what is.
In both cases—training to make the goddamn Olympics and documenting another person training to make the goddamn Olympics—you show up every day. These days, they vary tremendously, but in some hard to pinpoint way they’re all the same. You try not to put too much weight into any one day. You can’t allow yourself to. The highs would drive you manic and the lows would make you pack up your shit and never return. No, you just show up every day, treating it like it’s something new and exciting, but squinting hard enough that you don’t miss the forest for the trees. And you do this because you trust that it will pay off. Somehow, through some configuration you can’t see yet and won’t see for months, the days will lead to something greater than the sum of their parts.
I don’t want to conflate the scale of accomplishments at play here. Making a beautiful, near-perfect, hour-long documentary is not the same as qualifying for an Olympic team. Nor am I suggesting that for the runners chronicled, Ryan, or Stephen, the best is behind them now.
But if every single member of NAZ Elite decided tomorrow that running, meh, not for them anymore, and Stephen and Ryan pitched their equipment into a ditch and joined the Shakers, never to aim their cameras at a person ever again, all parties involved should be incredibly proud of what’s captured in A Time and a Place.