For prisoners, marathon running is purposeful escape

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.”

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