For many of his 30-plus years in the journalism business, Jesse Katz has been covering crime. Back in the early 1990s, his former employer The Los Angeles Times assigned him to the gang beat, and it’s a topic he’s been pursuing in some fashion ever since. Back then, he immersed himself in the Los Angeles underworld at a time when black men were being incarcerated at record numbers, which naturally whisked him into the California penal system. Now a freelancer, Katz still finds himself drawn to “cultures populated by outsiders,” and the U.S. prison system remains fertile ground for such groups.
Katz traces his San Quentin piece to a story he reported last year for California Sunday Magazine about Hangover producer Scott Budnick, who quit a lucrative Hollywood career to devote himself to prison reform and juvenile justice. Through that, Katz ventured inside the Northern California prison for the first time. There he learned about the San Quentin Marathon, an annual race run inside the walls by a group of convicts. Katz pitched the story to GQ, where it was published in the magazine’s March 2016 issue. Despite Katz’s sharp and succinct final draft, the reporting and writing processes were full of hurdles. Packing convergent narratives of sport, crime, punishment, redemption and personal responsibility into 2,500 words would be a challenge in any setting, much less one in which you are attempting to humanize violent criminals from inside the walls of a prison.
This interview took place over a series of phone conversations. It has been condensed and edited.
Storyboard: How did you discover the San Quentin marathon? When did you know it could be a magazine story, and why/how did you pitch it to GQ?
Katz: I had been writing about criminal justice, gangs, drugs and incarceration in one form or the other for much of the past three decades. As part of a recent story, I took a trip up to San Quentin prison, and it was the first time I had ever been inside. I was quite taken by the vibe of the place, the medieval atmospherics there and the juxtaposition of this moldering castle right on this high-end, top-dollar, bayfront property. My eyes opened to San Quentin at that point. Then, when I heard they did a marathon there, it kind of blew my mind. There’s just something about the tension of trying to create distance in a place that is so confined. I filed that away in the back of my head and it sat there for a year or so.
Quite frankly, I never thought I would dust it off and use it for a story, but GQ contacted me – they were doing a “body issue” and were particularly interested in mind over body, how the mind can affect fitness. At that point, I pitched the marathon piece, and in the end they decided it wasn’t right for that issue, but it ran the following month.
What drew you to criminal justice as a topic, and why has it endured for you?
One of my formative experiences in journalism was being named the gang reporter for The Los Angeles Times in the early ’90s. I was this white Jewish kid from progressive Portland, Oregon, who had not had a lot of experience in the big city. I didn’t know much about the gang world. For some reason, my editor thought I would be the perfect candidate to be thrown into this maelstrom back in the days of the crack epidemic, the rise of the Bloods and Crips, and on the eve of the Rodney King uprisings here in Los Angeles. There was something about that experience. It forced me to develop a lot of skills and tactics, but also a lot of empathy and awareness. I’ve tried to carry that through my reporting ever since, and as a result I’ve been drawn to worlds or cultures that are often populated by outsiders, that the mainstream has overlooked, or dares not venture into, or is actually repulsed by. To be the person that has the license to go poking around in that “other” place and discover that that other is not so alien after all. If I can use whatever combination of fearlessness and foolishness that I have to report back and give meaning to those kind of “other” experiences, I feel like I’m doing my job.
How did this experience differ from your prior crime reporting?
Most of my other prison experiences were just interviews. Someone I was focused on and who had agreed to meet with me, who I’m visiting with in a visiting room and talking to face-to-face. Being at San Quentin was potentially a little more disconcerting, since I am sort of mixing with the general population in the exercise yard where there are hundreds of people filtering in and out throughout the day. I was required to be escorted by a prison administrator who was there to protect my safety and also protect the inmates’ privacy rights. They were required to sign releases agreeing to participate.
The first challenge was I making sure that I was present for this marathon. I didn’t want to write about the running program generally. I hate stories about programs. I don’t mean that to diminish the great work folks do, but the existence of a program is not a very compelling story. You need some sort of tension, some sort of action, some sort of narrative developing. The idea there would be an event, a race, that I could bear witness to – that was enormously compelling to me. It turned out the race was a month and a half away – they run it every November – so that gave me about six weeks to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops. The hoops were not that many, but it is a slow-moving bureaucracy. Had to get the Public Information Officer’s OK, and that depended on him having the manpower available to escort me. I needed to submit my birthdate, driver’s license information, and I’m pretty sure they did some kind of background check on me to ensure I wasn’t a felon. Had to reveal in advance all the equipment we were bringing in, from my handheld tape recorder to the very complicated camera equipment my colleagues brought in. Of course there’s a very elaborate dress code about what you can wear – certain colors are prohibited because of gang connotations. For women there are strict guidelines about how tight or short clothing can be. Pretty much no blue denim under any circumstances. So if the shit goes down, it’s clear that you are not an inmate.
How long were you allowed to be on the premises at San Quentin?
There was basically one shot to get this right. I would’ve ideally liked to come to the prison a day or two before and look around to scope it out, meet some of the inmates and absorb some of the environment. Or after the race, go back and meet these guys and deconstruct what happened out there. It was pretty clear the prison was not going to make that available to me. I had one day. It was a long day – six or seven hours – which allowed me to be there before and after the race, but that was going to be my one chance. When you’re facing those kinds of limits, you’re working on a couple of different levels: You’re doing the empirical work of documenting an event and trying to create a record of that, the facts and details, while also realizing that that’s not in and of itself the story. While the clock is running on the event, I’ve got one eye on that and the other trying absorb what’s going on around me. What else is going on in this prison, who are all the people around us who maybe don’t give a damn about this event? What does the day feel like, what does the environment look like, what does the earth smell like? Then going beyond that, what does this all mean? Why am I here? I’m witnessing a marathon, but what am I actually witnessing? I kind of made a note to myself before I went out there to make sure I maintained those multiple perspectives.
How were the interviews handled? Could you move around at will?
I was a little tentative at first, since I didn’t want to do anything that would get me ejected before things even got underway. But it actually was fairly informal. We were outdoors, we were in an athletic environment. The coach brought a bunch of his volunteers. So it was far less restrictive than I thought. The PIO who was there with me really got it, and understood what I needed to do.
When I showed up at the prison gates, it’s a little before 7 am on a Friday morning. I introduced myself to the guard, and I told him I was there on behalf of GQ magazine. And he just looked at me and said, “You’ve gotta be shitting me. What the hell does GQ want at San Quentin?” I encountered that kind of reaction everywhere – I was sort of a novelty – so GQ was really the perfect publication for breaking the ice.
As much as the story concerns the convicted felons participating in the race, the main character is really the marathon itself. Was it a conscious decision to make the marathon its own character?
I was really intrigued with the course itself. I was very determined to document each twist and turn and explain the terrain that it navigated. I felt like the course was kind of central to everything – to the tension between freedom and confinement. Without that confinement, there was no zany course, and without the zany course, there was a lot less of a story. If these guys were allowed to run, say, a supervised marathon down a highway and over the Golden Gate Bridge, it would’ve been interesting, but it would’ve been less of a story. There was something about doing it under these conditions that was really compelling, and really did a great job revealing who these guys were.
One of the guys who didn’t finish the marathon – he ran half and walked the last few miles of it – I just jumped in and started walking with him. It kind of took me out of the safety of the designated area and now I’m on the course like any other inmate, winding and weaving around a bunch of other inmates. For me, that was a real pivotal moment, to feel the course under my own feet.
This is a 2,500-word story that feels like it could run much longer. What were the challenges of condensing and distilling the story in this way?
Any editor who has ever worked with me would attest that I could have and given the opportunity would have written more than I did here. Look, you could have documented the play-by-play of the race more precisely, you could have explored the individuals at much greater depth – their life stories and the lessons they’ve learned – and I could have woven in some interviews I’d done with a couple of former inmates who had been part of this program and had been paroled out of San Quentin, and the role that running still played in their life. I also had more on the coach, who was sort of a classic mentor figure and I was really intrigued with how he had been an elite marathoner for many years and really an extraordinary athlete. In the time he had been ministering to these guys at San Quentin, though, he had suffered a series of injuries – so while he was lifting them up, his own body was breaking down. And if they ever make a movie about this, I hope they play those notes front and center. But in this story there wasn’t space for all that, and I knew I would need to keep this really focused. And, as much as I sometimes chafe against it, I’ve learned over the years that from limits great creativity can arise, and you could really say the same thing about the runners here – from their confinement, something really extraordinary and redeeming happened.
You mentioned in our first call that there was a “surprise reaction” to the piece. What kind of response has it gotten?
I was surprised and heartened by the extraordinary outpouring of reaction to the story. People sending me emails, people hitting me up on Twitter who were just really taken by the piece and moved in an unexpected way. Because I was somewhat on guard and maybe bracing for someone to say: “Why are you spilling all this ink on these really bad dudes who have done really horrendous things? Why are you glorifying these guys when that’s the guy who murdered my daughter?” I was prepared for that reaction, and for the most part people read this in an understanding and empathetic light. I will say, though, that it was conveyed to me that the runners in the program intensely disliked the story, or rather, intensely disliked a couple paragraphs that spoke in a brutally honest and clear-eyed way of the bad things they’d done to land in San Quentin. My sense is they thought it cast a negative shadow over the marathon, and since it was such a small community of runners, to point out the more heinous crimes of even a few could expose them all to retaliation from the general San Quentin population. To provide them some cover, I took pains not to attach any particular crime to the name of any particular runner. I didn’t indicate who had done what. That they found that insufficient was dismaying, but if your job when you write a story is to please people, you will have set yourself up for failure from the start.
My questions are in red, his responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button below the byline, up and to the right.
Inside the San Quentin Marathon
Originally published in GQ’s March 2016 issue
The race begins on the west side of San Quentin’s lower yard, just before the sun creeps over the walls. The start of the marathon seems a sensible place to start the story. Did you have a specific reason of setting the scene in this way? Were you tempted to open the story differently? Even before I got up to San Quentin, I knew the place to start the story was environmental, and with the course itself. The story was more about the world they inhabit, not necessarily a certain individual. In an early draft of the story, the piece actually began with purely a description of the course. It was actually written in second person – You turn down here, you make a jag here, etc. – because I wanted to share that experience with the reader, to give the reader a sense of an environment almost nobody would have access to. I think my editors felt it was kind of de-populated, and they wanted a little more human element. In my first revision, I had it generic – “The runners went here, the runners went there.” My idea was that the race was really useful for the story – it provided an occasion, a structure and a chronology – but the story was not fundamentally about the race itself. Frankly I had some misgivings about starting the story with one individual because I didn’t want to misdirect the reader into thinking that the story was about the race or even the winner of the race. As the good ones have a way of doing, my editors prevailed on me and I understood where they were coming from, where they wanted to humanize it that little bit more. Readers could look over someone’s shoulder and experience the story through a person with a name, and it’s someone that we will later be rooting for. Two dozen men surge forward. With few exceptions all are murderers, most at least a decade into their sentences, including the early leader, a lifer named Markelle Taylor, who has run this course before but never for as long or as fast as he hopes to today.
With mesh gym shorts hanging to his knees and a cotton tank that soon droops with sweat, Taylor springs over a patchwork of gravel and pavement and grass scorched by the California drought. He makes his first turn at the laundry room, where inmates in V-neck smocks and denim jackets exchange their prison blues, then jabs right at the horseshoe pit and climbs a tight concrete ramp—a pivot so abrupt it has a name: the Gantlet. He swings east across blacktop, past the open-air urinals, past the punching bag and chin-up bars, past the clinic that treats the swell of aging convicts, all while staying within the spray-painted green lines that are supposed to remind the 3,700 non-runners housed here not to wander into his path. On the north side, Taylor guides the pack downhill toward the base of a guard tower, then makes a final 90-degree turn—his sixth—where convict preachers thump Bibles in a cloud of geese and gulls.
That’s one lap. Today there’s a marathon. Behind these walls, that means 104 to go.
Once a year, the runners of San Quentin do this—stretch their tatted limbs, hike their white crew socks, and attempt to extract under the worst of conditions something that resembles the best of themselves.
“You’re seeing people escape from prison,” says Rahsaan Thomas, sports editor of the inmate-produced San Quentin News, who is 12 years into a 55-to-life sentence for shooting two armed men. “Here,” says Thomas, who is helping pass out water, “you can only be free in your own mind.” This is an incredible quote. How did you elicit it? How did you meet Rahsaan? Rahsaan is, I think, well-known within San Quentin as an exceptional personality. He’s involved in a lot of programs. He’s one of the faces of this award-winning prison newspaper. He’s got a really nimble mind and a keen sense of humor and I think anybody who’s ever met him would attest to that. He was there, he was handing out water and was making sure the runners had everything they needed. I swear I went up to him, introduced myself, and maybe it’s because he’s also a writer and has a shrewd sense of what journalists are in the market for, but I’m not even sure I asked a question. These were pretty much the first words out of his mouth.
If running a marathon is as much a test of mental rigor as of physical endurance, then doing 26.2 miles at California’s oldest prison, home to America’s largest death row, is the ultimate internal contest. On the outside, marathons are movable celebrations that engulf and delight entire cities. The Los Angeles Marathon follows a glittery path from Dodger Stadium, via the Sunset Strip and Rodeo Drive, to Santa Monica Beach; the New York Marathon traverses a five-borough jamboree to the cheers of a million spectators. In the lower yard, a four-acre box on San Quentin’s sloped backside, the only way to re-create that distance is to run the perimeter—round and round, hour after hour—going nowhere fast. In juxtaposing traditional marathons to the one at San Quentin, were you tempted to bring in outside marathoners to talk about the mental fortitude required, or have them weigh in on what’s happening inside the prison? Or did you feel you got that with Ruona later in the piece? I mostly wanted to illustrate what the race is not. It’s not the LA or NYC marathon, where you have millions of people cheering you on. There’s no finish-line photo. You don’t have friends and family there at the end telling you what a good job you did. So the comparisons are about the absence of something. I know some of this from firsthand experience, having run a number of marathons over the years, including a couple of what you might call bougier marathons in exotic locations. I recently ran the Athens Marathon, and the Istanbul Marathon. When you go halfway around the world to test yourself, it’s never just a race – it’s the adventure, the quest for experience, and there’s something self-aggrandizing about that. There’s a whole running industrial complex that feeds those longings. I didn’t want to inject my exploits into the story, but they were kind of there in the back of my head as a counterpoint because there was something unbelievably pure about what these guys were doing, which had none of the trappings of a “commercial” road race.
Sometimes even that exercise in confinement will grind to a halt. No matter the day, alarms punctuate life at San Quentin, signaling fights or medical emergencies, often in corners of the prison unseen from the lower yard. In those moments, every inmate must drop to the ground—runners included—and wait for guards to restore order. During last year’s race, the marathoners had to stop four times. Who did you consult for these types of facts and figures, and was it difficult to confirm them? That came primarily from the coach, Frank Ruona. He was the one person I was able to interview at some length before I got there. I kind of used his experience and his eyes and ears to prep me for what I would experience. He had mentioned the alarms to me. That was one of those things that I initially had a hard time wrapping my brain around. These guys just had to stop during a race? I was naïve to think these runners should be above the disturbance. But of course, these guys are in a prison environment and when shit goes down, the whole place screeches to a halt. The idea that these stoppages were not a fluke occurrence – it was rare that they would run a race and an alarm would NOT go off – was important for conveying the absurdity of doing a marathon behind bars. I was praying for an alarm to go off, not because I was eager for anything to go awry, but to be present for that detail, to witness it and not just rely on past accounts. I started to think I was going to get shut out, because this race was going on for over three hours, and there was no alarm, but then sure enough, with the leader a minute and a half away from finishing, that alarm goes off. It was almost like there was somebody in a guard tower watching this unfold and just wanting to screw with somebody. The timing was almost cinematic. Did being a marathon runner yourself help you in the process? I definitely used my familiarity with the distance in my pitch. Not in the sense that I’m an accomplished athlete, which I’m surely not, but more in the sense that I’ve indulged in these very expensive, ornate marathons and know what the commercial experience of those races is all about and can bring that as a counterpoint to the rawness and the purity of the race these guys were running. In terms of analyzing what was taking place, I know a couple things intuitively about the rhythms of a marathon, the pacing, the equipment, the opportunity for things to go wrong. I could empathize with these guys even more since I knew there was a degree of difficulty they were grappling with that I certainly never had to deal with. Perched on the redwooded fringes of San Francisco Bay, about 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Quentin is an anachronism: a moldering castle that dates from the Gold Rush days, now commandeering 432 acres of waterfront property in California’s richest county.
Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan have passed through these iron latticed gates. Johnny Cash has performed here, earning a Grammy nomination and inspiring a young burglar named Merle Haggard. So many bebop greats did time for heroin that San Quentin used to field its own jazz band. Crips leader and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Stanley Tookie Williams (played by Jamie Foxx in Redemption) was executed here. Wife slayer and cable-news obsession Scott Peterson (played by Dean Cain in The Perfect Husband) awaits his turn. So do 725 other men, their fate likelier to be decided by old age, or their own hand, than by the state’s glacial appellate machinery.
Despite its notorious name and medieval atmospherics, the Q is known within the American penal system as a rehabilitative showcase, the place to be if you want to do something productive with your time—and not, as the old heads will say, let your time do you. The prison hosts at least 140 programs, from Wall Street investing to Shakespearean theater, sustained by thousands of volunteers from the Bay Area’s prosperous burbs. Which is how Frank Ruona, then the president of an elite Marin County running club, ended up receiving a call in 2005 from a prison administrator seeking a coach. Ruona—a veteran of 78 marathons who was also an executive at Ghilotti Bros., a ubiquitous highway contractor—didn’t see himself ministering to felons, but when he forwarded the request to his hundreds of fellow Tamalpa Runners, he got no response. “So, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll come over,’” Ruona recalls. “I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
The 163-year-old prison, for all its educational offerings, was a cold, clamorous tangle of concrete cellblocks, five stories tall and ringed by razor wire—“an environment that’s very degrading, very demoralizing,” Ruona had to admit—and yet he discovered that it had also bred a small brotherhood of would-be runners “trying their best to pay for whatever errors they’ve made.” This is one of a few mentions in the piece about the runners “trying to be their best selves” or “pay for whatever errors” and so on, as opposed to assuming these guys may just want the exercise. Does the redemption narrative reflect your conversations with the participants? First of all, I think that’s one of the reasons I didn’t want this story to be a feature on a running program. If that’s all it had been yes, you could probably make that argument, that guys are participating in that program so they can get free shoes, or get buffer and fitter, or get out of their cells for longer. You could take that cynical point of view, but there’s something about a marathon. I don’t think anybody runs a marathon just to get exercise. You’re asking something of yourself that’s so beyond what it is humanly comfortable. Anybody who has tackled a marathon has graduated to some higher level of self-realization. That sounds like I’m really full of it, but I’m giving these guys credit for doing something that goes far beyond exercise, for sure.
His first order of business was to outfit them in decent shoes, a task complicated by the prison’s strict, sometimes cryptic dress code. Even though he was shopping for a racially diverse bunch, men who did not seem caught up in the gang rivalries or affiliations of the segregated yard they trained on, Ruona’s donations kept getting rejected for their potential to create division: no blue swooshes, no orange stripes, no air-bubble soles. Black shoes were okayed, then nixed. Lately the only colors he can push through the bureaucracy are white and gray. “I’ve had a couple times where guys gave me their size, I brought in the shoes, and they didn’t fit,” says Ruona, who trains with the inmates every other Monday. “Then I found out they didn’t know what their size was.”
The marathoners face other obstacles, reminders of their captivity. On days when the fog rolls in, clinging to the yard like a pelt, the track is off-limits; the sharpshooting guards in the watchtowers need a clear view. This is kind of an incredible note, but is presented plainly and without pretense. I assume that’s because that’s how it was presented to you? Yeah, that detail was conveyed to me in a sort of matter-of-fact way. I originally learned it from Frank, the coach, but others mentioned it as well. He goes there every other week to train with these guys, and on those foggy days, he can’t go. It’s canceled. In the beginning that might have been unusual to him, but after eight or nine years, it had become part of the routine and the reality that he came to accept. I love stories about environments that are unfamiliar to us, or quote-unquote magical worlds that have their own protocols and their own lexicon and their own power structure, history, traditions, codes. So when I go into a place like this, I’m actively searching for the dos and the don’ts, what can you wear and not wear, why can you do this and not do that. But people who are in that world naturally get accustomed to it and forget that elsewhere, people don’t live like this. I’m always looking for those details that reveal the peculiar nature of a place to us. Health scares can trigger lockdowns—chicken pox in 2012, Legionnaires’ disease in 2015—as can shank-swinging melees, the sort that have to be quelled with pepper spray and foam projectiles. Says Ruona, now 70 and hobbled by a bum knee, “You kind of roll with the punches.”
On this crisp Friday morning in November, the eighth running of the San Quentin Marathon, there is no ceremony or fanfare. The only prize is a certificate, made on PowerPoint, for each participant. The men who have signed up for the race, who have submitted to the risk of injury and exhaustion and failure, did not ask for anyone to come document their efforts. A few have dates with the parole board on the horizon, but many have no illusions: They will die inside these walls.
“I’m trying to be the best person I can be, with what I have left,” says 49-year-old Darren Settlemeyer, a repeat offender who will be 99 when he is eligible for release. He tried to kill himself, he says, when he first got to San Quentin. “You will do stuff in here that you wouldn’t normally do, and some of it’s really not good for a person to be doing.” Settlemeyer stayed on meds for a decade until he started running last year. The implication here being that he replaced his meds with running? Yeah, that’s what Darren was trying to convey. That in some ways running saved his life. In an earlier version I had how many pounds he had shed running, as well as dropping all these medications. I guess there’s something about a guy who is never, ever getting out, who finds a lifeline with this activity. I should say, as a point of clarification, when we call people “lifers” it means different things in different situations. It doesn’t mean they’re never getting out. They may have a sentence of 25-to-life, but they will have an opportunity to make their case to the parole board at some point. You’ve got people at all different stages, but Darren was one that no matter what he did, he would never be released. If you know that there is no hope of you ever getting out, what do you do when you wake up every day? What do you live for? If you know for a certainty that your day is never coming, why are you running a marathon? Why bother? That these guys had not resigned themselves to that really struck a chord with me. “You run the track,” he says, “and you just let everything go.”
The marathon was scheduled to begin at 8 A.M., but already Eddie DeWeaver has been trotting around the yard for an hour. He has a class to attend after lunch, Guiding Rage into Power, and does not want to be late. “I used to think, when something happened to me, it was the end of the world,” says DeWeaver, his long twisted locks glistening as if dusted with diamonds. “Now I know: Just stay in the moment, focus on what you’re feeling in that moment, focus on why you feel that way, what need are you not having met that has you feeling this way. That’s part of the power right there: You look inside yourself for the answers.” This is a beautiful sentiment, and one many lay people never incorporate into their lives. How difficult was it to hear a man say these things knowing he will never be able to put them into practice in the outside world? There is something about being in a prison environment – or being with somebody who has done that type of time – it’s hard to have a casual conversation with them. It’s hard to shoot the shit. Captivity puts life into focus in really powerful ways. Maybe in the same way that this confined quarter-mile loop puts the achievement of a marathon into high relief, being locked up in a place for one, two, three decades or more forces you to really examine yourself. Who you are, the mistakes you made, it’s sort of forced self-reflection. Once you make one of these irreversible mistakes, you have to live with yourself. So you meet someone like Eddie, he’s living his life every day on the deepest, most reflective level, whereas reasonably functional, productive people like us sometimes go through the motions, because we don’t have to question everything.
“We’re going in four and a half minutes, four and a half,” Ruona hollers, checking his watch. Armed with a clipboard and spreadsheets, a Ken-Tech digital clock, and several bottles of Succeed! electrolyte capsules, he is not a “Kumbaya”-singing coach. He barks at the runners to hydrate and pace themselves, a challenge if you’re emerging from a two-man cell the size of a walk-in closet. Last year an old-timer named Lee Goins ignored that advice; he collapsed at the 22-mile mark and had to be revived intravenously.
“Guys will say, ‘Man, slow down, you’re going too fast,’ ” says Michael Keeyes, who is 68 and entering his 43rd year of incarceration. His response is a punch line: “I’ve got Dobermans on my heels!” He ran his first marathon in 2014, finishing in a respectable four hours and 29 minutes. To improve on that today, he has an Ensure nutritional shake poured into a plastic horseradish squeeze bottle. Were these types of MacGyver-ed prep and supplies normal for the runners? That was surely the finest example of a MacGyver-esque preparation, but I’m also on the lookout for those things. Again, I’m always searching for details that are specific to a place or a culture or an experience, and in this case that meant anything that had been kind of improvised or somehow invented under duress, because these guys don’t have access to first-rate or commercially available materials. Before the race they had dropped all their stuff out on the grass. A lot of it had their names on it, and I was being kind of nosy, seeing who had what, like peeking into a medicine cabinet or something. There were a few jars and bottles that had been repurposed, or gear that had been modified, like the headband one dude was wearing that had been torn from a t-shirt, things like that.
“All right, good luck, gentlemen,” Ruona says. “We’re going in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one—you’re off!”
From the start, all eyes are on the leader, Markelle Taylor, who is loping along like a spaceman on the moon. A chiseled 43-year-old former nurse, he went to high school south of here, in Silicon Valley, and ran track on some of the very courses Ruona has trained on. But those were all sprints compared to this—his first marathon. “They call him the Gazelle,” shouts an inmate who’s been watching from a patio the Native Americans claim. “The Gazelle of San Quentin.”
As the hours tick by, the morning grows warm. “There are a number of guys who aren’t going to make it all the way,” says Ruona, studying the hitches and grimaces. Defending champion and course record holder Lorinzo Hopson, 61, who has been running bare-chested with a Rambo headband torn from a T-shirt, drops out at 13 miles. “I still got it,” he says, explaining that he merely wanted “to give the others a chance.” Also stopping halfway is Chris Schuhmacher, an Air Force veteran who has been devising a fitness app for addicts, like himself, to help guide their recovery.
“It’s getting tough, Coach, it’s getting tough,” moans Andrew Gazzeny, a lifer who was denied parole this year, as he lumbers around his 17th mile. Why did you identify the prisoners by their sentences, or other attribution, but not their crime? In traditional journalistic practice and convention, you’re going to try to add some identifying detail about every character you introduce. In this case, the most identifying detail is what they did to land themselves in San Quentin. It became clear that was going to be problematic, and I would just not be able to rely on the actual crime or the depiction of that crime, because there were just too many that would jeopardize these guys. I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t identifying some guys by their crimes, but not others. I thought the safest and most honorable thing to do, the most humane thing, was to not identify any of them by their crimes. There was some pressure from my editors to be more explicit about these guys, about who they were – some thought I was being too easy on them, that they were kind of getting away with something. But I pushed back and tried to explain the reality of this place, and I think everyone in the end understood why we were doing it that way. Did you come to this conclusion yourself? I knew it would be an issue almost the minute I arrived, because the first guys I interviewed said they would prefer not to be identified by their crime. The problem is that sex crimes carry a special stigma behind bars and these guys were in the business of deflecting attention from what they’d done. When I did try to confirm everybody’s crime with the Department of Corrections, there were a handful of guys who the prison officials flat-out refused to discuss – the state would not tell me what they were convicted of. It’s government policy not to identify them. I think that tells you something about the gravity, and the potential for atrocious consequences.
“Nice and easy,” Ruona says.
After three hours, it’s clear that Taylor is living up to the hype. He’s got slender legs and powerful arms, and he’s still running gracefully, in sodden gear, on an institutional diet, over a crazy, knotted course. Until, on his 104th lap—mile 25.75, at the crest of an astounding performance—it happens: an alarm. With one extended, gurgling blast, like a balky game-ending buzzer, it turns the marathon into an emergency drill.
“Oh hell, no!” one of the lap counters groans.
There is no sign of commotion, no explanation for the shutdown and none expected; the inmates know the routine. As Ruona anxiously watches the clock, each runner has to stop in his tracks and sit his butt on the ground, including Taylor, so close to completing the longest race of his life. He rests his hands on his knees, compliant and chagrined, for a full minute and 20 seconds. “Getting up,” he says later, “oh man.” But he does it, peels himself off the earth and, in one last burst of mettle, finishes what he started. Ruona, subtracting the stoppage, is almost giddy: 3:16, a new course record. Out in the free world, Taylor would have come within a minute of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
As he walks stiffly around the yard in search of dry clothes, his neck still encrusted in salt, I ask Taylor what he’d been thinking about. “Thinking about my family, my kids, running for everybody…uh, my victims, everybody,” he says. I inquire about his crime. He sighs and shakes his head. “I foolishly and selfishly took a life,” says Taylor, who was denied parole 13 years into his sentence for second-degree murder, just weeks before the race. “I still have shame for that. That’s one of my motivating factors to get out there and run.”
He doesn’t elaborate, and I decide for the moment not to probe. It seems almost unfair to insist that a man who has just completed such a monumental feat, who has expended everything he has, relive the most horrendous thing he’s ever done. The same goes for the others: Mike Keeyes, who shaved half an hour off his time; Darren Settlemeyer, who broke down at 17 miles last year but finished in 4:04 this year; Lee Goins, who made it to 25 miles today before once again collapsing. “I never ask what they did,” Ruona says. “I feel like it’s not really any of my business. We all make mistakes, and some people make worse mistakes than others.”
Later, when my curiosity sends me digging, I discover why it’s sometimes better not to know. Almost to a man, their crimes are jaw-droppingly atrocious, the stuff of headlines and horror shows. Some of the particulars—unknown to San Quentin’s general population—are so stigmatized within the prison world’s peculiar hierarchy of misdeeds that to identify each runner’s offense, to point out who was the child molester and who killed his own baby, would make those men targets. Several have committed crimes that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, as a matter of policy, refuses to publicly confirm. Again, you had to sort of reject your journalistic instincts and opt for anonymity here. In a certain sense, this detour into these guys’ crimes is the reveal of the story. It’s the second climax after the alarm at the end of the marathon – which is the climax of the race, the documentary part of the story.But the emotional climax of the story comes really when I pull back the curtain and describe with real specificity what these guys have done. And I think that’s where the inmates and maybe even the coach felt uncomfortable with the piece. These guys live in such a negative world and here they are doing something to cheer about, so why infect that with these really unsavory details? In the end, though, I felt like these details and really talking about how horrendous these crimes were, in a weird way, didn’t detract from their achievement at all. If anything, in my mind, it heightened their achievement. These are the exact type of people where I feel like society says, lock these guys up and throw away the key. The fact these guys were waking up in the morning to tackle something of this difficulty, I found really sort of noble. They were going to run this marathon whether I was there or not, whether anybody was there or not, whether anybody cheered or not. There was no external congratulations. They were really doing it just to better themselves.
Out on the track, there was a man who stabbed his wife, set her on fire, and blamed it on a voodoo curse—“the most heinous crime I’ve ever seen,” said the sentencing judge. Another runner raped and strangled a young lady selling encyclopedias door to door—“the most vicious criminal I have encountered in my career,” that judge said. One marathoner tortured a friend over some stolen weed, handcuffing him to a guitar amplifier, then stripping him naked and beating him with a pool cue before stabbing him with a kitchen knife and dragging his body, rolled up in a blanket, to the trash. Less outlandish but no less violent is the man who killed two people in a mindless head-on crash—a decade after falling asleep at the wheel and causing the deaths of two others.
None of them got off easy. They have all been sent away for a very long time, to a place that could have—and, some will no doubt say, should have—broken them. And yet each woke up this morning with enough of his spirit intact to try something difficult and potentially uplifting, even if nobody else is watching or cares.
To talk about running is often to talk in platitudes, about pain and courage and limits that inevitably turn out to be self-imposed. To prove you have it in you to run 26.2 miles at San Quentin, where the limits are so tangible, is an achievement of another sort, one whose rewards, I’m inclined to believe, transcend any medal or finish-line photo. “You have to have love for yourself,” Taylor tells me. “Treat yourself, take care of yourself, watch yourself, what you do, what you eat, how you act. Before, I didn’t love myself. That’s why it was hard for me to express that love toward other people. But I love myself now.”
With the race over, San Quentin’s marathoners limp from the sunshine of the yard back to the prison’s warren of dank cells. Behind iron bars, they hang their drenched clothes on the webs of twine they’ve rigged as drying racks. Whatever approximation of freedom they’ve experienced today, an uncomfortable reality awaits: to save water in this unprecedented shortage, the state has limited all inmates to just three showers a week. A few of the runners, those who showered yesterday, will have to wait until tomorrow. In some ways this ending feels like a return from dreamland to harsh reality, but in reading this story I never felt that we quite graduated to some lighter, happier place, just one a few rungs above the darkness. Is there a reason you finished on this note? It was that final sobering detail to bring us back to reality, to where we’re at and why we’re here. It also matched my reporting chronologically. Once the race was over and I interviewed some people, we were allowed to walk one of the inmates back to his cell. We saw him hang his damp clothes on this improvised clothesline in his cell, this very claustrophobic cell that was really terrifying to look into. And he looked at us and said, ”You know what the final indignity is? I have to wait until tomorrow to take a shower.” It was the last image I was left with, and it created some natural bookends to the story. Starting with the confines of the track and then ending with those same limits really brought the piece full-circle.