Prison University Project student Steve Brooks reflects on running a marathon in prison. His story is one in a series of oral histories that Voice of Witness has collected through collaborative storytelling workshops with Prison University Project students.
It was November 17, 2017. A day without glitz and glamour. No roaring crowds. No motorcycle cops. No streets and no scenic route. But that day there was a film crew filming a documentary about the San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club— the only marathon running club for prisoners in the nation.
The club has been around for about a decade but I joined when I arrived at San Quentin in 2016. I was attracted to the idea of running a marathon. I wondered if I could do it. Then I decided to prove to myself that I could. I started training almost immediately. I trained for a whole year. Something I’ve never done before for any reason.
When Friday November 17 finally came I felt like I was ready. I ran with 24 other club members. We ran in a not so perfect circle, in the middle of the four acre square lower yard— on a track roughly 400 meters. My goal was to go round and round without stopping for 105 laps— the equivalent of 26.2 miles.
It was a perfect day to run a marathon. It was sunny, but cool— 65 degrees. And I felt good even though I was running on dirt, gravel, asphalt, and small patches of grass. I ran between 2 green spray painted lines about 5 feet apart. They were cordoned off by orange cones meant to keep pedestrians out of the lane.
The running course had a slight hill members called “the gauntlet” because it got worse every lap. This led to an unevenly sloped bend curving left towards a health clinic, guard shack, inmate urinals and some water fountains. The track then curved left again back down a slight hill.
I ran past huge walls, gun rails and barbed wire fencing, before entering back onto the straightway where the race began.
The scenery was drab. I ran past a makeshift laundry room where inmates were exchanging their laundry. I passed a baseball field but there was no game. I ran past inmates playing horseshoes and basketball. And I saw inmates doing pull-ups, dips, and push-ups. There were many inmates also walking along the track, veering in and out of our lane, as we ran. Some of them were dressed in blue with the words “CDCR Prisoner” painted bright yellow across their backs. There were flocks of pigeons, seagulls and geese taking off and landing like planes all around me. I mostly stared at the ground however, in deep concentration. Every now and then I would look up and see the clear blue sky. I was going nowhere fast and the pain was settling in.
By mile 13 I was completely exhausted. My legs were heavy. My breath was shallow and I was drenched in sweat. I knew then that the last 13 miles was gonna be like a death march— a crucifixion. Many times I wanted to quit. People were dropping out all around me. But I kept going.
I was 200 pounds. I was wearing heavy white shorts and an oversized grey T-shirt. I was punishing myself, restructuring my anatomy. My shins were sore. My knees were starting to feel dislocated and my pelvic bone felt shattered.
I got angry at my lap counter because I thought he was missing my laps. I was frustrated because people kept handing me water when I needed electrolytes. Electrolytes when I needed water. Then the cup kept missing my mouth. I ate so much Sugary Goo (energy booster) I got nauseous.
Then, there were two emergency alarms where I had to completely stop running and sit on the ground, until the alarms cleared. Luckily they only lasted five minutes but long enough for my joints to stiffen. When I finally got up to run again bones were grinding against bone.
Eventually I began to wonder, why? Why would I take the pain of being in prison with a life sentence and couple it with the pain of running a marathon? The closer I got to the finish line the further it got away. My only energy eventually came from cheers, applause, pats on my back. But I was broken, limping, and in pain.
I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to do something few people did in my life. I wanted to discover how much pain I could actually take, I guess. I experienced a lot of pain but also freedom, comfort, and peace. I found a parallel universe— a spiritual realm. But I also think I found what I craved most in life— redemption. I finished the marathon in 4 hours and 12 seconds.
Please note that the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College in September 2020.