A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as the old saying goes. For a local husband-and-wife filmmaking team, a race of 26.2 miles started with a busy mom's favorite coffee break.
When Anwar and Laura Brooke Allen founded HumbleDown Productions, they soon became immersed in filming engagement and wedding videos and a variety of commercial and nonprofit projects. But their dream of creating meaningful feature films kept simmering on the back burner until a chance meeting with dedicated local runners led to valued friendships — and a warm welcome into a shared dream that mirrored their own.
"Boston Bound" will be shown at 7:45 p.m. Nov. 7 at Regal Downtown Mall 6 during opening-night festivities for the 26th annual Virginia Film Festival. The new 92-minute documentary follows Boston Bound, a Charlottesville group of runners who train together and support each other's efforts to prepare for the prestigious and demanding Boston Marathon.
"This all started because of my wife," Anwar Allen said with a chuckle. "She would go to the coffee shop and write and journal and read the Bible."
Laura Allen would look up from her reading to notice the same folks coming in every morning — lithe, outgoing types who looked like runners. Before long, she struck up acquaintances with them, and eventually she joined them to chat over coffee and hear their stories.
"They noticed her and took a liking to her," Anwar Allen said. "I always say there's not a person who's not a friend to her."
The running bug bit, of course, and soon Laura Allen was looking back fondly to her school days in competitive sports and wondering how long it would take her to prepare for the Charlottesville Women's 4-Miler.
Before long, she was training with Mark Lorenzoni of Ragged Mountain Running Shop.
"You know Mark; newcomers are always welcomed into the fold," Anwar Allen said. No wonder, then, that before he knew it, Anwar Allen, also a former athlete, started running, too.
"Those guys she was meeting with in the coffee shop? Those were the core of the Boston running group," he said.
Step by step, the Allens learned that running wasn't the solitary pursuit of sterotypes. Their new friends from Boston Bound literally were willing to run the extra mile — or more — to offer practical advice and moral support.
Boston Bound was formed by Lorenzoni and competitive runners Cynthia Lorenzoni, his wife, and Heidi Johnson. These days, there are more than 160 members ranging in age from 25 to about 72, each on his or her own pace to qualify for the Boston Marathon by clocking age group-appropriate times on certified courses.
"It's the last one left that you have to qualify to get in," he said proudly.
Some run the course each year; others might achieve the dream once or twice after years of training, raising funds and running the Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago or U.S. Marine Corps marathons. They refer to the race reverently as "Boston," usually with a starry-eyed smile.
"Each of us in our hearts has Boston on our minds, as a goal or as a motivator," Mark Lorenzoni said. "It is the Super Bowl of our sport, for the common runner. Even the notion of going to Boston is a spiritual feeling."
The spiritual feeling the Allens had? "Let's run the Boston Marathon and make a movie," Anwar Allen recalled with a laugh. "Crazy idea."
As the Allens trained, they realized that the practical dreamers with Boston in their sights were the real story, and worthy of the feature film they'd always wanted to make. And logging their own miles with their new friends showed the Allens that they wouldn't be filming a fluffy zero-to-hero Hollywood ending.
Anwar Allen grasped the devotion of the Boston Bound cohort once when runner Kenny Ball stepped in to log about eight miles alongside him — after Ball had finished his own run.
"This guy runs seven or eight miles of this race with me — a pretty selfless act," Anwar Allen said. "That kind of opened my eyes."
Ever had a music teacher or other mentor tell you that success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration? These runners build their sweat equity every day.
Lorenzoni said the runners are committed to setting attainable goals for themselves and supporting others on their own quests. They balance training with caring for their families and getting the job done at work. When one runner is sick, the others drop by with dinner. Mile after mile, they talk about their children, their dreams, their inner lives; they help each other put one foot in front of the other in good times and bad.
"This Boston spirit — it's real," Lorenzoni said. "It's not an obsession so much as a desire to achieve, a goal."
As for the film, "I think it's going to mean a lot to the running community," Lorenzoni said.
"I hope what comes out of it is that they're a group of adults leading very normal lives. They have that inner drive to get to the most prestigious marathon in the world."
The Allens soon realized that they had a lot more training to do to get ready for the marathon itself, but their new friends cheered them every step of the way through a half-marathon. The couple set a new goal: to train and prepare to do some running in Boston — there's a 5k the day before the marathon that draws many spouses and friends of marathoners who are making a celebratory week out of their Boston Marathon experience — and to film their local friends on the big day.
Both ran in the 5k in 2012. "I ran probably one of my fastest times, because I trained with Mark," Anwar Allen said. "Mark left me in the dust."
Laura Allen said that the experience gave the filmmakers a deeper glimpse of the Boston Bound spirit.
"We'd had this big dream of Boston," she said. "We'd seen it. We'd crossed the finish line."
Both battled injuries that took them out of the running for this year's event, but 21 other Charlottesville runners lined up for the start of the 2013 marathon on April 15. It was Johnson's 12th consecutive Boston Marathon.
Before the last runners had crossed the finish line, a pair of blasts shook the sidewalk, the running community — and the world.
Three spectators died and another 264 people were injured, including many runners, after homemade bombs packed into pressure cookers detonated on Boylston Street. In an instant, the race was over. The fear had just begun.
"When the bombings occurred, I was terrified, because we had people all over the route," Lorenzoni said.
Instead of celebrating their Boston experience and toasting a race well run, shocked runners hunkered down in their hotel rooms while a manhunt for the bombing suspects scoured a frightened city.
Back at home, the Allens heard the news and worried about their friends. The emotions didn't fade even after everyone came home, safe and sound. Finishing the film didn't seem so important all of a sudden. Wedding season was in full swing, and the Allens resumed their bread-and-butter work of filming others' once-in-a-lifetime events.
"Here it was, two weeks after the bombing, and we were feeling really defeated about the whole thing," Laura Allen said. "It was much more personal. It was traumatizing. So troubling."
"Who knows what could have happened if we had been there?" Anwar Allen said. "I might have gotten the greatest footage ever — or I might not be talking to you on the phone now.
"The story stopped being about us and became about [Boston Bound members]. These people mean a lot to me. I realized there was a deep connection."
Laura Allen said that when she bumped into Mark Hampton, one of the local marathoners, he asked how the film was going and made a special request: Finish the film to help other runners bounce back from the tragedy and put it in perspective.
The healing's still happening. That's why Anwar Allen said he put information in the film's closing credits in case audience members want to donate to a fund established for survivors of the blast — "to keep it on people's radar."
Screening "Boston Bound" during the Virginia Film Festival fits right in with the festival's focus on community outreach and participation. When the Allens submitted their film for consideration, the fact that it was a locally produced film about local people had instant appeal.
"It was a great opportunity for us to highlight films that are by local filmmakers," said Jody Kielbasa, director of the festival. "Certainly, there is a strong running community in Charlottesville. The great thing is that we can provide that platform."
"I think that it has international appeal," Laura Allen said. "My hope is that it is our first film festival."
And the Allens are a committed family of runners now — even their daughter, Samaria, a kindergartner.
"We're doing it together," Anwar Allen said. "Her first pair of running shoes came from Ragged Mountain."
Tickets for the "Boston Bound" screening are $11; they're $9 for children, students, seniors and University of Virginia faculty and staff members. To get them, visit www.virginiafilmfestival.org or dial 924-3376. Tickets also may be purchased in person at the UVa arts box office in the Drama Building, which is open from noon to 5 p.m. weekdays.