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Making The Most Of Being Dealt A Hard Hand

David Carruthers' story about getting back into running is anything but typical.

David Carruthers’ story about getting back into running is anything but typical. 

On a perfect October morning last fall, with temperatures in the 50s and very little wind, 53-year-old David Carruthers is preparing to race the BUPA Great Birmingham Run in England. His nerves are at an all- time high as the greatest distance runner of all time, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, is there to race as well. The half marathon will be David’s first serious racing effort in more than two years. There are 15,000 people on the starting line, and all will be wearing timing chips so friends and family can track them online.

David, though, wears an extra chip: one that tracks him at all times. One that keeps him at home the majority of the day. One that makes sure he gets in before curfew. One that reminds him that life can be awfully tough sometimes.

I first met David Carruthers in January of 2008 at Big River Running Company, a running store I co-owned in Saint Louis, Missouri. David and his wife, Carol, pulled up in a cab and walked into the store on an otherwise typical chilly Midwest winter morning. I greeted them like I would any customer and we struck up a conversation. David had seen me speak at a training run the day before in Saint Louis’ Forest Park at event put on by the GO! St. Louis Marathon. It turned out he had run track as a boy back in Scotland, and at the age of 50, he was ready to get back into running. He was admittedly overweight at 192 pounds. He knew he had a long way to go but was eager to get there. It was a story I had heard many times in the shop and a story that every running store employee across the country hears every single day.

Something was different about this one, though. First of all, why did they pull up in a cab? And what was a guy with a British accent doing in Saint Louis? We take all of our customers’ names and e-mail addresses at the store, and since this guy had purchased a pair of shoes, I looked him up on Google when I had a spare minute and boom, my questions were answered. David had served as the CEO for a company called BETonSPORTS, and in 2006 the U.S. government had arrested him on racketeering charges. He was in Saint Louis on house arrest while awaiting trial.

BETonSPORTS was founded by Brooklyn-native Gary Kaplan in the mid-90s, the beginning of the off-shore gambling craze. Based in Costa Rica, BOS appealed primarily to American gamblers who could not bet legally in the United States. Clients would wire money to an off-shore account, then use it to bet on sporting events that took place in the U.S. and all over the world. The business took off, and by 2000 the company was bringing in as much as $11 million on a single Sunday on NFL games alone.

The business model seemed sound. You live in a place where gambling is illegal, so you send your money to a place where it’s OK and everyone is happy. Kaplan’s success did not make everyone happy, however. His list of rivals was long, and his reputation in the industry was growing darker by the day. Allegations of greed, unpaid winnings, drugs and even threats with guns have come forth about Kaplan during his early days in the business. Kaplan, though, was no fool. He realized that he would need to change the image of his company if BOS was going to continue to thrive.

He turned to David Carruthers to do just that. David, 43-years-old at the time, had been successful in the legitimate gaming world in England since he was a teenager. At 19, he had become the manager at Ladbrokes, one of Great Britain’s oldest betting companies.

David was well-respected in the industry, well-spoken, clean-cut and charming. He was the polar opposite of Kaplan. He was exactly what BOS needed.

In 2004, David managed to get the company publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange, and profits soared. The vast majority of BOS clients were Americans and most were just recreational gamblers, folks who enjoyed throwing a few bucks down on games to add a little thrill to their Sunday afternoons. There were also plenty of wealthy customers, and BOS spared no expense in keeping them happy. One party at their headquarters in the capital city of San Jose included Carmen Electra and the Pussycat Dolls entertaining a number of A-list celebrities as well as the BOS high-rollers.

With bashes like these, BETonSPORTS seemed to be operating like a company with nothing to hide. They ran ads on ESPN, The Howard Stern Show and in The Sporting News. They even parked BOS-branded luxury RVs outside NFL stadiums. The company was everywhere. During that same time, David was very public with his efforts to encourage U.S. gaming regulations.

“You have to wonder when the U.S. will wake up and get a clue on what the rest of the world is doing,” he once said. “You have operators begging to be taxed in the U.S. and all the politicians want to do is try to pass legislation that is aimed at prohibition.”

It was also David’s understanding at the time that because he himself was a citizen of the UK, the U.S. government could not arrest him. That was not the case, however, and in July of 2006, when he and Carol stepped off a plane at DFW Airport in Dallas, U.S. agents greeted him with a bevy of charges stemming from his involvement with BETonSPORTS.

Those charges and the pending trial brought him to Saint Louis and ultimately, to our store. The Big River Running community, as we call it, welcomed David with open arms. It started when he attended weekly Monday night group runs at the store and meeting all the regulars. Runners speak a universal language regardless of class, age, sex or race, and folks like 24-year- old beginner Matt Gibbs, fellow 50-year-old Richard Anderson and even four-minute miler Jeremy Doherty all befriended David, no questions asked.

Almost immediately, David, as is his nature, set goals for himself. High goals. He wanted to run a marathon, and he set his sights on the 2008 GO! St. Louis event as his first foray into the 26.2- mile distance. Just three months after that first group training run and that first visit to the store, David completed the race in 4:05:27. Minutes later, he was planning his next training segment, chomping at the bit to get better.

By that summer, he had already shed much of his extra weight and was participating in our Summer Speed Workouts, tapping into some of that leg turnover he showed as a teenager when he had run 1:57 for 800 meters. David’s big race that summer was the Macklind Mile, our Fourth of July road race that takes runners on a straight net-downhill course and finishes right in front of the store. David, at 50 years old and after only six months of training, ran 5:18. I remember him saying, “I’ll break five next year.”

By this time, my friends and I used to joke that David was living the ideal life for a runner. His house arrest allowed him out only during the morning hours and then again in the late afternoon into the early evening. He had enough time to get up and do his morning run and come back for a second run later in the day, but he could never stay out too late. He was not allowed to work, so his focus became almost solely on his running. We knew the severity of what he was facing, but as the months dragged on and we became closer friends, I think we sort of subconsciously didn’t want his trial to ever come. Plus, at least from our outsider’s view, the government did not seem all that concerned with him. The court even allowed him to travel to the St. Jude Memphis Marathon in December of 2008, where David ran 3:07:29, almost a full hour faster than he had run back in April.

By the time the summer of 2009 came around, David had become a staple on the Saint Louis running circuit. He still wasn’t allowed to drive, so someone would always go pick him up and bring him to group runs or races. It became a ritual for David and all of his running buddies to get a burger and a beer after the Monday night runs. My wife and I had dinner at his apartment more than once, and it was always our best meal of the week. David was quite the host.

It was during those meals that I got to know a little bit more about the ins and outs of the case against him and when I started to realize that David might not be around Saint Louis much longer. At this point, there would be no trial. David and his lawyer had decided to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of 33 months. David hoped that he would be given an even lighter sentence, or in a perfect world, be released on time served, since he had now been on house arrest for more than three years. The judge had the authority to make that decision. It was clear that Kaplan was the real target, but we were worried that the U.S. government was not going to just let David go and waste all the money they had spent on the investigation into BOS.

Despite the looming sentencing, his running rolled right along. One of my favorite David stories occurred in June 2009, just a week or so away from the Macklind Mile. It happened at Summer Speed Work, where David was jogging past fellow 50-54 age-grouper Don Kueneke.

He shouted in his thick Scottish accent, “Are you ready Keuneke?” “You better believe it,” Keuneke shouted back.

David ran 4:58 a week later to Keuneke’s 5:06, making good on his vow one year earlier to break five.

That fall, many of the folks on our racing team were planning to run the Rock n’ Roll San Antonio Marathon in November. We put together a training plan where we would meet every Wednesday evening for a hard workout and every Sunday morning for a long run. David came to every session. His M.O. was that he would go too fast. No matter the prescribed pace, David would find a way to go under it, often to his own detriment later in the workout. That would then lead directly to “the face,” which is what we called David’s expression of pain. I describe it as a sort of contortion of the facial muscles where nearly every possible inch of skin is going in seemingly opposite directions and yet the mouth remains agape to the point that nearly the entire tongue is visible. We loved giving David trouble about “the face.”

We all had so much fun during that training segment and could not wait to make the trip to San Antonio as a group. Unfortunately, and though we did not know it at the time, David’s sentencing date was growing near. The senior judge assigned to David’s case was not too excited about the prospect of someone facing serious jail time making his way to a city so close to the Mexican border. Our letters asking the judge for a travel allowance were denied, and David was forced to stay home.

For the first time since we had met, I saw David let all that was happening get him down, even if just a little bit. It was not what I would call all-out depression, but I could tell the judge’s decision had really hit him hard. After all, this was the judge that would oversee his sentencing, that had his fate in her hands. Three of us on the team took David out one night soon thereafter for some Mexican food and beer. We told stories and asked David about some of the good memories he had from his BOS days. He told us about some of the crazy trips to Asia and the fancy parties in Beverly Hills. I think it was good for him to talk about those days, not in the context of legal speak, but just shooting the bull with his buddies.

The holidays are a tough time when you are away from your family. David had been able to see his wife on and off since his arrest, but she never was able to stay for long. With another Christmas looming, it would be the fourth straight away from his home in the UK and away from his children; Carol has a son and daughter that David raised as his own. David had eaten more than a couple of holiday dinners at the home of his attorney, Scott Rosenblum, who would later refer to David as a friend at his sentencing. That sentencing, we learned, would take place on January 8, 2010.

The Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse in downtown Saint Louis is the largest single courthouse in the country. It stands 29 stories tall and overlooks the entire city. For the four of us who came to watch David’s sentencing, the building’s sheer size seemed to slap us in the face with reality. We had written letters to the judge, asking for leniency, but the size of this building made our words seem very small. The mood was not good.

The hearing itself was not terribly long; perhaps the decision had already been made. Rosenblum spoke, however, and touched on David’s exemplary behavior since his arrest, his standing in the community and even on his achievements in running. He talked about having him over for dinner and how he considered him to be a truly good man. The prosecutor spoke as well. He, too, said he believed David to be a good person but one that needed to pay for his mistakes. David himself read a statement in which he apologized for his actions, saying that he originally did not believe he was entering into anything illegal, then realized he was in a gray area and eventually did know that he and his company were operating outside of U.S. law.

The judge spoke last. She acknowledged what the others had, that David was a good person. We were hoping to hear more positive news, but as she began to speak about what she believed David knew and that it was wrong and that his actions required a punishment, it became clear that any thoughts of a release were ill-conceived. She handed down the sentence as it has been agreed upon in the plea bargain: 33 months in federal prison.

Since David was not considered a flight risk, he returned to his apartment while awaiting word from the government as to when and where he would actually have to serve his sentence. There were a few more runs, a couple more races and eventually one final Monday night about five weeks after his sentencing. We all ate our standard burger and beer and toasted David one last time. It was not celebratory by any means, but it was not sad, either. David wouldn’t let it be. He was upbeat even in that final hour.

The next phase of my relationship with David was that of a pen pal. Prison officials do not allow inmates to use cell phones or the internet. For the first time since I was a kid I was writing and receiving hand-written letters from a friend. I am sure David was thrilled when a letter came his way from any of us but I can speak from experience when I say that we were just as thrilled to receive a letter from the Eden Detention Center.

In one of his early letters, a typically chipper David wrote that he had formed a running club called the jailbird joggers. Eden houses only foreign prisoners, and the group consisted of David, as well as an inmate each from Canada, Ghana, Mexico and Palestine. The “running track” at Eden was a little less than five laps to a mile with six 90-degree turns (picture a fat letter L) and was surrounded by electric fence, barbed wire, flood lights and a gun tower. David was a world away from those ideal running conditions we had joked about in Saint Louis.

His commitment to the sport did not change, however, and a subsequent letter told of the regimen David had his group going through each week.

“We run every day…I even have them doing drills, intervals and a long run!” coach David said proudly. “The guards get pissed when we run in the rain because they have to stand out there the whole time.”

With the majority of inmates hailing from Mexico, there was no bigger day at Eden than September 16, Mexican Independence Day. After an entire summer of running in temperatures as high as 108 degrees, David decided it was time for a reward. He chose September 16 as the day to host the first ever Eden Detention Center One Mile Time Trial. Dozens entered, and the prize was an ice cold Coca-Cola.

David ran his heat at 3 p.m. in front of 600 cheering inmates who had all bet on “Escotia,” which means Scotland in Spanish. In the searing heat, on the hard concrete and on a course with 27 turns, David ran a 5:08 mile. It was good enough to win him that ice cold soda by more than a minute and just ten seconds slower than he had run at the Macklind Mile one year earlier.

As the months wore on, there were a few common themes in his letters. One was his hope of being transferred to the UK to serve out the remainder of his sentence. Another was that he always wanted updates on the running scene in Saint Louis and across the world. David had become a huge fan of international distance running, but his favorite athlete was American miler Leo Manzano, who he had met at a charity track meet our store puts on each year to raise money for athletes in need. Leo won the elite mile in 2009 in 3:55.29, and David was in attendance. The next morning, David met a group of us, including Leo, for a long run. David held on for dear life as long as he could, chatting up Leo the whole time. I think he had to walk back he was so tired. He loved every second of it.

The final theme in all of his letters was his displeasure with the fact that his running shoes were getting old. He left for Eden with a brand new pair of Nike Lunarglides and before long, he had put more than 1,000 miles on them. Like Tim Robbins’ character, Andy Dufresne, in The Shawshank Redemption, who wrote letters begging for state money to fund a new prison library, David wrote to his warden religiously to be allowed to purchase a pair of running shoes from the outside. His requests were repeatedly denied.

In one of the last letters I received from David during his days at Eden, he voiced his displeasure with the situation.

“I’ve had it up to here with the U.S. government,” David said. “They think I should just run in the basketball shoes they sell in the commissary.”

This from a man who had been in federal prison for more than a year, whose assets had been frozen and who would never again be allowed in this country. It was the running shoes that really put him over the edge. By the time David left Eden, he had logged more than 2,000 miles.

David’s dreams of being transferred to the UK came true on April 13, 2011, when he arrived at HM Prison Wandsworth in London. He had spent exactly 14 months in the U.S. prison system, including stops at seven different facilities over three months after leaving Eden. He then spent just over three months in two different UK prisons before being placed under home detention curfew on July 18, 2011.

Three months later, he was on the starting line in Birmingham.

As the gun goes off David Carruthers feels like a free man even if he isn’t exactly. He clicks off his first mile in 6:01; too fast. Pretty standard. He settles down, though, and for the next nine miles he runs between 6:16 and 6:34, setting himself up perfectly to run under 1:25:00. Things get tougher over the last three miles, and “the face” is back. Mile splits of 7:11 and 7:13 ruin his chances to hit his goal, but he rallies with a 6:25 closer to come home in 1:25:34, a new personal best.

In his e-mail recapping the race, he thanked me for my support and made sure to mention that he wore his Big River singlet. He took me through the action, blow-by-blow, making sure to mention how hard the hill was on the miles that were over seven minutes.

“I just don’t seem to have the engine yet to cope with the required increase in effort, my heart rate jumps and it gets tough, if it had been flat I could have rolled on for the final 3 miles OK at 6:15 pace or even faster in the final mile I am sure about that, my cadence was cool and I can keep going,” David wrote. “Now I have to work on what’s next.”

Classic David.

What is indeed next for David remains to be seen, but the possibilities are now endless as he is, for the first time in more than five years, free. He was given his release on November 27, 2011, and can travel anywhere in the UK. Foreign travel will be possible in March 2012. His first trip was the very next day to London, where David and Carol scoped out some running specialty stores in England’s biggest city. David is thinking about opening up his own shop. He is also doing consulting work and has plans to begin a public speaking tour. All of that while training for a 2:50 marathon of course.

I told someone about some of David’s ideas recently, and they asked me if I thought he could do it.

“You better believe it,” I said.


About The Author: 

Ben Rosario is the director of marketing and an online coach for the McMillan Running Company. He is the former co-owner of Big River Running in Saint Louis, Missouri.