Running the race of a lifetime

Filmed at the 2012 Rome Marathon amid 12,000 runners, the sequel opens nationwide on June 12. Courtesy of "Spirit of the Marathon II"

Cliff Scott remembers watching "Spirit of the Marathon" and feeling inspired.

The longtime high school cross country coach and teacher in New Jersey recently had experienced the death of a son and was searching for a way through his pain and anger.

He wanted to start living again.

Scott had no idea as he settled into his seat in a dim theater to watch "Spirit of the Marathon" that the 2008 documentary about six runners in the 2007 Chicago Marathon would change his life.

"It blew me away," Scott said. Six months later, he watched it again. That's when he knew the seed was planted. He, too, would fulfill a longtime dream by running a marathon.

"I just knew I was going to do this," said Scott. "I just didn't know when or where."

It came at the 2012 Rome Marathon, and his long journey from grieving father to 62-year-old first-time marathoner is one of seven stories told in the film "Spirit of the Marathon II." The two-year project of director Jon Dunham and producer Gwendolen Twist opens June 12 at more than 600 theaters nationwide. It follows up on the critically acclaimed first film with another very personal look at seven runners from around the world and their very different reasons for running 26.2 miles through the streets of Rome.

"Even though we call it 'Spirit of the Marathon II,' and it's a sequel, it's not really a traditional sequel," said Dunham, who also was the film's cinematographer. "I view it almost as a director's cut because it gave me the opportunity to do some things that I had wanted to do in the first movie but wasn't able to for whatever reason.

"One of the things I wanted to do was I wanted to make a film that was more international, and I wanted to involve more people and more diversity of the backgrounds of these people. That was sort of the concept anyway, starting out."

Though "Spirit of the Marathon II" is undoubtedly a sports movie, the marathon is simply the vehicle for Dunham and Twist to tell the stories of some fascinating people. Dunham knows that runners are likely to embrace this film as they did the first one, but he also is certain it will connect with people who have never run even a 5K.

"The first movie really is about the process of preparing for and the road to the marathon, so to speak, in a very nuts and bolts kind of way," Dunham said. "This one is a lot more emotional. It's really about the people and their own personal life journeys; their own stories that brought them to this particular point where they're running this race."

The subjects are:

• Scott, whose son had died of drug abuse. Though Scott ran almost every day, he'd never run a marathon.

• Ylenia Anelli, a mother of two from Milan, Italy, who took up running to deal with the stresses of running a small running-shoe store with her husband. Rome would be her first marathon.

• Julie Weiss of Los Angeles, who decided Rome would be the first of 52 marathons in 52 weeks to raise money and awareness to fight pancreatic cancer, which took her father's life.

• Vasyl Matviychuk, a veteran elite marathoner who needed to run a great race in Rome to secure the final spot on the Ukrainian Olympic team for London.

• Epiphanie Nyirabarame, a two-time Olympian from Rwanda, who uses her status as an elite runner to bring about positive changes for women around the world and for her country, which still is recovering from the genocide of 1994.

• Domenico Anzini and Mimmo Scipioni, who are Romans, cousins and longtime runners. Anzini, 73, took up running 18 years ago at the urging of Scipioni, and has run every Rome Marathon. Scipioni, the owner of a pizzeria and now in his 60s, has run more than 40 marathons.

The film follows the runners through their preparation, the actual marathon and beyond. The city of Rome, too, has a principal role. After centering the first "Spirit" in Chicago, Dunham was looking for a city abroad that would tell its own more exotic story. Rome struck him as perfect. He weaves into the film Italy's rich running history through interviews with two-time New York marathon champion Orlando Pizzolato, Olympic champions Gelindo Bordin and Stafano Baldini and discusses Rome's experience as host of the 1960 Games.

Plus, the city provides a beautiful backdrop.

"I've been to a lot of places, a lot of big cities all over the world, and Rome is truly unique," said Dunham. "It is very, very special. We had talked very seriously about doing this in London. We wanted to keep the entire movie in English. But after visiting Rome and talking to the race organizers there, we just said, 'This is the place.' And I think it's a much more colorful movie that way."

Filming the race and seven subjects scattered throughout 12,000 runners was a challenge.

Twist, the producer, said on race day they used a camera crew of 135 along with a crane, two helicopters and 16 golf carts with cameras.

"Spirit of the Marathon II" had its first public viewing on June 1 in San Diego, the day before the city's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon.

Dunham, Twist and two of the film's subjects, Scott and Weiss, were on hand at the marathon's expo to talk about the movie and hand out passes for two showings, held in the Gaslamp Quarter, not far from where the next day's race would end.

At the end of the first show, audience members broke out in applause, then stayed around to talk to the cast and crew in a question-and-answer session.

To Dunham, it was gratifying to finally see his work on the big screen and have it warmly received, though he seemed almost too much wrapped up in the project to enjoy it. Having viewed every bit of film and its myriad incarnations in the long production process, he says he sees "every backstory" when he watches it.

Yet he's hopeful it connects with people the way "Spirit of the Marathon" did five years ago.

When he travels to running expos and marathons all over the world -- he's run 25 marathons himself -- he still has people approach him to say how much the movie meant to them and how it inspired them to run their first marathon or tackle another goal.

Because running has meant so much to his own life, Dunham appreciates their appreciation.

"I try not to sound too evangelical about running because I know it's not for everyone," Dunham said. "But my hope is that people will see this and even if running doesn't take with them, something else will. They'll get out and rediscover the bicycle or swimming or tennis or whatever it may be. To be active. I'm passionate about being physically active in whatever form that takes. I think it really makes life more enjoyable."

Scott, of course, was one of those people Dunham touched with the first movie.

As Scott sat in the theater lobby on June 1, waiting to watch himself in "Spirit of the Marathon II" for the first time, he said he was more nervous than he was before going to Rome to run. Yet he was eager to learn the stories of all the runners who ran the race with him that day, most of whom he's never met. He believes a marathon is a perfect storytelling device. Like a book, it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

"All the twists and turns for people to get there, the setbacks, the injuries, whatever drives them," Scott said. "The emotional, the physical, the spiritual issues ...

"You could talk to everybody out there [on the marathon course] and all their different stories are just fascinating."