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“I went to college for four years and I got good at one thing that no one will pay me for,”
says Dan Winn, the protagonist of Limits—a new tongue-in-cheek “documentary” about a former NCAA standout who tries to secure a professional running contract. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because the real Daniel Winn was an all-American at the University Oregon. Limits is his creation; he wrote the film and stars as his eponymous alter ego. The movie is directed by creative content producer RJ McNichols, who, in another meta twist, plays the part of “world famous documentarian and track broadcasting personality” Jeff Merrill. The conceit is that Merrill wants to shadow Winn as the young track star navigates the fraught process of turning pro. It is very possible, Merrill informs us early on, that Winn has the “list of accomplishments, character, and satisfactory facial composition” necessary to secure the prospective “five-figure contract of his dreams.”
Maybe it’s because I’ve become so accustomed to the self-deprecations of (aspiring) professional runners on social media, but Limits, which was released on YouTube earlier this month, makes it seem like there’s no better subject for a Christopher Guest-style send-up than the naive endurance athlete who is overly bullish about his chances in the professional market. The jokes are so well-calibrated that it’s kind of shocking that the concept hasn’t been tried before. Early on, Winn is concerned about whether his eventual sponsor will have the right “politics.” He even has the temerity to ask about health insurance on an informational call. (“No? OK.”) Before long Winn experiences various abasements: He gets ghosted by his agent. His college coach informs him that he has no interest in maintaining their athlete/coach relationship. Eventually he must endure the ultimate humiliation for the wannabe pro distance runner: Getting stood up, last-minute, on a Facetime call with Under Armour.
On the one hand, you could argue that Limits is essentially a 40-minute long inside joke for running dorks. The film includes footage of interviews with actual pros like Nikki Hiltz and Sinclair Johnson about the process of getting to the next level, which are spliced into the faux vérité rendering of Winn’s bumbling efforts to do the same. There are several winking references to some of our favorite cliches. (“I’m investing in myself,” Winn says while face down during a deep tissue massage and cupping treatment which, alas, he has no PT budget to pay for.) Even the title is a riff on Without Limits, the cloyingly aspirational Prefontaine biopic from 1998. And I suspect that many of the people who watch Limits will be familiar with the accomplishments of the real-life Daniel Winn. When I emailed Winn asking about his film’s intended audience, he told me that, ultimately, he’d be satisfied if his project ended up being “just something for the running community.”
But the spoof documentary genre has always thrived on exposing the everyday weirdness of insular worlds and subcultures—from This Is Spinal Tap’s (1984) taking the piss out of the inherent silliness of heavy metal rock, to the immortal Best in Show (2000), whose subject is the mania of hardcore dog show participants. (Part of the charm of these films is that the deadpanning extends to a certain kind of physical humor. Watching Winn go through his dynamic stretching routine in Limits, I was reminded of the prancing handlers in Best in Show.)
It also helps that Winn is very good at playing “Winn.” He has a knack for pulling off lines like: “It’s been downhill since then. Not in a bad way—just downhill.” His talents are on full display in a scene where his character tries and fails to get a “normal person job” and is suddenly confronted with the grim reality that he has staked his future on a dream that might not work out. “I put all my eggs in one basket,” Winn says, before extracting a fresh dozen out of his refrigerator and hurling the contents on his kitchen floor. Then he starts quoting Sylvia Plath. Then he goes on a protracted bender and becomes a smoker. Nobody can tell me that this stuff will only appeal to running fanatics.
But to what extent is Winn the writer/comedian just playing a version of himself? There’s enough biographical overlap between the real and fictional Dan Winn to view Limits as a kind of absurdist biopic. When I brought this up with the real Winn, he pushed back on the notion that his movie is a satirical take on his own running career. (Winn briefly ran professionally for the Boston Athletic Association.) “Although there are a few details that parallel my own experience, at the end of the day it’s mostly fictitious,” Winn says. “There’s more emotional truth—to borrow Hasan Minhaj’s term—than actual truth in the film.”
Unlike the recent controversy surrounding Minhaj’s work, which is centered on the comedian’s melding of fact and fiction in his standup and satirical news shows, nobody is going to mistake Limits for a true account. Nonetheless, and in spite of myself, I felt a twinge of pathos for the fictional Mr. Winn and his thwarted ambitions. Nevermind that the whole thing is meant in jest. Like much of the best comedy, Limits has an undercurrent of melancholy: It’s a reminder that most youthful aspiration ultimately goes unfulfilled and that the joke, in the end, is always on us.