For prisoners, marathon running is purposeful escape
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Many runners compare marathons to life, translating an endurance “wall” to the mental and emotional challenges they face off the running course.
Behind bars, the incarcerated population give that metaphor new meaning. Running 26.2 miles can help inmates temporarily escape their prison walls for a semblance of freedom and, for some, bring a new sense of worth to their lives.
“Condemned by my friends, family, society and myself for what I had done, I was at my lowest point,” says San Quentin State Prison inmate Jonathan Chiu, sentenced to 50 years to life for first-degree murder. The 36-year-old says he had suicidal thoughts when he first went to prison. “Running a marathon brought me back, giving me purpose and a way to see who I am.”
While more than 50,000 runners will push toward their goals in the New York City Marathon on Sunday, prisoners around the country will train and run their own races. Despite differences in terrain and conditions that are far from the spirited streets and cheering sections of New York, inmates find a similar solace and sense of fulfillment in conquering 26.2 miles. And like those on the outside who run for a cause, prisoners do the same — except their cause is oftentimes centered on remorse for the crimes they’ve committed.
Markelle Taylor was sentenced 15 years to life in 2002 on a murder charge. According to court records, Taylor punched his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach, which led to the death of their child.
After running a San Quentin course-record of 3 hours and 16 minutes two years ago — one minute short of Boston Marathon-qualifying standards — Taylor said he was trying to “show honor and respect to the people I hurt in my case. I owe it to everybody to find ways to show repentance.”
Marathons held inside prisons come with challenges that provide a stark contrast to the hundreds of races held across the United States virtually every weekend. There are no organized stations with volunteers handing out water or healthy snacks. There’s no DJ pumping up the runners with music. But a different type of loud noise gets runners’ attention, and that’s the sound of sirens calling for prisoners to fall to their knees during lockdown.
“It’s unusual when we have a running event and you don’t have 2-3 alarms, which really doesn’t make it easy for marathon running,” says Frank Ruona, the volunteer coach of San Quentin’s 1,000-mile runner’s club. “One alarm had us down for 47 minutes. Come the next day, I found out that the alarm was because one of the inmates on the death-row exercise yard stabbed another guy and killed him.”
Another challenge of a prison marathon, Chiu says, is “we can only run in circles; 26.2 miles equals 105 laps around the prison yard so it’s not point A to point B. It’s point A to point A.”
The San Quentin group begins training in April and holds several races every year, the biggest a marathon on Nov. 16. Ruona expects that race to have 20 finishers — a majority of whom are serving life sentences.
California Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Bill Sessa says most of the club runners have served considerable time and they have to earn their way up to San Quentin’s low-security facility level in the general population to receive running privileges.
Ruona says when he started coaching the club in 2005, only one runner was able to finish the marathon. Now, the club’s marathoners are subjects of the 2018 documentary, 26.2 to Life.
“Most of the guys hadn’t participated in much regular athletic programs before prison,” says Ruona, a marathoner himself who also coaches the elite Tamalpa Running Club in San Francisco’s Marin County. “But once they start running, they get serious about it and set some pretty ambitious goals.”
The outside coming in
At Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Kelley Slayton says no official marathon was in place when he began serving his 14-year sentence in 1991. But the groundwork for a ubiquitous running culture was laid out in the 1970s, when the late Steve Prefontaine visited inmates and preached what he lived: Running is a saving grace.
“Running was my freedom in prison,” says Slayton, who was convicted of six felonies related to drugs. “It gives people a sense of release and achievement. Like 90% of people in prison have never accomplished something meaningful so to run a full marathon is breaking down that (mental) wall.”
Slayton ran his first-ever marathon in 2005 by himself, finishing 114 laps around the prison yard’s blacktop. He was allowed a four-hour window by the guards, and his 3-hour, 18-minute finish gave him enough time to accomplish his goal.
Just a few years after his release in 2008, Slayton qualified for the Boston Marathon, and six years later found himself in the New York City Marathon’s top wave of runners — shortly behind Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi.
“I was in tears reflecting on how far I’d come,” Slayton says of competing in the two premiere U.S. marathons. “At New York, I was just inches away from the runners I used to read about when I was in prison.”
Slayton says after his release he returned to the prison for races as a way to show inmates that rehabilitation can be accomplished through running. He’d often bring others from Oregon’s running club.
“Running saved my life in prison,” says Slayton, now 51 and a counselor at a rehab facility. “I got to prison when I was 24 and I was a drug addict for my first six years in prison. Getting drugs was just as easy in prison as it was outside. But running gave me a way out — not just out of prison, but away from drugs. (Marathon) running became a healthy addiction.
“When people from the outside come into the prison and run with you, it helps show that you can be normal, that there’s something else out there.”
New York and Boston from behind bars
Some marathon-running prisoners still feel a part of the big races on the outside. In some prisons, races are timed to coincide with the starts of the prestigious NYC or Boston marathons.
That was the case for Charlie Engle, who in 2011 ran the New York City Marathon behind bars after being convicted on 12 counts of mortgage fraud. A die-hard runner most of his life, Engle had run the NYC Marathon before being sentenced to prison in Beckley, W.V.
Engle not only ran New York, he ran 30 marathons in 30 days — all behind bars.
“I wasn’t running for glory,” says Engle, 56, who has written books and spoken at conferences about his experience since his release in 2012. “I was running for my own freaking sanity.”
As a former drug addict at Beckley Federal Correctional Institution, Engle would run in place in his cell to avoid the anxiety of sitting still if the facility was on lockdown.
“If you really think about it, in a place where there’s no mental health treatment, running is a form of therapy,” Engle says.
His commitment to running became contagious. By the time he left prison, more than 50 guys had been running regularly with him, and he helped train some to run races on the day of the New York City or Boston marathons by giving them regimens.
“I’d tell the guys to transport themselves somewhere else when they’d run,” Engle says. “They’d be running in their neighborhood back home, saying hello along the way going by their barbershop or favorite restaurant. They could be running at their favorite place they ever visited.”
‘I feel empathy for them’
When inmate Tommy Wickerd runs his marathons at San Quentin, he mentally transports to a place of “freedom” and far from the barbed wire fences and guards.
“I’m with my wife, kids, grandkids, ma and pa or just dreaming of running on the streets,” says Wickerd, who has lost 60-plus pounds since he started running.
Ruona, the San Quentin coach, says the biggest surprise is the diversity of the 35 club runners, which he says is a mix of African-American, Asian, Hispanic and Caucasian inmates.
“They all get along together, and that’s unusual in a prison where races tend to segregate,” Ruona says. “A lot of times people will say, ‘What the hell are you doing associating with those guys?’ I feel empathy for them.”
Ruona doesn’t ask inmates about the crimes they’ve committed. But he often writes letters of recommendation for runners if they come up for parole.
One of them was Taylor, San Quentin’s best runner. He’s the favorite to win the Nov. 16 marathon behind bars, but his next race afterwards might actually be outside them.
Taylor’s life sentence is under review after a parole hearing last month. Ruona says the 46-year-old could be released early next year and if that happens, there’s a chance he could run the Boston or New York City marathons.
Other inmates are envious of Taylor’s chances.
“If I was ever to get out, it would feel like I just won the New York or Boston marathon,” says Wickerd, who is not eligible for parole until 2027. “My eyes just watered. I’m not a crier type at all. Dreams — that’s about all I got.”