Journalist inspires students with empowering documentary

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Bekah Ashley


News Editor

It’s day three of running the Swiss IronTrail, a 125-mile race through the Swiss Alps. Rebecca envisions a Chevrolet on the side of the mountain, then dogs running along side her. She tries to pet them but they disappear. These hallucinations last for the next two hours.

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Byerly gets ready for the Tahoe 200.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says under her breath.

Rebecca Byerly is a journalist, filmmaker and ultra marathon runner from Pleasant Garden, North Carolina. Her latest project was creating a documentary called “Women of the Mountain.” The film focused on the narratives of six women, three who ran the longest ultra marathons in the highest mountain ranges and three whose ancestors lived in those mountains for thousands of years.

Since the production began a year and a half ago, Byerly and her film crew traveled to the Himalayas, the Alps and the Sierra Nevada to document the stories of the women competing in the ultra marathons and tell the parallel stories of women who live in these difficult terrains.

The project is about much more than ultra-marathon running. Byerly says her goal is to show people everywhere they are capable of far more than they can ever imagine.

“The film is born out of the belief that we can always rise above. The women we profile refuse to be defined by gender, culture, age or the parameters their society sets for them,” says Byerly. “They remind us that life is not about finishing first; life is about going beyond your perceived limits.”

In addition to producing the film, Byerly ran each race with the marathon runners profiled.

“I would never know what it feels like for the women we are profiling to run with 40% oxygen at 18,000 feet in a 135 mile race through the Himalayas or be on their feet for 56 hours with no sleep in a 125 mile race through the Alps if I did not also compete in these events,” says Byerly. “The experience has strengthened my relationship with the women in our film, made me a better storyteller and given me a much deeper understanding of the mountains we are running through.”

In August, Byerly and her crew came to Tahoe and began preparing for the Tahoe 200, the first point to point 200 mile race held in the U.S. It was the final race Byerly ran and the crew filmed for the production.

“It took over a year to find a race in North America,” says Byerly. “ I wanted a race that was a first time event, over 125-miles and at elevation. When I heard about the Tahoe 200, I knew that was the race for us. What could be more epic than a 200 mile ultra marathon?”

In this race Byerly profiled Tawyna Dozier, an American with five kids under the age of eight, four of them siblings adopted at the same time out of foster care.  She works full time and competed in the Tahoe 200 along with her husband.

“I really wanted to profile a mom in this race,” says Byerly. “Tawyna shows that even with five kids it’s still possible to make time for yourself, take care of your health and pursue huge athletic achievements.”

The film highlights Tawyna running through the mountains.  The voice of the Washoe, the local Native American tribe, narrates the film and tells stories of the peaks and passes the race goes through. The Washoe have been in the Lake Tahoe area for thousands of years. Their creation story starts in the lake.

“There are only a handful of people left who still speak Washoe,” says Byerly. “It’s very likely that the language will disappear and many of these ancient stories will be forgotten in our lifetimes. That’s exactly what we profile these indigenous mountain cultures in their own language. It’s so important that their stories are told while there are still people here that can share them.”

Before Byerly began the production of “Women of the Mountain”, she spent seven years working as a journalist in India and Asia for the New York Times, National Geographic, Christian Science Monitor, Discover Magazine, CNN and other media organizations.

COURTESY OF WOMEN OF THE MOUNTAIN  Byerly in the Himalayas connecting with the women of the mountain

 Byerly in the Himalayas connecting with the women of the mountain

According to Byerly, one of the most important lessons she learned from living and reporting in the subcontinent as well as in Egypt, Afghanistan, Kashmir, China, Libya and Nepal is that if we can empower women, we can change the world.

“This belief, combined with my background growing up in a family where domestic abuse was prevalent and a love for running led me to produce and direct ‘Women of the Mountain’,” says Byerly. “Each woman we profile tells an inspiring story and serves as a role model for people everywhere.”

Two of the women, Aparna Choudhary and Anke Dresher, who were profiled in the film are from India.  Choudhary is the first Indian woman to ever complete a 135-mile race that reaches 18,000 feet in the Himalayas.

“For Aparna, the greatest challenge is putting on tennis shoes every day and enduring the ridicule of a society that is hostile towards women,” says Byerly.

Dresher is a woman who lives in the Swiss Alps. She is a runner who was one of 35 people to finish the 125-mile race through the mountains.

“At 47, she is no longer fast enough to compete professionally, but doggedly refuses to quit,” says Byerly.

Another woman profiled in the film is Karan Fahndrich, 54, of Pontresina, Switzerland, who led the first female cross-country ski team in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. According to Byerly, both Dresher and Fahndrich are examples of how life goes on after competitive sports.

“They overcome the challenges of age and show that in life we can reinvent ourselves,” says Byerly.

The film also profiles Thinlas Choral, a Himalayan native who grew up without a mother and was determined to be a mountain guide.

“The people in Thinlas’ community told her she couldn’t do it because of her gender, she answered by starting her own trekking company that now employs 26 women,” says Byerly.

The first cut of the “Women of the Mountain” trailer was released on Oct. 17 in New York at the Explorer’s Club, a non-profit organization that promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air and space. The full movie will be released in 2016.

While in Tahoe, Byerly trained at the Incline Village Recreation Center where she met students from Sierra Nevada College.

“After I met Rebecca I researched her project,” Senior Peter Freund said. “It’s inspiring to see a journalist sharing stories about people that would not otherwise be told, stories that motivate people to see past trying times.”

Freund introduced Byerly to a member of the Wild Women of Tahoe, a club started by Senior Marina McCoy in the beginning of the semester. According to McCoy, the goal of her club is to create a sisterhood on and off campus where members empower one another to embrace outdoor activities, self-love, friendship and their wild feminine nature.

Documentary mountains-McCoy shared the Women of the Mountain trailer during a club meeting on Thursday, Oct. 30.

“I’m in love with Rebecca’s project and all of the concepts behind it,” McCoy said. “It’s really inspiring to see more women empowering other women through extreme sports.”

The Wild Women of Tahoe are working on setting up a time for Byerly to present the trailer to SNC and the Lake Tahoe community. On Monday, Nov. 3, club members sent an event proposal to the Student Government Association.

“Each club member who has seen the trailer and learned about the documentary is a 110 percent for it! We’d like to bring empowering films like this to our campus,” McCoy said. “We are hoping to have Rebecca present at SNC toward the end of November, fingers crossed!”

Byerly says she looks forward to sharing the film with non-governmental organizations, companies around the globe, and schools and universities such as SNC. The film will also be entered at the Banff and Telluride Mountain film festivals and submitted internationally to other festivals that highlight women, the humanities, the environment and adventure sports.

“Producing and directing a film is a lot like running an ultramarathon,” says Byerly. “It’s a long process that is full of highs and lows. To finish you have to believe that you are capable of much more than you can imagine and remain steadfast in your determination. This film is a compilation of stories of women from all over the world who remind us every day that no matter what we are facing in life we can always Rise Above. This is the message I want to share with students at Sierra Nevada College and people everywhere.”





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