Running Transforms a Town: McFarland, USA

There’s nothing like a story of overcoming adversity to make you appreciate your own life – and make you re-examine your attitude toward many things.

Last night I went to a pre-release screening of McFarland, USA, based on the true story of Jim White, the high school cross-country coach in the town of McFarland, California, and how he built the team into state champions. While there’s plenty of running, the story is more about the characters – the coach (played by Kevin Costner) and his family adapting to life in an overwhelmingly Hispanic community, and the struggles of the kids and their families to escape from the lifelong grind of working as pickers in the Central Valley orchards.

Movie poster (source: Wikipedia).

Movie poster (source: Wikipedia).

Once past the first 10 minutes, an awkward, clichéd “fish out of water” sequence as the White family arrives in McFarland, the story takes off. Jim forms the cross-country team and turns them into dedicated runners, making mistakes and dealing with their frustrations and family challenges, but never giving up on them.

So what adversity did the McFarland runners face? Start with getting up at 4:30 a.m. every day to work in the fields until school started, then after school going back to the orchards to train for 10 miles or more. On weekends, and when school was out, they worked all day, every day, in the fields, along with their families. And they’re up against better funded, better trained teams from privileged schools. Jim uses this as motivation.

“At the end of a race,” he tells them, “it’s all about who can stand the pain. You guys have the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen.” And they prove him right while coming to believe in themselves and their potential not just as runners, but as people.

There are some really good scenes of the kids running through the orchards and up and down tarp-covered mountains of almond shells while Jim accompanies them on an old bike. A low-paid teacher, he somehow finds the funds to equip the runners with shoes and uniforms. To help establish trust with the local families, he spends a day in the fields harvesting cabbage, with predictable results.

Piles of almond shells, like the kind used for hill training in the movie.

Piles of almond shells, like the kind used for hill training in the movie. (See Almond Girl’s blog for lots more about almonds.)

The acting is absolutely first-rate. You’d expect that of Costner, but the other actors, the kids in particular, also shine. I totally bought in. I thought the re-created meets and races were also very well done – long enough to satisfy the runners in the audience but not too long to bore the non-runners. (Let’s face it, if you don’t have someone in the race to root for, watching a race is akin to, well, watching golf.)

As it’s a Disney production, naturally there is a happy ending, but you don’t mind because it actually happened. There’s also a surprise at the very end of the film which I won’t spoil for you, but I have to say was really heartwarming, in the true sense of the term.

Watching the almond-hill climbing reminded me that I’d kissed off my own scheduled hill work last Tuesday, choosing instead to finish an important assignment at work. (That it was dark, cold, and snowy outside may have also contributed to my decision.) Still, what did it say about my own dedication to my training? They did back-breaking work in 100-degree weather and still trained. I get to sit in a temperature-controlled office all day, and I worry about a puny six miles with some hill repeats?

“Well,” my daughter said as we left the theater, “now I feel really good that I went out for my run this afternoon. I don’t have to feel guilty.”

“Thanks for that,” I said.

======================

P.S. Once calling themselves, “The Heartbeat of Agriculture”, McFarland transformed its image around its runners. Click here to see how.

Bonus: Click here for more talk with Jim White, and a few differences between the movie and the real-life story.

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2 responses to “Running Transforms a Town: McFarland, USA

  1. I’ve heard very good things about this movie. Great review, I can’t wait to see it either!

  2. Can’t wait to see it!

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