Ray Duckler: From marathoner to citizen to film star, Guor Marial just keeps going

Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013
Like the marathons he runs, Guor Marial’s journey seems to go on forever.

And like the times he posts, his story just keeps getting better.

Locals know about Marial, about the Sudanese civil war that’s killed so many family members, and the cultural and language barriers he faced at Concord High, and the college scholarship he earned at Iowa State University, and the hassles he faced to compete in the summer Olympics as a man without a country.

In this latest chapter, Marial adds U.S. citizenship, officially granted on Feb. 22 after 14 years living as a refugee. And there’s an upcoming documentary based on his life, produced and directed by a Worcester filmmaker who recently walked the red carpet as an Oscar nominee, and who stood next to Brad Pitt that night in the, um, bathroom.

Marial, meanwhile, sounded like he’d won an Academy Award when contacted yesterday at his home in Flagstaff, Ariz., where he’s training for next month’s Boston Marathon.

“I just wanted to say thank you because my citizenship process was a very long process and with just myself, I don’t think it would have been possible,” Marial said. “I wanted to thank the individuals who helped me this much, making this happen, including Sen. Shaheen and her staff. They’ve been working so hard for me, they allowed this to happen, and I want to thank all the people back in Concord, N.H., including the Samuel family and coach (Rusty) Cofrin and my former high school and my guardian and everyone. Without them, I don’t think I would be at this point, and without them, I don’t think I would have made it to the Olympics. I can’t thank them enough for all the things they did for me.”

As you can tell, Marial is thankful.

And why not?

He lost 28 relatives, including his brother, in the Sudanese civil war. But he got away, escaping murder and kidnapping and slavery, leaving that life behind. He then excelled at cross country and track while at Concord High, and did the same at Iowa State University.

Acceptance into the London Olympics last summer, though, was as rocky as a dusty trail in his homeland. Without a national committee in newly independent South Sudan, Marial couldn’t run for the country he loves.

And without full citizenship here, he couldn’t run for the other country he loves. And with no allegiance to Sudan whatsoever, he refused to run for the country that slaughtered so many.

Thankfully, the International Olympic Committee eventually woke up, just days before the games began, allowing Marial to run as an independent athlete.

The world soon discovered what we had known for years, that Marial was more than a marathon runner.

He was a great story.

Massachusetts native Bill Gallagher read about Marial in Spain, where he’s living with his girlfriend.

“I was sitting in a coffee shop here, and I read an article online in the Huffington Post,” Gallagher said. “I shut my computer, and said, ‘I have to talk to this guy.’ Within a couple of minutes I had gotten his cell and I was talking to him on the phone and he was super charming and I knew this was something special.”

Marial’s agent took care of the details, making sure this was a worthwhile project. Credibility wasn’t a problem, since Gallagher was part of a team that had been nominated for an Oscar earlier in 2012 for their documentary, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, about organized violence directed toward those who exploit the environment for profit.

Said Marial, “I didn’t know until later on when I started reading about Bill and his work. That’s when I came to say that Bill is a very credible person and he has done good film work. That’s when I knew he’s the right person to do that kind of documentary.”

Gallagher and his crew met Marial in London, filming what they could without media passes. “We had to do it on the fringes,” Gallagher said. “We were able to film him on the (marathon) course and we could film right outside the Olympic Village. It was a limited time we could shoot there.”

Marial, though, pitched in. “We sent him a camera so he could film behind-the-scene stuff and his daily life in the Olympic Village and meeting other runners and him eating and him training,” Gallagher said. “He’s been a great source, and that’s what’s cool about this. He recognized the significance, what this does mean to South Sudan and refugees everywhere.”

Marial finished 47th in a field of 105 runners, in 2 hours, 19 minutes and 32 seconds. His story, gaining momentum with every stride through downtown, led to an impromptu celebration, a parade in the streets of London.

It was, Gallagher knew, a filmmaker’s dream.

“The whole world caught wind of this story, and it caught fire and the South Sudanese came out,” Gallagher said. “They really mobilized; they thought it was so exciting, and we filmed that and it was super cool.”

Gallagher will film Marial’s experience at next Sunday’s New York City Half Marathon. Then comes a segment from next month’s Boston Marathon, where Concord friends are expected to bus down, adding a local flavor to an international subject.

But perhaps the most compelling part of the documentary will take place in early May, when Marial returns home to see family and his newly independent homeland. Gallagher hopes to release his movie early next year.

He thinks Marial will be treated to a hero’s welcome. “I think so,” he said. “That’s what’s so interesting in getting there and filming to find out.”

Marial has other ideas about what the trip should mean. “If it can show something about South Sudan and their lives there,” he said, “it will be really great.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)