Desert Runners

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Desert Runners Movie Poster Image
Intense, awe-inspiring docu about extreme marathoners.
  • NR
  • 2013
  • 95 minutes

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Positive Messages

Perseverance and self-control are major themes. Succeeding often requires an all-out effort and "never give up" mentality. Great satisfaction comes from accomplishing one's own personal goals, not goals or opinions of othersActive, highly motivated athletes may upon occasion push themselves too hard, paying a steep price. It's crucial to acknowledge one's limitations in the face of danger.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The men and women marathon runners are dedicated, smart, heroic, steadfast, and self-motivated. Embarking upon grueling, unrelenting athletic adventures, they learn much about their abilities, their emotional strength, and, most vital, their limitations. Their drive and commitment are inspiring. No ethnic minorities are among the featured participants; there is diversity in the teams of runners.


Several of the runners find themselves in danger from the extreme elements they encounter; they become ill, vomit intensely, collapse. On several occasions it appears that runners may be on the brink of death and must determine whether or not they can continue. (Spoiler alerts: A female runner is the victim of an off-camera near-sexual assault, which traumatizes her. The runners learn of the death of one of the participants that viewers have not yet met.)


Occasional swearing and obscenities: "f--k," "hell," "Jesus," "s--t," "bitch." 


Racing the Planet, the company that organizes the marathons, is featured. Incidental visuals of some sporting goods and products (Clif bar, Coca-Cola).

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A runner refers to taking painkillers after an injury.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Desert Runners is a documentary that spotlights four competitors in a series of grueling 250K marathon races held in death-defying deserts on our planet. The film is a visceral experience for the viewers, as well as an inspiring one. These three men and one woman challenge themselves to complete all four events in one year, a feat accomplished by few. The filmmakers do not hold back; they stay with their subjects through exhaustive, debilitating, and life-threatening moments. Heartfelt discussions of what these runners are striving for combine with the camera's focus on very real physical issues (vomiting, blisters) and occasional swearing and obscenities (including numerous uses of "f--k" and "s--t") to heighten suspense, raise the stakes, and heavily invest the audience in the outcome. (Spoiler alert: An off-camera attempted sexual assault and the death of one of the competitors whom we do not meet are treated sensitively but intensify the real-life drama.)

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What's the story?

The driest desert on the planet (Chile's Atacama Desert), the windiest desert (China's Gobi Desert), the hottest desert with temperatures in the range of 111 to 116 degrees (Africa's Sahara), and the coldest desert (Antarctica) provide the challenges for a group of ultramarathon runners who are determined  to cover 250K in each desert within one calendar year. In DESERT RUNNERS, Samantha, an Australian law student; Dave, an English businessman; Rick, an American consultant living in the U.K.; and Tremaine, an English private-security specialist each undertake the marathons for personal reasons, all of which are explored in depth. Filmmakers follow the selected runners before, during, and briefly after all the demanding, life-changing events. Neither the runners nor the filmmakers (nor the viewer, for that matter) could possibly have predicted the endurance required, the life-threatening crises, or the critical dilemmas they will face.  

Is it any good?

Astonishing photography, personalities who engage and inspire, and the all-around sure-handedness and sensitivity of director Jennifer Steinman and her crew help make this an unforgettable film. Audiences will watch in awe and disbelief as seemingly ordinary human beings demand the all-but-impossible from themselves. It isn't necessary to be an athlete or a fierce competitor or even a sports fan to appreciate the people you meet here. By the time the final credits roll, you can't help but feel as though you've been in those breathtaking (literally and figuratively) deserts along with the runners. Steinman has successfully captured the exhaustion, the exposure to the elements, the shattering decisions that must be made, and the emotional journey of each of her subjects. Desert Runners is best for mature teens as the near-devastation that the four central participants encounter is depicted just as it happened.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what drives these athletes to participate in such dangerous experiences in Desert Runners. How can an individual determine for him or herself how much is too much? Where would you draw the line when evaluating whether or not to participate in any activity that may be life-threatening? 

  • Were you surprised by the decisions some of the contestants made? Did you agree with them? 

  • Which runner did you most identify with? Why? What filmmaking techniques did the filmmakers use to bring these people so strongly into focus? 

  • How does Desert Runners promote perseverance and self-control? Why are these important character strengths?

Movie details

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