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Running Inside The Walls Of San Quentin State Prison

The San Quentin State Prison marathon program offers reform—and a rare, fleeting glimpse of freedom—for inmates serving hard time.

Rahsaan Thomas circles the prison’s 400-meter course.

The breath of 18 inmates is still visible in the air at 8 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2016, as they line up for the start on the west side of the prison yard. Standing under the San Quentin State Prison “Field of Dreams” scoreboard wearing white and grey, mesh and cotton, they stand in stark contrast to the mandated all-black dress code of the volunteer coaches and lap counters of the 1,000 Mile Running Club.

A row of sweats, hydration and nutrition awaits runners of the seventh Annual San Quentin State Prison Marathon. Chris Scull’s repurposed Sriracha bottle filled with an electrolyte solution lies on top of a pair of sweats. Chris Schumacher, a diabetic, has saved up a stockpile of jelly packets from mess hall-issued peanut butter and jelly lunches that he plans to take every 6 miles. Markelle Taylor’s lap counter waits for him with a Snickers Bar. Lorinzo Hopson has no nutrition at all, but will be strongly encouraged to drink throughout the race since he collapsed at mile 23 during the 2014 marathon, which required medical attention for dehydration and shut down the prison yard for 15 minutes.

Head coach Frank Ruona shouts some last-minute instructions at the start. “One hundred and four full laps. The 105th lap you stay inside on the baseball field. We’re going in one and a half minutes! Make sure you hydrate. Be smart. One minute!”

“T-minus one minute!” an inmate chimes in.

Markelle Taylor looks nervous. He could barely sleep in his cell the night before thinking about his attempt to break the 3-hour barrier. Coming off a successful period of fall training where he completed just over 25 miles in three hours, a 1:17 half marathon, and 59 minutes for 10 miles, Taylor has a shot at breaking the San Quentin Marathon Open Record (which he set in 2015 in 3:16:07) and becoming the first person to run under three hours in prison.

Others, like Tommy Wickerd, have been anticipating this morning for 364 days. Some ate a few slices of leftover pizza for breakfast and hope for the best, while others set out to run as far as possible through injuries because running, they explain, has become like breathing.

At coach Ruona’s command, the runners set off on the 400-meter loop course underneath the prison yard watchtowers past palm trees and barbed wire, along the dirt of the baseball field, up through the blacktop passing the basketball courts, and loop down past a 19th-century dungeon. Many of San Quentin’s population, including these runners, are serving life sentences for murder or manslaughter. It’s the only prison in the state of California with a death row. Security is tight.

       Coach Frank Ruona notes times and checks laps.

Six minutes into the race, Taylor, whose stride can be described as long and loping, has already separated himself from the group as he approaches the 1-mile mark. Without any warning or notice, all inmates in the prison yard drop to the ground. Coach Ruona sighs and notes the time on his clipboard, which will later be deducted from each runner’s final time.

A minute later, the runners get up and continue on. This “yard down” drill, which can signal anything from a conflict to routine prisoner transport, repeats five more times over the course of the marathon for a brutal total of 53 minutes, a new San Quentin Marathon record. Obviously, the runners of the San Quentin Marathon navigate  different challenges over their 26.2 miles than those in your average road marathon.

“It’s not pretty scenery. It’s fences and walls and barbed wire. You can kind of look over the wall and see a mountain a little bit, but for the most part it’s not really motivating landscape,” says Rahsaan Thomas. He’s 46, and has been here 15 years, serving a 55-years-to-life sentence. He describes his dream marathon as running in his hometown of New York City. His original reason for wanting to run a marathon stemmed from Puff Daddy’s completion of that same marathon.

“I don’t believe Sean Puffy Combs is tougher than me. No way,” says Thomas, who laughs heartedly at his own jokes. “If he  can run the marathon, I figure I need to be able to do it too.”

So far his longest distance is a half marathon. Today he covers 5 miles before bowing out to the sidelines to support fellow runners with tough-love comments and to cover the story for San Quentin News, the prison’s inmate-run paper. Thomas describes the link between running and writing as both being therapeutic outlets.

“Growing up, I was told I was going to be dead by the time I was 18,” Thomas says. “I kept being told that so much that I embraced it. I said if I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die fighting. I embraced hopelessness and was doomed because I bought into that mentality.”

In prison he turned to writing to leave a positive legacy to his son and mother. He has developed a writing career from prison as the sports editor for San Quentin News, a co-founder of Prison Renaissance, a contributing writer for the Marshall Project, and the author of the book Uncaged Stories.

“I think the way we write it out, we run it out,” Thomas says. “Run out our pains, our frustrations, our difficulties. One crazy thing about this club is I think we run for a penance. We don’t get a trophy or a Scooby snack or nothing for running a marathon. There’s no Olympic gold medals, and yet so many guys are out here dedicated.”

Frank Ruona, head coach of the 1,000 Mile Club

The 1,000 Mile Club is one of several volunteer-run programs at San Quentin State Prison. The prison sits on a prime piece of waterfront real estate in the affluent San Francisco suburb of Marin County. UC Berkeley journalism students volunteer with San Quentin News. Marin Shakespeare Company teaches weekly classes. With a relatively stable prison population, inmates have several opportunities to get involved in rehabilitation opportunities. For these runners, that involves training on a 400m loop day after day.

As the sun rises over the wall and lights up the prison yard, runners shed gloves and hats as the temperature rises into the upper 50s. Other than occasional encouragement from coaches and spectators, the yard is quiet enough to hear the unique rhythm of each runner’s stride on the packed dirt of the baseball field as they  chip away at 26.2 miles, one 400m lap—with six different 90-degree turns—at a time.

The course, much like their life inside the walls, is monotonous and challenging, and yet something about it is freeing.

Participants and coaches for the 2016 marathon.

“It’s such a privilege working with Frank and the coaches,” says Chris Scull, who would go on to finish second with a PR of 3:37:39, or what he refers to as first in the “non-Markelle division.” “It transports me out of prison for three hours every Monday night and on these event days, I’m just another member of society,” he says.

The program has come a long way since Frank Ruona first got a call from the prison’s community partnership manager in 2005 asking about getting involved in a running program at San Quentin. Ruona, then president of Marin County’s largest running club, Tamalpa Runners, forwarded on the request in a club newsletter. After getting no response, he decided to check it out himself, approaching it like he does the weekly Tamalpa track workouts he still leads every Tuesday night.

Ruona was originally a basketball guy, playing basketball his first year at Santa Clara and later coaching his son. He spent four years as an officer in the Army and 25 years in construction. As competitive age-group runner, he ran workouts with the inmates until the pain and effects of a fractured hip he first sustained in 2003 gradually sidelined him. At 71, Frank is now retired, and spends more time at the prison. Through the years, he has gathered a small group of runners from Marin County to volunteer as assistant coaches, including Kevin Rumon, Diana Fitzpatrick and Dylan Bowman, the latter of whom is a professional ultrarunner sponsored by The North Face.

Ruona’s involvement extends beyond the walls of the prison. In 2014, he got four former 1,000 Mile Club members coveted spots in Marin’s famous Dipsea trail race. He’s visited hospitals, courthouses, jails and basements from California to Washington to keep up with paroled members, providing them assistance with jobs, character references, run training, and an invitation to lunch when needed.

“I’ve become much more aware over the last few years of some of the things these guys have encountered in life,” Ruona says, explaining his experience hearing the burdens of a criminal record in reentry to society and the frustration of figuring out how to survive in the current justice system.

“They tell us that [us] coming in means a lot to them, but we get as much out of it as they get out of it,” he says. “You feel good about doing something good for them. I’m a fairly devout Catholic, and Jesus said, ‘When I was a prisoner you visited me, and when I was hungry you fed me.’ I’m just trying to do some good.”

Chris Scull was the runner-up, finishing in 3:37:39.

Ruona smiles when he recounts one of the runners on the team telling him and the other coaches that completing the marathon was the first time he’s set a goal and seen it through to the finish.

He isn’t an overtly excited or talkative coach, but the words and actions he uses leave an impression with the team. “Frank don’t really say too much. He’s kind of quiet,” says prisoner Eric Moody, who would struggle to make it through 8 miles of the race. “He noticed I haven’t been coming out here lately, but he bought me some tennis shoes anyways. That lets me know that he’s thinking about me and giving me some encouragement to get back out here. Good man.”

Edward Scott, who is sidelined from the marathon awaiting a decision on foot surgery, describes his transformation since joining the running club. “I was always antisocial because of some of the things that happened at the other levels, so breaking that cycle and learning to trust was huge for me,” says Scott, 48. “As I’m going back into society, I know it’s O.K. to accept help.”

Marathoners leaving the start line.

Like a lot of the runners, Scott started at a Level 4, or maximum- security prison, where speaking with the wrong person or walking in the wrong part of the yard could be life threatening. “In my life on the street I was always in the shadows,” Scott says. “It’s helped me come out of my shell.”

As predicted, Taylor wins the marathon, but at 15 miles his effortless stride becomes labored and his pace slows from 7:03 to 8:19 per mile. He crosses the line in 3:21:19, slower than his record-breaking time last year, and bends over in exhaustion as he receives cheers from coaches and runners.

“It was tough. This was the hardest I’ve ever run,” says Taylor, looking like someone who just came in fourth at the U.S. Olympic Trials. A teammate approaches behind him and offers a bottle of water to splash the salt off his face.

Taylor, 43, has been in here serving a life sentence since 2004. He ran cross country and track for two years in high school, and started running in prison two years ago when he saw the stress inmates experienced of facing the parole board and being denied. He thought it would help him stay on track.

Taylor views each race as an opportunity to make amends as part of his 12-step program for addicts and alcoholics by dedicating his run to a larger cause. He’s run for different ailments and people like his mother, who suffers from diabetes, but today he ran for people who struggle to forgive others as well as themselves.

Markelle Taylor, San Quentin’s fastest runner

“Running … it’s just something  that it does,” Taylor says. “It helps you to think and be positive, and everything is good with running. It’s been great working with Frank. He reminds me of my high school coach, Don Dooley. He was like a father to me. My stepfather died and I never knew my father, so Frank is like a father to me. The coaches like Kevin are like my uncles. Dylan is like my brother. Diana’s like mom. We’re like a family.”

His disappointment with his race fades when he describes what running provides him. “These guys here are all brothers, especially the two guys I train with, Chris and Eddie. I call them my little brothers. We push each other and train each other.”

Tommy Wickerd met his goal of finishing the race.

As runners continue toward the finish line, Ruona points to fourth-place finisher Tommy Wickerd, who at 49 years old is a decade into serving a 57-year sentence, and says that a year ago he was 35 pounds heavier. After failing to complete the 2015 marathon, Wickerd set two goals: to get his GED, and to complete a marathon. Today he finished one of them in just over four hours.

“I love running,” he says, elated after his finish. “It takes me away from prison.”