A masters track film for the ages: ‘Racing Against the Clock’

I saw our movie this week. By “our,” I mean just that. “Racing Against the Clock — a beautiful documentary by Boston-area filmmaker Bill Haney — belongs to all of us now. It’s our anthem and our showcase.

'RATC' features five female American masters tracksters. It's on DVD.

The film was screened Wednesday at an Edwards Cinema in Newport Beach, Clifornia, on the second floor of a swank mall called Fashion Island that boasts Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and valet parking. (The McDonald’s has a wide, flat-screen TV mounted on the wall.)

Only 70 were in the audience at the start of the 11 a.m. showing, though. The movie was one of 350-plus flicks at the Newport Beach Film Festival. It screened just once.

Haney and his crew at Uncommon Productions focused on five champion masters athletes — all women. Wise to pick women, since when they open up, they open up. Amazing stories flowed. Haunting ones. All unforgettable.

“Racing” starts out with a visit to the Boston indoor nationals in March 2003 and introduces world-everything Phil Raschker, jump star Leonore McDaniels, thrower and jumper Margaret Hinton, and sprinters Pat Peterson and Jacqueline Board.

Over the next 80 minutes, Haney reveals the lives of these athletes in a subtle but powerful way. He lets them talk. And he doesn’t talk over them. No voice-overs to steal thunder or spoil the magic.

The film does employ such Hollywood accessories as background music (both stirring and amusing, supplied by a Boston musician named Flynn) and super slow-mo (caught via 16mm film), but you can tell it’s not a multimillion-dollar project. The titles and credits are familiar to anyone with iMovie software in their Mac.

But enough of mechanics.

Let’s talk about the film’s spirit. The movie just grows on you — even if you already know these athletes. (I know four of the five; only Hinton is left for me to meet.) By its conclusion, you ache for Phil and Margaret as they deal with their own physical pains.

Over time, Haney reveals more and more about the five — their past lives and careers, their struggles, their dreams. He uses Ken Burns-style black backdrops for head-shot interviews. He takes us to their hometowns and inside their houses. In the case of Hinton, we meet folks at her nursing home. We see a robed Peterson praying at church, and accountant Raschker slaving over a computer in her home office.

But most of all, we see masters in competition. Gorgeous gobs of it. Such a visual feast! Aside from the Champions Tour (the geezer golf circuit with ex-celebrity pros), it’s rare to see senior athletes in muscle-straining motion.

Three venues are featured. Besides Boston, we see the National Senior Olympics in Norfolk, Virginia, and the World Masters Athletic Championships in Puerto Rico in July 2003. (Including one of its famed monsoons.)

I enjoyed picking out my friends. In the Boston sequence, I saw Jim and Debbie Selby (the father-and-daughter champions from Fallbrook, California). I saw Lynn Naftel and Kathy Jager (both of whom joined my wife for 4×1 relay gold at Maine in 2002) and Johnnye Valien (who turns 80 this fall). I saw Earl Fee and some other fellow Canadians, including sprint great Harold Morioka.

Publisher Suzy Hess of National Masters News has an interview cameo at Boston, as does USATF publicity chairman Bob Weiner.

But a tinge of sadness comes in seeing Everett Hosack in his last major meet. At Boston nationals, our elder statesman was 101. He’s shown fast-stepping the 60-meter dash in his blue sweatpants and gray long-sleeved shirt. He died 16 months later in North Carolina.

Also sorrowful was glimpsing Leonore’s husband, Russ, her biggest fan. He also has since passed away.
After Boston, the bulk of the film is given over to the five women. They share their life stories in a way newspapers and magazines can never do. (I was envious.)

From Phil, 57 at the time, we learn how she was born in Hamburg, Germany, the product of a British father and German mother. Her parents never married, and Phil grew up with her mom, angry at her absent dad.

Despite her legendary prowess, Phil confides: “I’m just not a confident person away from athletics.”

From Leonore, also German-born, we learn how a traditional American housewife grew into a world-record-buster in her late 70s.

From Jackie, then 50, we learn of her sharecropper-hard youth, one of 13 children in the South. How she struggled in poverty after divorcing a man “who slept with anything that moved.” How she plucked a roach out of the ear of one of her three children. And how she overcame all that by earming undergraduate and master’s degrees. (She’s now a Boeing software designer, working on flight simulators.)

From Margaret, in her early 80s, we learn of her Texas grit. A shoulder injury at the National Senior Olympics comes only four weeks before the Puerto Rico worlds. At worlds, she struggles mightily with the pain. Despite a torn rotator cuff, she quickly learns how to do the hammer throw left-handed. She wins the bronze.

But perhaps Haney’s favorite star is Pat Peterson.

A film devoted exclusively to her life would be in order someday.

Pat is a cancer survivor. She overcame two bouts, in fact. The film shows her oncologist, a young lady who explains how she had to persuade her bosses on treating Pat. (“She holds all these world records!”)

Pat underwent what I took to be an experimental therapy, becoming the oldest person to receive a stem cell transplant. No doubt saved her life.

Now in her late 70s, Pat is shown sprinting in phases. Not the drive phase. The smile phase. Most every time Pat is shown dashing up the lane, she starts out serious. Then we see her breaking into a grin. Now we understand why.

On a visit to Pat’s church, she’s shown tearing up while reading a prayer. Typical of most masters athletes, she’s mature and multidimensional. And it’s rare for any outsider to grok the nature of our niche. Haney gets it.

Unfortunately, the movie has been seen by few outside the Film Festival circuit since its September 2004 premiere at the Boston Film Festival.

Debra Longo, a 36-year-old co-producer of “Racing Against the Clock,” was the film’s representative at Newport Beach. After the screening, I sat with her for a chat.

She says Haney came up with the idea for the film after witnessing an earlier Boston masters nationals, where a lady friend of his was competing. With two cameramen and his co-producers, he traveled the circuit. The crew also journeyed to Georgia to see Phil in her native habitat; to Mesa, Arizona, to see Jackie training under Athens long jump champion Dwight Phillips; and to Texas where Margaret apparently has this wild-woman rep at the nursing home where she lives.

They shot 100 hours’ worth of film and digital video. It was truly a labor of love, since “Racing” isn’t likely to make a box-office killing.

More likely, it’ll continue to be shown at film festivals and perhaps shown on PBS, where an earlier Haney product, “Gift of the Game,” was shown nationally.

A DVD release is possible this fall, timed to coincide with the San Sebastian world meet and the Edmonton World Masters Games. Longo said her company also hoped to do special screenings for track clubs. They also are hoping to score an appearance at Robert Redford’s Sundance festival in Utah.

But this film transcends track and field. It shows the power of sports to transform dutiful housewives into champion athletes. And so it has the potential — like masters track — for life-changing inspiration.

The average age of the Newport Beach audience seemed well over 50, but we need this film shown to our kids and grandkids as well.

Thanks to masters track, we have a sport of our own. Thanks to Bill Haney and his crew, we now have a film of our own.

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April 29, 2005