Two men from disparate backgrounds run side-by-side, battling hate and prejudice under the watchful gaze of the prison guard towers
Most days, I begin my morning next to a baseball scoreboard, beneath a gray sky and a sun just poking out through the marine layer that blankets the San Francisco Bay. I stretch my calves and hamstrings and then simulate a few strides. “I’m glad 2020 is finally over,” I think to myself as I bounce up and down. I look out onto the Yard, which had once been full of medical tents during the summer of 2020’s nightmarish COVID-19 outbreak.
I take a few deep breaths and expel them from my lungs. I see Darren, Mike and Tommy, some of my white teammates, already out on the track. I am happy to see them, remembering how they also survived their bouts with COVID-19. I smile, greet each of them and I set out alone on my five-mile run beneath the gun towers on the Lower Yard at San Quentin State Prison.
Except for the masks being worn by guards and some incarcerated people who aren’t running or working out, it feels like things might be getting back to a sense of normal. But who knows. The uncertainty surrounding vaccines and new Covid variants still has everyone worried. We are still being ordered to practice social distancing and our v olunteer coaches have been prevented f rom coming i nside the prison.
In the 1000 Mile Running Club, of which I’m a member, I run alongside all races, colors, and creeds. Our total membership includes about 50 people ranging in age from 20 to 70. About half our members are White, many are Black, Latino, Asian or Middle Eastern. What brings our diverse group together is one common goal — to be better people.
When you’re in prison there is a constant cloud hanging over you, reminding you that you committed a terrible crime. The system tries to convince you that you’re horrible, perhaps even unforgivable. The culture inside pressures you to keep to your own kind. I’m Black, which means I’m supposed to hang out near the basketball courts in the lower recreational yard. But in the 1000 Mile Running Club, we face no cloud, no judgment, only the exhilaration of our footfalls and our heavy breaths as we run side by side.
The club was started 15 years ago by an educator named Laura Bowman. Five years after she started it, Frank Rouna, a 75-year-old U.S. Army veteran and a USA Track and Field certified coach, took over. Rouna remains the coach today. When he comes in, he often brings an impressive team of coaches, including Olympic gold-medalist Eddie Hart, three-time Olympic trial qualifier Diana Fitzpatrick, and Ultra Runner Dylan Bowman. Rouna also makes sure we get new running shoes each year.
One of my running pals is Tommy Wickerd, a former White Supremacist with a bald head, muscular frame and arms covered in tattoos of Nazi insignias. Whenever we find each other on our running track — a treatcherous and uneven, asphalt and gravel ¼-mile circuit in the Yard with six 90-degree turns — I tell him, “You sure make it look easy.” His response is always the same: “1000 Mile Club!”
Tommy and I have shared prison-made protein bars and seafood burritos, which is something that we would have never done earlier in life. In some prisons, men are beaten or stabbed just for trying to be friends with people outside of their own race. I’ve only had a few white friends in my life. I grew up being called the “N” word and other derogatory names, starting at 8 years old. I learned quickly my ancestors were slaves. Most of my family left Mississippi and came to California hoping to escape the Ku Klux Klan, so I’ve never felt equal enough to have white friends.
The Club for us is an escape from feeling the weight of being considered the scum of the earth. It is a place where we are allowed to grow, to change, and learn from our mistakes. It makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something and serving a higher purpose. With the club we experience an exuberance, and a stillness of mind and body. Without it, it’s like standing in place holding up a ton of bricks.
That’s what it felt like for most of us in 2020, when our practices and events were canceled and the coronavirus swept through San Quentin in one of the worst outbreaks in the country.
At the beginning of 2020, we were running about 25 to 30 miles a week with the intention of increasing our training to 40 miles a week. Tommy and I had an ambitious goal to run the 2020 marathon in three-and-a-half hours. In May, we were about 400 miles into our training when some incarcerated people with infected with Covid-19 arrived from another prison.
Shortly after, I was sitting in my cell one morning, in June, when I realized that I couldn’t smell my coffee, my breakfast, my soap or toothpaste. I couldn’t smell my cellie taking his morning constitutional. I became light-headed and short of breath. My heart and head started pounding.
For the next three weeks, I could barely get out of bed. Outside my cell, I could hear men call out “Man down!” every 20 to 30 minutes. Dozens of people were being rushed to hospitals, while others were kicking on cell doors screaming, “Let us out!” Men were being taken to different parts of the prison to be quarantined. The local news kept reporting deaths every day. Within a few months, Covid-19 had affected over 2,000 of us and killed 29, including one officer.
After I healed, I still couldn’t leave my cell. We were being kept confined waiting for Covid to finish its assaults. I was left pacing the floor. My appetite returned slowly, but I was barely sleeping. I tried to meditate to stay calm, but I often found myself clenching my knuckles and wondering if my friends were alive. I thought often about the 1000 Mile Club and how it had changed my life.
Before joining the 1000 Mile Club I sat around eating and watching T.V. most of the day. My weight was more than 40 pounds above my body mass index; my blood pressure was in headache range. I didn’t know the first thing about hard work, discipline or focus. I actually vowed to never run a marathon. But my motivation came when I learned about the Club.
Before the pandemic, I had run a total of almost 4,000 miles, including three marathons and four half-marathons. I still remember my first race in 2017 like it was yesterday. I started slowing down at the 13-mile mark. The last five miles felt like I was trudging through six feet of snow. My stomach was in knots, and my hamstrings were seizing up. My arms started dangling. My breath became panicky. A sip of water hurt. What kept me moving toward that finish line was everyone cheering for me — people of all races — my teammates, coaches, prison staff, doctors, nurses, and teachers. At every turn, someone was there nudging me forward, running beside me, clapping or yelling words of encouragement. I ended up finishing the race in four hours, and I was hooked. Running had awakened something inside of me. It freed me from that feeling of hopelessness and death that is normally associated with prison life. It allowed me to exit the physical world and enter into a spiritual realm. I felt a sense of freedom and renewal of my being.
That marathon taught me a valuable lesson about how strong I am as a person and how focused and disciplined I could become when I really want something. It also taught me that you can’t cheat the process.
You have to work hard for what you want in life and we can all bring out the best in each other, regardless of race. We need each other.
I spent most of my young life being hateful and isolated, but my teammates taught me how crucial it can be to love and support one another. We spend more time together on the track than we would at any other rehabilitation program at San Quentin. We practice together about six times a month and we have monthly running events to keep us focused for our biggest event, the annual marathon in November, which requires us to run the yard loop 105 times. Long-distance running encompasses everything you need to become a responsible human being. It teaches one how to be resilient, disciplined, focused, self-determined, and sociable.
When rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6th, myself and others inside were just as shocked as everyone else to see white people breaking windows and beating each other up. But it reinforced that well known idea of how much racial tension still exists in this country.
Shortly after the Capitol attack, Tommy and I had a conversation about what happened during one of our runs.
“It reminds me of how ignorant I was 19 years ago as a White supremacist gang member,” he said. “A lot of White people feel they should be treated better than everyone else in this country, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re all the same. We’re all human beings.”
Some White people can’t handle the truth. This country is a melting pot of immigrants. This ongoing struggle for racial equality and our deep political divides will continue to boil over until people come to grips with the fact that we’re stronger together as a nation. Until people learn some of the lessons we take from running: how a community can be so much stronger if we stand together.
Since I recovered from Covid-19, I have been running a lot less and my lungs have been burning a lot more. But the habit has stayed with me, and I know that my body will heal in time. I still lace up my running shoes, grab my water bottle and my music playlist. I listen to Eminem and Drake, as I run five miles, three times a week. I still start out next to the baseball scoreboard and I still see Tommy and the others, and a hopeful energy surges through my body. I still set out running. I still know that change can be made, lap by lap.