Over the weekend I had a chance to chat with filmmaker Harry McFann. Originally from Ohio, he was an All-American at Columbia University with a lifetime best in the 800-meter of 1:47.91, and continues to live and work in the Big City.
His latest project is called We Run New York. It’s a film series focused on the different groups and individuals that comprise the robust New York running scene. Below is a Q&A where Harry and I discuss his passion for filmmaking, running, and of course, New York.
The IndieGoGo for We Run New York is still accepting donations, so if you’re interested in what he’s working on, please consider opening up your pocket books and helping out one of our own.
Ryan Sterner: You’re originally from Ohio. How did you end up in New York?
Harry McFann: I grew up in the suburbs of Columbus and always loved the idea of the Big City. When I was little, downtown Columbus seemed huge to me. But even still, ever since I was a kid I wanted to visit New York. Mostly because of my obsession with the original King Kong. I had a colorized version of the movie on VHS that I would watch on repeat growing up. So much was my obsession with King Kong and New York, that I even referred to one building in Columbus (the LeVeque Tower) as the Empire State Building when I was a kid.
But I never had a chance to visit New York in my childhood. I went to Chicago once, and it was cool, but not as awesome as the New York I imagined from the movies.
Then one day during the summer leading into my senior year of high school I got a letter of interest from the Columbia track team. I was in a bit of shock (was this the real Columbia, or some off-brand school?), but when I gathered my senses I immediately went to my computer and researched all the details that mattered to me about Columbia: In New York, has a great track team, and I can study film. It was basically the perfect option for me.
RS: A lot of people talk about their “welcome to New York” moment. Profound or otherwise, did you have a welcome to New York moment?
HM: I remember when I came to New York on my visit. I flew into Newark and was picked up by Will Boylan-Pett. He was giving me the general rundown of the city as we were crossing the GW, and at one point I pointed out the window and said something like, “Yeah, that skyline is just so crazy.” He responded with a light laugh and said, “uh, yeah that’s still New Jersey, though.” He then pointed to Manhattan, “That’s the New York skyline.” Not really sure how I could have missed that, but it was a great way to remind him that I was from Ohio.
But then as we drove through the city to get to campus I was immediately in love. I’m a bit of a drama queen, and I think New York is an inherently dramatic city. It was love at first sight, really.
RS: After you graduated it would have been pretty easy to go back to Ohio. What about the city drew you in?
HM: I basically refused to go back to Ohio after graduating.
My plan was to run semi-pro after college, but unfortunately that didn’t pan out for me because 1. I refused to live outside of the city and 2. New York is expensive and you don’t make a lot as a runner. On top of that my collegiate career ended on a pretty terrible note, which was extremely disheartening for me. Life after graduating is hard for a lot of people, and lots of challenges are thrown your way right out of the gate. For me these added obstacles to running (being able to afford food and housing, etc) were more than I could take, so I decided to give up on the dream of running competitively after college.
But I was still stubborn and refused to go home and regroup. I basically decided within 24 hours that I wasn’t going to be a competitive runner and that I was now going to focus my energy into filmmaking. Which as everyone knows is so much easier to succeed in and sustain yourself than being a professional runner. I started running when I was 13, so I’ve been a masochist for a while now.
But to more directly answer your question: New York obviously had that draw for me, it’s my favorite place in the world. And since I was a kid I knew I wanted to make movies. So that basically only gives me two real options as far as where I can live in the U.S. – LA or New York.
LA didn’t seem right to me. Plus I didn’t know anyone there, and I definitely didn’t have enough money to make the move. So in a way I was “stuck” in New York. I also assumed that I would hate LA, but after visiting there last September, I must say that I actually really like the city. It’s like walking around a David Lynch movie.
RS: You told me that your career really took off while training in the city. In a place as dense as New York I’m sure that surprises a lot of people. Do you want to clear up any misconceptions about city running?
HM: It’s kind of weird because that wasn’t actually a huge concern of mine when I was looking at Columbia. Mostly because my home town isn’t too great for running. I did most of my runs in high school on sidewalks. My coach even joked once that a park to my home town was an open plot of grass with a bench somewhere. So the idea of running on concrete wasn’t much of a detracting factor.
Then, on that van ride from Newark, Will is explaining to me where the team runs and all the soft surfaces they actually have. The running in New York is better than my home town! You have Central Park, Van Cortland Park, and Prospect Park – all large parks with plenty of soft surfaces to run on. Then you can take a short trip up to Rockefeller State Park for tons of amazing trails. It’s almost something I take for granted now. Traveling to other cities in the country, you don’t really get something like this. I mean, Central Park literally being in the center of Manhattan is a godsend. Anyone in the borough can easily get to it for his/her run.
In someplace like San Francisco you have Golden Gate Park, but getting there really is a destination because it’s more on the border of the city. You can’t just decide last minute you’re going to go on a run. It has to be more planned and less spontaneous.
RS: Let’s talk a little about the film series: how did this project start?
HM:This year I had a few different projects lined up, but many of them ended up falling through. So then I found myself with a lot of free time and needing a project to work on. I contacted Paul [Snyder] and asked him more about the different groups in the city and I told him that I wanted to make the series.
For me there were a lot of draws to the project. Obviously you’re combining running and filmmaking, my two defining obsessions, but on top of that you have this massive sub-culture that so many people don’t know about. And I’m not just talking about people across the country, I mean New Yorkers don’t know the depth of this community. Sure, you see runners in the parks, but if you don’t stop to really take notice, you can go your whole time without ever noticing all the diverse collections of people who organize runs with each other. Sure, you know the Marathon, and people who know running will know about The Armory, but when someone thinks of a place with a strong running community, he/she will probably think of Colorado or somewhere in the Northwest, like Oregon. Never New York. And yet, here we are.
It may not be quite as ideal as some beautiful mountain vista out west, but New Yorkers have taken what resources they have and have really done something special. Just take a look at the New York Road Runners website and you’ll be surprised at all they races that are always going on in the city.
RS: What about your personal relationship with the sport made you want to pursue this project in particular?
HM: Like I mentioned earlier, my running career ended earlier than I had hoped. My plan was to run through the age of 28 so that I could hopefully get two Olympic trials under my belt then move on to the filmmaking thing. It obviously didn’t work out like that, and when things went poorly for me after graduating I sort of had a “crisis of faith” with running. That’s the expression I’ve been telling everyone, because running was something I had dedicated 10 years of my life to. Running always came first, and I had made so many compromises and sacrifices through those years.
Would I have wanted to be more involved in film extracurriculars in college? Hell yeah, but I didn’t have the time. Film courses were 4 hours long and practice some days was 5 hours. That’s 9 hours right there! Plus I had homework and needed to get my 8-9 hours of sleep every night. Then to have my last race be a complete disaster was a bit more than I could take at the time. Everything in my life was building to that one moment, you know?
I didn’t have much to fall back on afterwards. I think that was a huge part of the problem, and mostly my own fault. I put so much of my own self-worth in running that after that last race I just hated the sport. Even now I have trouble following results because it makes me uncomfortable that I’m not out there racing against those guys. And yet, I still continued to run. Just not competitively.
At first it was actually a way to help feed myself, where I would help pace people for extra money. And then when I got stabilized with my videography work I stopped pacing, and then took time off running entirely.
I would go a few months without running and be glad that I didn’t have the stress of needing to get my run in, but at the same time, I still felt off. So since graduating I’ve thought a whole lot about running and why I did it. In college when asked why I ran I would usually just say, “because I’m good at it.” Which is pretty much true. It was something I was objectively good at and was sort of my self-esteem safety net.
But since high school I would see people who ran who weren’t the best on the team, or very fast, but they still showed up to practice every day and did the work. I remember thinking to myself, “would I still run if that was me?” I often questioned if those folks actually liked running more than me, since they seem to have more sincere motivations for doing it.
Fast forward to post-college and I am now in that position where I am no longer running to beat people in races. I just run… to run.
That is something that I really want to explore in this series – the different reasons people have for running. Because every different reason is equally awesome, since there are about two hundred billion reasons to not run. It’s hard, time consuming, you’ll almost certainly be hit with some sort of hardship, be it a bad race, an injury, etc., and you end up building your whole life around it. For whatever reason, people still do it.
RS: Who is this documentary for?
HM: For this series, my “true” audience is the person who is having a rough time with running. Apparently nobody used the sports psychologist at Columbia more than the runners. Maybe that’s because running attracts crazy people, or maybe because it’s such an emotionally and psychologically draining sport. After all, you’re competing against yourself more than the person next to you, so when you have a bad race, I think it takes a bigger blow to your psyche than other sports do.
It’s also a lonely sport in a lot of ways. There’s a book and movie titled, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” which is basically the best title there could ever be for something about running. Training alone can be lonely, but when you’re hurt, or just burnt out, this loneliness is magnified times a thousand.
That’s where art comes in. Because art can be a sort of cure for loneliness. Great art can give you that feeling of, “oh, wow, I thought I was the only person who felt that way!” And then you don’t feel quite as bad anymore.
We Run New York isn’t just for New Yorkers, or running junkies, it’s for that random kid who is having a hard time, who may even be thinking of quitting the sport. He or she may be questioning why they even run in the first place, and I want this series to sort of be a pat on the back for them. Some kind words of encouragement to help them get through whatever it may be that is affecting them. A voice saying that it will be okay. If making the series can do that for me, then hopefully watching it can do it for someone else.
RS:For better or worse, has the documentary making process changed your relationship with running at all?
HM: It has, and for the better, I think. It has sort of brought me back to the days of running in high school, because back then the team had a wider range of talent, whereas in college you’re just around psychopaths that live for the sport. Now I’m around the whole spectrum again, and I really enjoy that.
I don’t want this to come off as condescending, but I admire the “fun-runner” in a lot of ways, because he/she seems to have found something with the sport that I am still searching for. So meeting all of these different people has really allowed me to continue my own sort of self-reflection.
I’ve had to get back in shape so I could go on runs with these different groups. I wanted to get to know as many members as possible before I just showed up one day with a camera. I found running with these different folks has really motivated me to get runs in every day. Not just so I’m fit enough to do a long run with someone else, but because it makes me feel good. I’m running 7 days a week for the first time since college, and it’s sort of weird because I’m actually pretty overwhelmed and stressed out of my mind because of this documentary. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day, but I will always make time for my run.
It’s become the thing I look forward to the most each day. I’m racing a 5k at the end of the month, which should be interesting, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the people I’ve met through the project there at the race.
RS: Finally, give us the elevator pitch, what can people look forward to seeing when this project is complete and what are you hoping people will take away from it?
HM: You want a pitch? How’s this? Running sucks. Everyone who runs can tell you that. Ever run during a snowstorm? Every get a stress fracture? How about just feeling heavy during race? You get up early to go out on a run, or you tell your friends you can’t go out to the bar with them because you have a workout. You put in all this work for something that may end up just punching you in the face. It’s sort of like unrequited love.
But we keep going, right? We don’t give up. We do our run the next day. Even when you think you’ve reached your limit, you find yourself back at it again. That’s what unites us. That’s what makes this not just an activity, but a community.
If running is a lifestyle, then that is what I want to show, the lifestyle. Not just the runs people go on, but how they balance their “civilian life” with their running. The little things people do to improve their fitness. The absurdities of it all. So many documentaries focus on moments that are “loud” and sensational, I want to focus on the quiet and intimate moments that linger with long you after you finish running.