By: Judy Campbell
On a recent Sunday morning in November, 21 runners strapped on their shoes, took a final stretch and set out to run a marathon, 26.2 miles under the clear blue Marin County sky. Distance running is a natural for the pretty trails of Marin County, but these runners were confined to the yard of San Quentin State Prison.
The prison is famous for a lot of things, but in the Bay Area, it may be most famous for occupying a stunningly beautiful piece of real estate, jutting out into the bay. But the truth is, behind those gates, it really isn't all that pretty. Walls block the view and a marathon in San Quentin is no sea-side romp through nature. It's an exercise in confinement. One hundred and five loops on a mostly concrete, uneven, quarter-mile path around a yard full of prisoners.
The runners, part of San Quentin's 1,000 mile club, wear white cotton shirts, grey shorts, plain white shoes. The runners don't fit a type. Some are old, some young, some overweight, some clearly in great shape. They're white, black and latino in a place where races don't always mix well.
At about 9:00 am, Frank Ruona, who has been volunteering as coach of the club since it began in 2005, counts down from 10, and the runners take off.
Pretty quickly two men pull out in the lead. There's Malcolm Williams, he's chisled and bulky, like a weightlifter and he's off like a shot -- but Coach Ruona says he hasn't put in the training. "He's kind of a sprinter, I'm not sure he's going to hang on."
Gliding just behind him is Lorenzo Hopson. I've been told, he's the man to watch. He's strong, lean and his running looks effortless. Lorenzo and others, like Larry Ford, cruising along behind him, are out running the yard most days, says Coach Ruona. "He and Lorenzo, both have done a lot of training, they put a lot of miles in, I expect they'll both going to do well."
As the runners ease into the long race, 29-year-old Eddie Herena is on the sidelines counting their laps. He's the winner of the past two marathons here but he's injured. "It's rough pounding this pavement," he says, "it messed my hip up." Herena started running in prison. "It takes you away, your mind is no longer here. I'm somewhere else, I'm in a different world." Where, exactly? He laughs, "Sometimes I imagine I'm in the Olympics or something. It's pretty cool."
Herena is small with a quick smile. He looks like a kid and seems shy but friendly. He's has been in prison since he was 21 years old, in for 15 years to life for stabbing a man to death. He calls the crime senseless and says he's filled with remorse. "I pled no contest but I should have pled guilty. I was guilty because I did commit this crime."
But it's hard to get too reflective when counting laps on a quarter mile trap. Malcom Williams, the frontrunner is barreling by and he interrupts Eddie to ask how many laps he's done. Eddie tells him 11. Only 94 to go.
There isn't much of a fuss over the marathon in the yard, prisoners hardly seem to notice it. This is San Quentin on a Sunday. A lot is going on.
The Stanford tennis team is playing matches with inmates -- a couple of men are doing tai chi, some American Indian prisoners are holding a ceremony in a sweat lodge. And volunteers from the Bay Area swarm the place. At a time when programming options are hard to find in many rural California prisons, they're booming at San Quentin. Inmate Cory McNeil,who ran the marathon last year, says he benefits from many of the programs here, and he says the club has taught him self discipline.
"You might not like what you're doing or the task you got doing in life but you do it anyway because you see the see prize on the other end of what you're doing."
Again, an interruption in the conversation. And again, it's from Malcolm Williams, the sprinter the coach thought might not make it. Now, several miles into the race it's clear he's dehydrated and on his last legs, but he refuses to stop. He's staggering while he runs and he's yelling, "I can do it! I can do it!" as team members insist he slow down long enough to drink some water.
The temperature is rising, it'll hit 80 on this November day. The men, sweating, run on by. But now, a surprise. Lorenzo Hopson, the man to beat, has stopped after 11 miles. He says he was on lockdown for eight days because of a fight in his cell block, and he couldn't run.
Coach Rouna says there are all sorts of reasons why the men can't always train. "If it rains here or if it's foggy, they gotta be able to see from the guard towers here so there have been a number of workouts where just because it's been foggy, we haven't been able to hold them."
And then, as the sun continues to beat down, another runner drops, after 20 miles. Larry Ford.
He's serving two life sentences for attempted murder, after he shot a man in a bar fight. He's 56 and started running because he was in so much pain from the prison beds. He thought losing weight would help. It also helped in other ways. "A lot of things here make you angry. Rude people. Crowded lines. Being locked up in a tiny cell with another man. You're always under a lot of stress. Running helps keep that stress down, keep the anger down."
And it interrupts the endless conversation in his head about his crime. "Everyday what you did goes through your mind. You think a thousand different scenarios how you would do something different or how you wish you did something different. How any little thing could have changed your life that day but it didn't."
By now, many of the runners have stopped. There's the inmate with bone cancer who ran 16 miles despite being on radiation and chemo. And, Malcolm Williams, the one who didn't want to stop, is at last sitting down. He made it 15 and a half miles.
And here, rounding the last corner, in just under four hours, is the winner: 59-year-old Stephen Leibb. He crosses the line, into a big hug from a fellow runner.
"I was aiming for a better time," Leibb says, "But I didn't think I'd finish first. But once you're into this you just want to finish. It's not giving in, so I'm happy."
It's an accomplishment. And evenually four other inmates will finish too -- 105 laps around the prison yard.
But Leibb also has other reasons to celebrate. He expects to be paroled in January after 31 years locked up for first-degree murder. He says he wants to run when he's out. Coach Ruona already helps other parolees on the outside. He picks them up and drives them to races on Marin trails not so far outside of these walls where they'd only imagined themselves to be.