Seven years into a life sentence, Markelle Taylor was 36 and realized continued survival at San Quentin State Prison would require some spiritual help.
“Prison can be too much to bear,” Taylor said, describing a desperate place that fosters fear and loathing over self-reflection and rehabilitation. “I didn’t have a lot of hope.”
Parole wasn’t an option for at least 15 years on his second-degree murder conviction. And meeting a sympathetic parole board could take many more years. Taylor’s friend committed suicide after being denied release four times.
“When you don’t have the strength to hang in there, you can either act out and hurt others or kill yourself,” Taylor said. “Finding a spiritual purpose for my life is what saved me.”
Taylor became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2009. But the religious conversion alone wasn’t enough to deal with the daily trauma of prison.
“Even with the spiritual assistance, I was still stressing,” he said. “I didn’t want to end up like my friend.”
A member of Taylor’s Bible group suggested some physical activity could supplement his scriptural studies and clear his mind. Taylor joined the 1,000 Mile Club, a running program led by volunteer coaches from the outside. Inmates train on a makeshift, quarter-mile track that circles the prison yard.
“Once I started running, it relieved a lot of stress. I felt more mentally balanced. I was able to make better decisions,” Taylor said. “I felt free.”
The Gazelle of San Quentin
Taylor admits he isn’t the best Bible student, though he tries. But running is a natural talent that had been dormant since his time on the track team at San Mateo High School in the early 1990s.
Taylor was able run 105 non-stop loops around the prison track — or 26.2 miles, the equivalent of a marathon.
“The guys are all over the map ability-wise,” said lead coach Frank Ruona, who trains up to 50 inmates at a time. “But Markelle is the exception.”
By age 46, Taylor had run four prison marathons. He was dubbed “the Gazelle of San Quentin.”
The national media noticed when Taylor ran fast enough in the prison yard to qualify for the Boston Marathon — a feat for elite runners. A profile in GQ magazine led to articles in USA Today and and a New York Times interview. Now, a documentary film featuring Taylor is being made called “26.2 to Life: The San Quentin Prison Marathon.”
Director Christine Yoo thought she was done filming when Taylor was unexpectedly granted parole after 17 years. He was released in March, six weeks before the Boston Marathon. Taylor’s first act as a free man was to travel from his transitional housing in San Francisco to cross the finish line in Boston. Yoo was able to capture the moment for her film.
“This was too amazing not to happen,” Yoo said. “Making the film was full of surprises. I had no vision of what rehabilitation looked like when I started. But I learned a lot from guys like Markelle who decided to become better people and not let prison be the place that teaches them how to be better criminals.”
When Frank Ruona started coaching the San Quentin running club in 2005, he had run 78 marathons. He was an expert in running but knew little about prisons or criminal justice reform.
“At first, I just saw the group as inmates,” Ruona said. “Then I saw them as people trying to improve themselves. They seemed like really good guys and I’d shake my head, thinking, ‘How in the hell did you end up in here?’ Now I can appreciate why the war on drugs didn’t make sense.”
Ruona, 73, became more than a running coach. He also fills the role of father figure, psychologist and diplomat for team members confronting their complex life histories for the first time. The club meets for 90-minute workouts and they spend the first half hour talking. Mostly, Ruona listens.
“These guys made big mistakes and they’re in the process of examining their lives and what they did to become incarcerated,” Ruona said.
For Taylor, it was assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, which led to the premature birth and eventual death of the child.
“I’m not my crime,” Taylor said. “I love myself today and I didn’t back then, which is why I damaged other people. I can’t change the past. But I held myself accountable and took responsibility.”
Ruona said running is just “one piece of the puzzle” when it comes to rehabilitation.
Many of Ruona’s runners have completed their GED or a college degree. Then there’s the two-year restorative justice curriculum that teaches accountability and responsibility. Three runners are currently enrolled in it.
Jim Maloney is a restorative justice facilitator who also volunteers as one of Ruona’s assistant coaches.
“There is a parallel to running and the deep work needed to connect the dots to explain your criminal behavior, heal and transform,” said Maloney, who has run six marathons. “You have to run your own race. And you need to press through when it gets uncomfortable.”
Maloney noted that California’s recidivism rate is 64 percent within three years. Yet the graduates of his rehabilitation program return to prison only two percent of the time.
“Some people need a time out in prison, but a lot of people are in prison for much longer than they should be,” Maloney said. “These programs offer a different narrative and a blueprint for another way.”
Keeping the Faith
Four months into his freedom, Taylor is planning to run the San Francisco Marathon in July and the California International Marathon in December. He has already qualified for next year’s Boston Marathon with an impressive time of three hours, three minutes and 52 seconds. But Taylor’s goal is to run his upcoming races in less than three hours.
He must also handle the pressures of completing classes required by parole, not to mention the popularity a documentary film will bring. He hopes the faith he found in San Quentin will keep him grounded.
“I pray to Jehovah every day,” Taylor said. “I’m following God’s principles the best I can and that’s keeping me out of trouble. God gave me the ability to run and I can talk to Him through my running. They go hand-in-hand.”
Joel Engardio lives west of Twin Peaks in District 7. Follow his blog at www.engardio.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org