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The Infinite Race

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The Infinite Race is a Wildly Different ESPN 30 for 30

The Infinite Race Review

ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series wrapped up for the year Wednesday with The Infinite Race, a very intriguing nonfiction film that’s wildly different from most of what 30 for 30 typically offers. 

The Infinite Race, directed by Mexican-American filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, isn’t about any famous athlete or team, or even about events about which most viewers will have heard of previously. Nor is the film geared towards anything on the sports calendar, the way ESPN tends to schedule college basketball-related 30 for 30 episodes around the time of the NCAA Tournament. It’s also not difficult to notice that The Infinite Race has gotten noticeably less promotion from ESPN than these films typically receive. 

Nevertheless, it’s an eye-opening film and a worthy entry in the series. Whatever form 30 for 30 takes in the new year, it should consider telling more stories like this one, from corners of the world not often touched by ESPN. 

Ruiz’s documentary isn’t really about the big race at all. It focuses on the Tarahumara, an indigenous community which is based in Chihauhua, Mexico, and one with a historical attachment to running, related to various aspects of the nation’s colonial past, and more recently, the desire to avoid area drug cartels. 

The community, for nearly 20 years, has been hosting an event called the Ultra Caballo Blanco, an ultramarathon that attracts athletes from around the world, and with it no small amount of media attention. It’s also been credited with inspiring a worldwide ultra-running craze, and even inspiring runners the world over to run barefoot or in sandals.

Infinite Race

A version of this story was previously told in Christopher McDougall’s bestselling 2009 book Born to Run, which at one point was going to be adapted into a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, although it was never made. The book did inspire hundreds of participants to flock to Mexico for the race. 

There’s one unique part of the film that greatly differs from how it likely would have been presented, had the film been made five or ten years ago: It shows that previous media coverage of this culture, mostly centered around the Ultra Caballo Blanco has often exoticized or otherized the Tarahumara people. 

Therefore, the film centers the Tarahumara to tell the stories of their people and their historic connection to running. It’s not a book author or other journalist telling their story; it’s the members of the tribe themselves.

Is this “woke”? Is it another instance of ESPN embracing a liberal cultural outlook in a way that’s likely to alienate conservative viewers? Only if they’re looking to be alienated. More importantly, the approach taken by The Infinite Race is likely the only fair way to tell this particular story. The documentary also raises questions about whether the commercialization of the annual race over time is something Micah True, its late founder and the man they called “Caballo Blanco,” would have approved of.

Infinite Race

“Running is our resistance,” a young activist says early in the film. “It’s a big part of our identity.” And it’s clear that the tribe has long been associated with running not because they want to, but because, historically, they’ve had to.

The film also gets a bit scary in its third act, as the organizers decide to cancel the race due to cartel violence taking place not far away- and the cancellation very much left the Tarahumara community in the lurch.

There’s no question that compared to most of the things even the best 30 for 30 documentaries are about, the stakes for the people depicted here are much higher.

One question is exactly what 30 for 30 will look like going forward. There were only six installments of the series in 2020 — although one of them was the four-part The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius — and the most prominent ESPN documentary of the year, The Last Dance, did not carry 30 for 30 branding. 

Nothing has been announced yet in terms of 2021 documentaries, and while Disney’s massive investor presentation last week included some ESPN programming announcements, it included no future 30 for 30 docs, and it doesn’t appear that next year’s Last Dance-like Tom Brady documentary series, The Man in the Arena, will be a 30 for 30 either. Meanwhile, several of the executives responsible for the creation and production of the series have left ESPN in recent years, putting into question what type of commitment the network has to the series.

Will 30 for 30 endure? Will it become exclusive, at some point, to ESPN+? Or will ESPN occasionally produce documentaries but not use the 30 for 30 name? That all remains unknown. But whatever form ESPN’s nonfiction film efforts take beyond this year, it would be great to see more stories like The Infinite Race

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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