Culture

Watch: Golden Hour — The Best Hour in Ultrarunning

Hear the backstory and see the trailer of a new documentary about Western States 100 which debuts online this Sunday.

The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is the worlds oldest and most storied 100-mile trail race. The elite runners at the front of the field can finish in under 15 hours. But the races most exhilarating finishes happen in double that time, as everyday people try to finish under the 30-hour time cutoff. Known as the Golden Hour, the final hour of the race is a celebration of persistence, courage, and grit.

I first learned about this special moment in the sport of ultrarunning in 2016 when I came across an article written by 7-time Western States finisher Andy Jones-Wilkins titled, “The Lore of Western States: Golden Hour.” Jones-Wilkins referred to Golden Hour as a time of high drama, near misses, and celebration — and as a documentary filmmaker, I began to see the ingredients of a compelling narrative.

Missing: A Film to Honor the Glory of  Golden Hour

I started a deep dive search, looking for any videos I could find of epic Golden Hour finishes. I saw videos like this one from 2015, in which 70-year-old Gunhild Swanson finished the race in 29:59:54. I got misty eyed watching clips like this, and I saw a huge opportunity.

The only videos of Golden Hour were shaky cell phone clips from spectators. There was no film out there that treated Golden Hour with the reverence it deserved. And there was no film out there that could speak to an audience of non-runners to make them understand the story and journey that goes into crossing the line at 29 hours and 59 minutes.

So, in 2019, that is what I set out to create: A film that would honor Golden Hour and the runners at the back of the pack, a film that would illustrate Golden Hour as a symbol for the sport of ultrarunning — a sport in which those who finish last are celebrated just as those finishing in half the time.

The only problem was that, when I arrived at Western States, I had no idea who was going to finish in Golden Hour. Think about it — most running films out there follow an individual runner from the start line to the finish line. But I didn’t know anyone running the race, and I couldn’t ever predict who would finish within a specific hour 2 days away.

Photo: Austin Meyer

That’s when I came up with a plan to identify individuals to feature in the film. During the pre-race expo, I showed up with a paper sign that read “Making a film on Golden Hour. Talk for 5 minutes about your excitement for the race?” I stood in the middle of the expo for hours holding that sign. And every once in a while, some brave soul would volunteer to chat.

That day, I interviewed 8 individuals. Going into race day I just crossed my fingers that at least one of those people would be a Golden Hour finisher.

Western States, you may know, is a backcountry event with very little cell phone service. That posed another challenge for my fellow cinematographer Patrick Pelham and me. We had to follow the progress of 8 runners over the course of 100 miles and 30 hours. So to make sure we would have footage of each runner, I instructed the crews of my interview subjects to take cell phone footage throughout the day. Then I knew, even if I didn’t see them on the course, I would have their story covered in some form.

Finally, on Sunday June 30, 2020, at 10 AM, it was time for Golden Hour. The final couple hundred meters of the race takes place on the Placer High School Track. Crowds line the track and the grandstands cheering people in. To cover the moment, Patrick and I had 4 cameras running simultaneously for the entire hour: I ran alongside people on the track with a Sony A7sii on a gimbal, had a camera on a tripod at the finish line, a GoPro shooting a time-lapse at the finish line, and Patrick picked up additional closeups and slow motion shots to fill in the gaps.

Did one of my pre-race expo interview subjects finish in Golden Hour? Did anyone finish in the last minute of the race like Gunhild Swanson did in 2015? You’ll have to watch the film to find out!

Watch the Trailer Here

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Watch the Film Sunday

Golden Hour will be released on June 28, 2020 at 10:00 AM on the Austin Meyer youtube channel. Tune in for this inspirational story that captures the beauty, struggle, and spirit of ultrarunning.

Author/Film Director Bio:

Austin Meyer is a freelance documentary filmmaker, photographer, and ultrarunner. He is a National Geographic Explorer, winner of the New York Times’ international reporting trip with Nicholas Kristof competition, and a former LA Times videographer. His work has been published by The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Slate, POLITICO, and more. His films have premiered at the American Documentary Film Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival, and Trail Running Film Festival.