How One Portland Documentary Closed the Distance Between a Father and a Daughter

Lex Helgerson’s “Age Group Winner,” about her relationship with her marathon-obsessed dad, screens at Cinema 21 on Tuesday, April 9.

Age Group Winner (Lex Helgerson)

Though she spent six years making a documentary about her father, Lex Helgerson never asked him to sit for an interview.

But that’s appropriate. Jay Helgerson isn’t known for sitting. The longtime Portlander and star of Age Group Winner made headlines in 1980 when he traveled the country, running one marathon each week for a year.

Scratch that. It was 54 marathons. But if Jay finished above the three-hour mark, he took it upon himself to run another 26-mile race that same week in under three hours.

Growing up steeped in Jay’s mythic devotion to distance running, Lex undertook Age Group Winner—which plays at Cinema 21 on April 9—in part to understand her father the person, as he strives to run the Boston Marathon in his mid-60s.

That aim was amplified by Lex herself leaving the sports world behind after a basketball career that saw her play for St. Mary’s Academy in Portland and one year at the University of California, Berkeley. Turning her life’s attention toward acting at the American Shakespeare Center, writing short films, and playing in her band Who Can Sleep, she felt increasing distance from her sports-obsessed father.

“Maybe I was feeling like we were railroad tracks, moving together but never getting closer,” she narrates in Age Group Winner.

As seen in the documentary, Jay is a mold-breaking character. He leaves Lex a voicemail every Nov. 10 to remind her warmly that it’s the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps (in which he served in the 1970s). He also coined the parenting mantra “Run Floss Pray,” which his daughter admits has resulted in excellent dental hygiene.

“I’ve had like one cavity, maybe; I’m quite proud of that,” she says.

But lest Jay be portrayed too much like a drill sergeant, there is both genuine sensitivity and self-deprecating humor to his locomotive monologues and ironic quirks. Among them, Lex points out, is a serious Coca-Cola habit and a complete lack of stretching.

“He can’t touch his toes for his life,” she adds, laughing.

Interspersed with dozens of voicemails from Jay, the director employs a hushed, subjective voice-over in Age Group Winner, partially inspired by Agnès Varda, Lex says. During the 2019 Boston Marathon, for example, we hear Lex whisper, “Shit…,” as she wonders whether the film is hurting Jay’s running.

Part of demystifying her father, though, meant letting the camera roll when he came up short, wincing through full-body agony.

“It’s shocking though, too, because you don’t want to see your loved one in so much pain,” Lex says.

The Cinema 21 screening is an encore of sorts, following packed Age Group Winner showings in 2022 and 2023, plus a 2023 appearance at the Kingston International Film Festival. But in some ways, this documentary’s era has already closed.

Jay, for his part, has kept running. Now 69 years old, he’s preparing for next month’s Boston Marathon, for which he qualified by finishing the 2023 Foot Traffic Flat marathon on Sauvie Island in 3:32:24.

Meanwhile, Lex’s life was forced into a different phase by a rare form of cancer, diagnosed in her late 30s. She spent the last year undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. Cancer-free as of this winter, she’s now working on a one-woman show (titled Off With Her Hair!) about the life-threatening experience.

In turn, Lex admits to feeling “a little detached” from the documentary now, though it’s continued to inflect her relationship with Jay.

In Age Group Winner, her dad repeatedly joke-gripes, “Put the damn thing away!” when the camera is trained on him. But during Lex’s cancer treatment, he began spontaneously recording cellphone videos of his daughter.

“It was kind of like the roles were reversed, and he wanted to be a documentarian,” she says. “He was really involved, driving me to and from treatment and just being present.”

Marathons, documentaries, cancer—it’s an enormous amount of both elective and nonelective struggle to bring Jay and Lex’s “railroad tracks” nearer. But they are closer, Lex says.

Maybe this is just the grand, hardbitten scale at which their lives are operating. Most fathers haven’t run over 200 marathons. And Errol Morris and Agnès Varda never made documentaries hoping their subject would understand them better by the end.

“It’s the plight of the adult child, I think, to see our parents as flawed adult humans,” Lex says. “Maybe that grants the adult child more freedom to be themselves.”

SEE IT: Age Group Winner plays at Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 503-223-4515, 7:15 pm Tuesday, April 9. $12.

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