‘Limits’ Is Funnier Than Any Movie About Running Has A Right To Be
11:24 AM EDT on November 1, 2023
Running is, at its core, a fundamentally earnest and aspirational activity. It’s cringe, in other words, and that’s reflected in the (surprisingly extensive) canon of books and movies about the sport, which largely feature bright-eyed young men giving their all. Even the best collection of nonfiction writing ever about running is called Best Efforts.
And yet: As a professional sport, it’s almost exclusively owned and operated by venal, small-minded bureaucrats. As an activity, nearly everyone who participates in it can bond over a story of shitting their pants. This is the stuff comedy is made of! Or, as the former professional runner Daniel Winn put it to me, “If you just watch somebody foam roll, that should already tell you how funny this thing can be.”
That’s the spirit of Limits, the 40-minute short movie that Winn released earlier this year. Winn, who made the movie with cinematographer and director RJ McNichols, plays “Dan Winn,” a vapid, delusional dickhead trying to secure a professional running contract right after college. It may be the first-ever true comedy about running, rather than a comedy that features running, so the bar is low. But if you’re at all familiar with the world Winn portrays, Limits easily clears it.
Money looms over everything in Limits, which Winn and McNichols made on an $8,000 budget provided by a hat company.
Winn’s character—who, it must be said, is shockingly well-acted by Winn—starts out contract negotiations with brands aiming high, hoping for “40 to 70, maybe $80K,” though any suggestion of also getting health insurance is shot down. (Most American professional runners do not receive healthcare through their contracts.) Winn’s self-respect quickly devolves: “$15K and how many hours at Home Depot?” he asks about one prospective offer. But the offers never materialize, in part because of his bumbling agent, who is proudly moonlighting as “an authorized dealer of Whirlpool and Maytag appliance parts,” and in part because Winn just isn’t that fast or charming.
The real Winn is less cynical than the movie might suggest. “I really do love track, and I'm really glad that I pursued it all the way I did,” he said, explaining that they stapled on the final scene “in a panic” because he didn’t want to come across as hating professional running. (Fake Dan Winn ends the movie as a cigarette-blasting high school track coach who describes the events portrayed as the absolute high point of his life. Real Dan Winn is a high school cross country coach at Poly Prep in Brooklyn.)
Real Dan is less entitled, too. Though he only made a $25,000 base salary from Adidas in his lone year as a pro, Winn looks back fondly on his time running with the Boston Athletic Association. He’s also quick to point out that the incompetent agent and brusque college coach in Limits bear zero resemblance to their real-life counterparts. “When I was wearing Adidas gear, you could certainly make an argument that they profited zero dollars from using my likeness,” he says. “There was no justification to demand a nice paycheck.”
That tension, between delusional entitlement and semi-understandable bitterness, is the heart of why Limits works.
“I don’t want to act like I think I have a right to it, or I’m entitled to it,” on-screen Winn says at one point about getting a contract. The joke, of course, is that he does constantly act like he has a right to it and is entitled to it. And yet, the unsaid "But!" that always follows his faux-humble declarations is not entirely unjustified. If only we had universal health insurance, for example, it would be far less risky for broke young fringe athletes to pursue their dreams.
The funniest/most heartbreaking expression of this in Limits is when Winn’s character, furious that he put all of his eggs in the running basket and it’s not working out, begins smashing up a carton of actual eggs. Not content with one childishly literal metaphor, he compares the smashed eggs and lost opportunities—“A lot of people thought I could be a good architect!”—in his life to Sylvia Plath’s fig tree branches in The Bell Jar.
While Winn says he wrote the character as “somewhat foreign to me,” he did have his Night of the Broken Eggs in real life. Ahead of his senior year at Oregon, he says, he panicked. “I went to Oregon to get good at running. That was the point of attending that college,” he said.
“I was at preseason camp heading into my fourth year of college, and my 1500 PR was 3:49.” Good enough to be the fastest guy in any office, but not nearly good enough to pay any bills. “And it finally occurred to me at that moment that, oh, maybe I won't be able to go pro. It hadn't occurred to me up till then, which is insane.” He couldn’t sleep all night until he decided to sign up for the LSAT. Then he ran 3:42.9 before the test date. “I was able to get to that delusional state of mind where I was like, oh, 3:42, I'm going pro, no worries. And I put law school away out of my mind forever.”
(Speaking of times, Winn actually did jog the disastrous race where his character runs 14 minutes for 1500 meters—a brisk walk—at a real pro meet, Portland’s Stumptown Classic, but the timing company apparently stopped bothering to record finishers by the time he was done. Winn is “really relieved” that time isn’t on his official World Athletics profile.)
In one of the movie’s cleverest tricks, Winn interviewed several active professional runners in Portland and New York City in 2022 and did not tell them it was for a fictional project, only saying that it was for a movie about a young runner turning pro. The protagonist’s buffoonery is spliced with frank and informative interviews with top-tier elites like Sinclaire Johnson and American record holder Nikki Hiltz. The fake Winn whines that he’s run just as fast as other guys who have sponsorships because they have more Instagram followers; the real middle distance runner Eleanor Fulton describes the disillusionment of getting her contract dropped just as she was running the fastest she ever had.
The presence and insight of the other pros legitimizes the whole project. It should also be noted that much of the cast of fictional characters is played by professional runners; Craig Engels, who has spent his professional career playing kind of a nerdy version of Kenny Powers, plays a drunken party boy mooned over by Winn’s most trusted friend. “I'm glad that everyone seems to not be embarrassed or disappointed that they got kind of roped into this thus far,” Winn said of the real interviews. “I’m relieved that no one's upset at me.”
The broadest comedy in running, and in Limits, is the embarrassment of having a body, and Winn tortured the hell out of his own to give you the spoofs and goofs within. (He also lists himself in the credits as the “stunt coordinator.”) I suggested there might be more meat on the bone for a more ambitious or expensive version of Limits, and Winn had zero interest. “The physical toll it took on me made me not want to follow up on it,” he said.
His sets were similarly abused. The house where much of Limits was filmed is just a property that his parents own in Portland, Oregon. As Winn’s prospects get increasingly bleak, the small apartment gets increasingly disgusting as cigarette butts and wine bottles pile up. Real Dan was living in the apartment while filming, and occasionally his parents would drop by and be mortified. “My mom would come over and be so distraught at the state of things,” Winn said. “I would say, 'It's for the movie, it's not my lifestyle. It's for the movie, I promise.'”
Winn, being a successful high school, college, and elite runner, and now working with young athletes, had never smoked a cigarette before filming the movie last summer. As his character’s dream starts to collapse, he starts drinking heavily, and in two scenes, smoking cigarettes. Winn says he smoked 20 Marlboro Reds for the two scenes, including 12 in a row as he was struggling to get one scene right, and those were the first 20 of his life. “I was messed up,” he says now. “All day, the whole day, I felt crazy from it.” (Though he says that wasn’t quite as painful as attempting to film a professional-quality track workout while he was brutally out of shape.)
The semi-happy ending for Winn’s character is that he wrangles a $40,000 contract—minus his agent’s 15 percent, naturally—by hooking up with a girl at a bar whose “dad or uncle or relation” is an executive at a running company. While seemingly filming a promotional video decked out in the brand’s gear, Winn’s character wipes out, but the star/writer/stunt coordinator couldn’t quite go full Tom Cruise. “I wanted it to be a full-body shot, and so I was just throwing myself down on the concrete over and over again, but I was still holding back too much, like I couldn't override my body's will to not hurt itself,” he said. So the last we see of Dan Winn, pro athlete, is him crashing out of the frame and then crying on the ground. “I think I need to go to the hospital,” the whimpering runner says. “Let’s not take an ambulance, though. I can’t afford it.”