Known for running marathons around the world with homeless people, Judge Craig Mitchell visited a state prison with about 20 other runners for a race with the San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club.
“This was an experience none of us will ever forget,” Justice Mitchell said.
On Oct. 13, about 21 people from all walks of life – college students, formerly incarcerated men, film & fashion industry people, a college professor, community volunteers, recovering addicts – traveled from Los Angeles to take part in the event. They represented either the Skid Row Running Club, Back on My Feet organization, or the Long Beach Running Club.
Cass Snyder, who works in the fashion industry, noted that by joining the Skid Row Running Club she met “a cross section of people I would have never met before. It’s really cool.”
At 8:30 in the morning, Snyder and the other visitors gathered with about 39 incarcerated men from the 1000 Mile Running Club on the Lower Yard in front of a baseball scoreboard that reads, “San Quentin Field of Dreams.”
While waiting for the race to begin, the groups mingled.
“The conversations all of us have enjoyed – I’m just overwhelmed by the wisdom and inspired by the commitment to do good with your lives,” Mitchell said. “We will take this outside and let people know the stereotypical images need to be obliterated.”
The day marked the first time ever outside running clubs participated in a race with the 1000 Mile Club members at San Quentin.
The 1000 Mile Running Club, which began in 2005, consists of incarcerated men and community volunteers, mostly from the Mount Tamalpa Running Club, who coach them. Every year the group starts training in January to run a marathon in November.
The Skid Row Running Club came about after Judge Mitchell responded to an invitation to visit the Midnight Mission, a shelter, food kitchen and rehab center. Roderick Brown, a man Mitchell once sentenced as a young man, gave Mitchell the invitation.
Mitchell decided running could help the people at the Midnight Mission. Thereafter, the Skid Row Running Club was born.
Rafael Cabrera, who served 27 years in prison, including 1984-86 at San Quentin, helped the Skid Row club arrange the race with 1000 Mile Club Coach Frank Rouna. Cabrera returned as a free man wearing a t-shirt that read “Finding dignity one step at a time.”
Cabrera first met Judge Mitchell, who was a deputy district attorney at the time, at his lifer parole board hearing.
“I read his c-file and thought I was going to meet one type of person then he came out and I had to put my material down,” Mitchell said. “He was a completely different human being.”
The parole board denied Cabrera a date, even though Mitchell decided not to oppose his release. Afterward, Cabrera wrote Mitchell a thank you note. Mitchell wrote back and they maintained a correspondence for seven years.
“It was a happy day when he came into my courtroom a free man,” Mitchell said.
Cabrera was happy to be able to enter San Quentin through the front door, especially knowing he could leave after the race.
Ten minutes before the race began, 1000 Mile Coach Frank Ruona made announcements.
First Ruona announced that the day would be Eddie Herena’s last race inside a prison. Herena paroled two days later.
Herena, who is about 5 foot 2, won two marathons during his time at San Quentin. He held the 1000 Mile Club’s top runner spot until Markelle “The Gazelle” Taylor joined the club and broke all his records.
“I’ve been part of the 1000 Mile Cub since I’ve been here,” Herena said. “I wanted to make a final impact. I would have loved to have beat Markelle. He’s just too fast but the races don’t stop here.”
The next announcement signaled that Herena may get a chance to race Taylor at a marathons outside the prison in 2019. The 1000 Mile Club celebrated the news that Taylor just received the day before – the parole board found him suitable for release.
Also, the 1000 Mile Club took the time to sing happy birthday to their founding sponsor, Ruona, who turned 73 years old the next day.
Christina Yoo, who is currently making a film about the 1000 Mile Club called 26.2 Miles to Life, also ran for the entire hour, and was thanked by 1000 Mile member Lee “Timbuktu” Goines. Goines, who is 61 years old, also took the time to thank his coaches.
As the countdown began for the 9:00 AM race, dozens of runners crowded the starting line. Normally, races around the San Quentin Lower Yard involve about 25 runners dodging geese to run in circles for hours seeing the same people and the same sights. This race felt like the San Francisco marathon with some 63 people involved, several of them women.
For Goines, who has been incarcerated over 32 years, running with outside community members brought back memories of his days running the New York, Boston and Los Angeles marathons. For this race, he ran with Elizabeth Sanchez of the Alternative to Violence Program in LA and full-time student Brenda Nguyen.
Nguyen heard about the Skid Row Running Club on NPR on her way to school. After seeing the documentary she joined the organization as an act of service
“People give me high fives and seem motivated just by my showing up,” Nguyen said.
Goines agreed. “It’s wonderful to run with people from the outside, they motivate me.”
Nguyen added, “It was a sound run. We talked the entire time about his life. I’m looking forward to seeing him achieve his goals.”
With so many runners, each person had to count their own laps, but Taylor started in front and ended in front, with Herena just behind guest Kevin Chalk, who took second place.
Taylor completed 9-1/8 miles in the one hour time limit while Chalk completed 8-3/4 miles.
1000 Mile Club member Chris Scull, who trained with Herena, tied him with 8-5/8 miles.
Ben Reynolds, a 44-year-old from New Zealand who moved to Los Angeles a year ago, completed 8-1/4 miles to take fourth place.
“I tried to catch the Gazelle and Eddie but they were too fast,” Reynolds said.
Another of the Skid Row Club runners was law student Jordan, the son of Judge Mitchell.
The 32-year old joined a few years ago because he appreciates its purpose and mis- sion.
“It’s always good to give when you can,” Jordan said.
About his dad, he added, “He sets an example I can aspire to.”
Professor Maryanne Hillier, who teaches at University of Southern California, said her purpose for taking part in running with the Skid Row club is because, “People in urban communities don’t feel like they are a part of society,”
“We’re trying to meet them were they’re at to encourage them.”
The 1000 Mile Club appreciated the visit. Club member Eric Moody, who completed seven miles, found the race inspiring.
Artmas “Tee” Ware of the Skid Row club also enjoyed the day.
“It’s a blessing, man, to be able to share this experience,” Ware said. “This is big. God willing, I will tell my grand-kids.”
After the experience, Cabrera said, “We were thrilled with the opportunity to run with people that were part of a running group and really enjoyed it. Running is freedom for them as much as it is for us.”
Judge Mitchell added, “This whole running program makes my life worth living.”