With the possible exception of those who talk about their therapies, their operations or their divorces, few people are as tediously voluble about their obsessions as runners. Few obsessions, moreover, appear as boring -- if not pointless -- to the nonobsessed.
The pity is that runners are so passionate about the physical and psychic benefits of their sport they overlook the hedonistic aspects that have been seducing man into motion since Australopithecus ran down his first meal. The best-kept secret in the athletic world is that, once a surprisingly accessible conditioning barrier has been crossed, running becomes not work but play: a serendipitous feast for the senses.
Unfortunately, "The Inner Runner," a half-hour documentary airing tonight on Channel 26 at 10:30, does little to engage its viewers with any such appealing aspects of the sport. Instead it seeks to impress them with the superhuman perseverance of a small group of ultradistance runners in something called the "Chinmoy 24-Hour Race" in New York City in 1982.
It is difficult to imagine a less photogenic contest. In place of the colorful crowds and changing scenery of the country's marathons, or even such ultramarathons as the annual C&O Canal Run, "The Inner Runner" gives us a handful of spectators watching a few people run and walk as many times as they can around a quarter-mile track in 24 hours. Close-ups of pounding Nikes are overlaid with pretentious statements about "self-transcendence" and "discovering what's beyond the physical." Just why the uninitiated should care about all this is never made clear.
Amazingly, coproducers Steven Schecter and Irene Donovan walk right past a half-dozen ways to make their film compelling without ever picking them up. We are introduced visually to Ted Corbitt, a wiry middle-aged black man we are told is "the father of ultradistance running"; a man who has run the astonishing total of 198 marathons. He's obviously a fascinating character, virtually unknown to the world at large, with a stirring story to tell. But the only word we hear from him is "Go!" when he starts the race.
Likewise we meet the event's sponsor, Sri Chinmoy -- an Indian-born New Yorker who has become a kind of unofficial guru of long-distance running. "We are always running after happiness," he says. "Man thinks he can be happy only by defeating others . . . But happiness comes only when we transcend our own capabilities."
The documentary toys with that thought a bit, but we learn little more about Chinmoy, and soon we're back to more shots of running feet and self-absorbed runners celebrating their own perseverance.
"Am I in pain or just fatigue?" a runner asks during the program. The viewer soon begins to ask the same question.