Independent documentary filmmaker Christine Yoo ventured into San Quentin to film how incarcerated runners in the 1000 Mile Club create a life out of life sentences.
When I hit the yard that Friday just after 7 a.m., several fellow runners were already awaiting the expected 9 a.m. arrival of the camera crew.
My fellow runners and I are men who changed our lives and are eager to be seen for who we are now, instead of the guys who took the perp walk on the news decades ago.
Except for cameras stationed around the yard, a woman wearing a baseball cap directing people and a camera operator running along side us from time to time, the 10-mile race went as normal.
Markelle Taylor took first place, Eddie Herena edged out Chris Scull for second. Steve Reitz came in fourth, and Tommy Wickerd broke the 50-and-over record with a time of 1:14:12, securing sixth place. Mike Keyes, 69, broke the 60-and-over record for 10 miles in 1:21:06.
Newcomer Brandon Waters, 21, joined the club that morning and completed the race. He doubled the most miles he had ever run alone, with a time of 1:16:20 for seventh place.
“I like the motivation and competition that came from running with the club,” Waters said.
As usual, I came in last with a time of 1:49:04. Therefore, I was surprised when Yoo announced that Taylor, Wickerd and I were going to be among the featured runners in her film because we represent different aspects of both running and prison.
Yoo is a seasoned filmmaker. She directed, produced and co-wrote her debut film, “Wedding Palace,” which starred Brian Tee (“Chicago Med”), Bobby Lee, Margaret Cho and Kang Hye-jung (“Oldboy”). Also, she co-wrote “Afro Samurai,” which starred Samuel L. Jackson.
I asked Yoo why she thought anyone would care about a bunch of convicted murderers running around in circles. She talked about the correlation between incarcerated people and their backgrounds including drugs, poverty and broken families.
“People make mistakes, but they’re still human,” Yoo said. “I hope this film will inspire people and provide them with a better understanding of the nuances of the lives of the incarcerated.”
Yoo, a “non-serious” runner, said she connected with the humanity of incarcerated people after working on a screenplay about Eddie Kang, an incarcerated man she believes is innocent. Their similar backgrounds and shared Korean-American heritage gave her empathy for the incarcerated.
After completing the race 49 minutes after Taylor, I still managed to catch up with Wickerd. He told me about overcoming a background of gangs and drugs and the difficulty of being a parent from prison.
“My son is everything to me,” Wickerd said. “He’s the reason I changed. When he was 5, I was about to make a bad decision, but my mom looked at me and said, ‘you’re his only parent.’”
After the boy’s mother died, Wickerd’s wife adopted him.
“She pushes me to be a better person,” Wickerd said. “Without Marion, I’d be a basket case in here. She’s working two or three jobs and making sure I’m a part of society. With that kind of support, it makes it a totally different life in here.”
Wickerd says he’s been discipline-free for 17 years and drug-free for 15.
Wickerd said, “At a banquet at Lancaster, my mom said, ‘You’re finally the son we raised you to be.’”
After talking with Wickerd, I introduced myself to production assistant Finn Kupel, who by the way, is also a member of indie band Charlie’s Dream Life. It was her first time inside a prison, and I wanted her hear the perspective of prisoners.
“People here are more respectful than those outside,” Kupel said. “Some people I talk to described an intense sense of camaraderie and a support system that offers a sense of escape and connectivity.”
Kyle Ballard, owner of Runner’s Mind, came out to analyze the runners’ gaits.
The certified gait analyzer advised runners, “It’s not about going as fast as you can go, it’s about running efficiently. Running is more mental than physical.”
So is making a life out of a life sentence.