San Quentin State Prison is California’s oldest correctional institution. According to the prison’s website, “The prison rests overlooking the bay on 432 acres, and is located just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge in the county of Marin. The walled prison is made up of four (4) large cell blocks (West, South, North, and East Block), one (1) maximum security cell block (the Adjustment Center), Central Health Care Service Building, a medium security dorm setting and a minimum-security firehouse. The state’s only gas chamber and death row for all male condemned inmates are located at San Quentin.”
The website reports that the prison houses 123,670 inmates, with the largest male death row population in the country. San Quentin is frequently used in television and movies, including being on the rotation of prisons featured on MSNBC’s show Lockup, a TV documentary series on life in prison.
I would imagine it is hard to maintain positivity inside this massive prison population, especially when surrounded by such a large group of death row inmates. However, the 1000-mile club was created to do just that.
In 2005, Frank Ruona started the 1000 Mile Club, an organized running club at San Quentin Prison. The club is coached and sponsored by the Tamalpa Running Club located in Marin County, California. “He (Ruona) puts in an incredible amount of time to the program,” stated Kevin Rumon, 1000 Mile Club Assistant Coach. “This program is successful because of Frank’s dedication.”
Every week Coaches Ruona and Rumon head to San Quentin Prison where they train with the inmate members of the 1000 Mile Club. “We actually go tonight and will run 4-6 miles,” explained Rumon. “We start with a benchmark mile that will help figure out where guys are right now and help develop goals.”
Nearly any inmate that wants to participate in the running club is able to. “There are so many rules for inmates in their daily life,” stated Rumon “We try to keep this program as flexible as possible. It is moving meditation for some people. It is an experience that is inherently solitary that allows these guys to work things out. They get to be somewhere else for a couple of hours. There’s a comradery in doing something so difficult. You learn to share hardship.”
It’s this sharing of hardship that has nurtured a loving kinship among the runners and coaches alike. The program is structured to begin in January and increase length each month, culminating with the San Quentin Prison Marathon in November.
“The men run 105 laps around the yard,” stated Rumon. “They don’t have timing chips so we utilize volunteers to act as counters for each of the runners. Volunteers also hand out gels and electrolytes.”
The coaching volunteers try their best to create a true marathon experience for the runners who have trained all year for their 26.2. Unfortunately, there are some factors that the coaches can’t control. For example, their nutrition remains consistent with normal prison food. They do not receive extra hydration or ice baths leading up the marathon. “They run in their prison-allowed workout uniforms,” said Rumon. “We try to get the inmates shoes that are conducive for running, but these guys aren’t running in ideal marathon clothing.”
When the runners cross the finish line, they are given a certificate of completion, rather than the coveted medal most runners seek. They aren’t spoiled with a glass of wine or post-race indulgent meal. Prison life returns to normal for these runners. This marathon is truly about the running itself. No frills, no extra. Just the running.
“The 1000 Mile Club is about dignity and optimism for the future,” said Rumon. “If I can‘t learn something from these guys, then it’s my fault. All of us have become better people as a result of participating in this.”