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Life Inside

Marathon Man

A lifer takes up running to “earn back” his life.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

I was in the prison yard fighting off an attack. Asthma slowed my breathing, while pain had my knees and kidneys failing. Barely conscious, and losing track of where I was, I told myself: Just keep going.

But this wasn’t a “prison fight” or a riot — it was the 1,000 Mile Club marathon, a 26.2-mile battle waged by prison runners.

Before the race, on Nov. 16, 2016, I walked down the stairs to the lower yard, and it looked like any other Friday: men walking to their jobs, others out for their morning workout ritual or a walk. My fellow athletes and I gathered by the big green baseball scoreboard that would double as the starting point for the run. Our coaches, dressed in black, awaited us. There were no banners or spectators, only a large digital clock and a bunch of people getting ready to be in pain for the next four to five hours.

With a countdown—three, two, one—coach Frank Ruona announced, “Go,” and more than 30 men started running around a half-dirt, half-asphalt track. It began like any other run in here, dodging large geese and other prisoners out for strolls. We raced past concrete walls, barbed wire, and exercise areas, overlooked by armed correctional officers in watchtowers.

The training we had completed all year long carried me through the first 15 miles, but then intense pain shot through my knee.

Being in prison is already pain enough, you might think. Do I really need to run to find pain? When the judge first sentenced me to life in prison, I thought many times about ending my own life.

But after staring at my situation over the years, I realized that my life is a privilege that my victim doesn’t have anymore.

So I ignored the pain and kept running, determined to complete the full 105 laps.

Then, with three miles to go, a blaring alarm echoed through the yard. The sound signaled that a disturbance was happening somewhere in the prison and that all prisoners must immediately sit on the ground.

As I sat on the dirt track, conflicting thoughts flowed through my mind. What a relief — a break to catch my breath and rest my legs. But with only 12 laps to go, I wanted to finish, and to finish before my body cramped up.

For a moment, I just lay on the ground staring up at the clear blue sky, feeling almost like I wasn’t in prison anymore. With every breath, my heartbeat came back into rhythm and blood traveled back to my extremities.

The alarm cleared after 30 minutes. Energized, I exploded out of the dirt and raced down the track. But then it hit me — the asthma had gripped my lungs.

Back when I first started running, I did it to avoid things, avoid people, and avoid sports that I wasn’t good at. I was overweight, five-foot-five, and couldn’t even throw a ball, let alone catch and dribble one.

In the last Asian-Pacific Islander basketball tournament at the prison, for example, I ended up riding the bench for most of the games my team played. The one time I did get some minutes, it was after we had clinched a playoff spot, so the outcome didn’t matter. Even then, they only put me in for three minutes; as soon as I blew a wide-open shot, I was subbed out for another player.

Running allowed me to bond with other men, an advantage I didn’t have in other sports. But still, I usually just went out on the yard and jogged, with no goal, no time, no person to beat. That is, until I came to San Quentin.

Here, on the lower yard one day, I saw people running, not realizing at first that it was a marathon. I couldn’t believe it: prisoners actually running a formal race, which I’d always thought was reserved for the elite in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles.

Soon, although with some reluctance, I decided to sign up for the San Quentin 1,000 Mile Club. I might not even run 1,000 miles in my life, I told myself, but I did it anyway.

Every practice, a diverse group of 30- to 70-year-old prisoners and coaches show up, the majority of them more seasoned and energetic than I am. Every time I don’t like feeling running, I look at the older inmates for inspiration.

There is a fellow club member whom I particularly admire, Tommy Wickerd, who joined not that long ago. At 50 years old, he wholeheartedly committed himself from the start and ran over the 1,000 miles within a year. In the process, he lost more than 30 pounds. He is out there on the yard every day, running, and all I want is to be next to him, to live, to be in pain—to be free, in a way, from prison life.

My asthma attack subsided, and I kept going. As I ran the 104th lap, no one told me to stop, and I ran the final one, completing the marathon in 4:01:20. That was third place.

The funny thing about pain is they say it’s temporary, while the glory lasts forever. Well, they’re wrong. Every time I run, my knees ache and my lungs constrict in agony with every breath.

But I want to do better, be better, be someone who doesn’t give up anymore, running till the last lap. Running helps me feel pride and excitement inside what is essentially a storage room with a toilet, my cell, in a building with 800 different personalities.

Our coaches never ask how the members of the club got to be in prison. To be cheered on and to hear a “Way to go!” is something many of us had never received in our entire lives, and to hear that every time we pass the clock makes us never want to stop. We’re not running away from anything, we’re just trying to earn back our lives.

Jonathan Chiu, 34, is serving 50 years to life for first-degree murder at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif.

A documentary film is now in production about the making of marathon runners inside San Quentin, as they train for the race with their volunteer coaches over the course of one year, navigating the complex prison bureaucracy and their emotions. Find out more about the film here.