What do you say to someone moments after they get released from prison?
This is not a question I ever expected to ask myself. But there I was, pondering the answer while hovering outside a maximum security prison.
I was waiting for Chris to emerge from its menacing exterior.
I didn’t know Chris’s last name. But I did know that he had spent six years inside the harsh concrete walls looming before me.
I also didn’t know how he ended up incarcerated, outside of understanding it’s not five-fingering a lollipop that lands you in a maximum security facility.
I did know how Chris would leave: He was going to run home.
Which is why I was standing within spitting distance from a prison, decked in neon running gear and mulling the matter of how you greet someone who’s spent the last 2,190 nights behind bars.
“Congratulations!” sounded too flowery for a guy I’d been warned "looked like a prisoner." I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but I pictured biceps the size of my head covered in tattoos of automatic firearms and a death stare that’ll make you run for your life.
“Welcome home!” seemed too familiar for an exchange between strangers, and also factually inaccurate when uttered in the parking lot of a state penitentiary.
“I’m so excited to run with you,” is what came out when Chris emerged two minutes after his scheduled release.
It was the truth.
I’d heard about this run a week before, over beers with a running friend. This friend mentioned he was going to run 27 miles from the Oregon State Penitentiary to the small town of Albany to accompany an inmate as he took his first steps toward his second chance. Literally.
My friend met Chris through a running program at OSP, which was started in the 1970s by track legend Steve Prefontaine to help other people realize the redemptive benefits of the sport. Many runners and coaches have kept the program alive to show inmates everything running can offer: rehabilitation, fulfillment, connection, mental and emotional escape.
As a former criminal justice advocate, this program made sense. Once upon a career, I worked for an organization that aims to reform the criminal justice system through more effective, less expensive alternatives to prison. These public policies were rooted in data that showed rehabilitation programs are more likely to help offenders reform than punishment alone. It's evidence-based faith in humanity; with the right support, offenders can change their behavior and lessen their odds of recommitting a crime. Running programs were not included in any of this research, but I had little doubt that the sport and its community could be an incredibly powerful and effective tool for reform.
As a runner, this program resonated. The rigorous nature of running and its endless challenges motivate runners to tap into seemingly unfathomable physical and mental strength. We defy our own expectations and keep going longer, faster, further on the trails, roads, life.
My mother saved her life, or at least lengthened it by many years, when an obesity-related health scare inspired her to pick up a pair of running shoes and start moving. She eventually ran her first marathon at the age of 50. Many recovering alcoholics and addicts apply the discipline they learn through running to their sobriety; they find belonging in the sport’s welcoming community. Some people who experience mental illnesses cope with symptoms of depression and anxiety and other conditions with the help of their running shoes and partners. I’d personally unburied myself from more than a decade of struggling with an eating disorder by approaching recovery with the mental fortitude I’ve gained training and racing 100 mile runs through mountains. The same philosophies applied. “One step at a time.” “You can do hard things.” “You are stronger than you think.”
I suspected Chris was tackling his own seemingly insurmountable challenges with the help of running. If he was going to celebrate his release from prison with a 27-mile jog home, he must have discovered immense value in the sport. I wanted to find out if my suspicion was correct.
“Count me in!” I excitedly told my friend, signing myself up for the journey from Salem to Albany. “Unless he’s going to be running too fast for me to keep up. These trail legs don’t see a lot of speed these days.”
It was a joke. I pictured Captain Tatted Bicep jogging around a prison yard in baggy basketball shorts and a gold chain. While he could unquestionably demolish me in a cage fight, I felt confident I could take him in a marathon.
“Great! Definitely join! I told him we’ll start at 7:30-7:45,” my friend replied.
Until I realized he meant pace per mile and not time of day, rapidly turning the swift “7:30-7:45” that would easily qualify me to run in the prestigious Boston Marathon from “no problem!” to “BIG PROBLEM.” I used to be able to throw down that kind of speed, but I hover much closer to 17:30 miles than 7:30s these days. To maintain that pace for an entire marathon took months of work that I definitely hadn’t been doing.
I decided I didn’t care, because I cared much more about supporting Chris, and about encouraging him to keep running to cope, to heal, to believe in himself.
I believe people who have committed a crime can change, especially with the right help. And I believe running can be part of that help, even if there’s no research to back me up.
I wanted to walk the walk with these convictions. Or rather, run the run.
Which is why “I’m so excited to run with you” seemed like the best and most honest thing I could say as Chris introduced himself.
“Are you running the whole thing?” he asked.
A few tattoos covered his arms, but his biceps were a modest size and his gaze was gentle, not life-threatening.
I wanted to say “yes.” But I didn’t want to overpromise what my legs could deliver and be the first person to disappoint him on the other side of incarceration. I did learn a few things about Chris on the drive from Eugene to Salem — he had a broken family, a recently deceased parent, delinquent friends — and I figured he had the opportunity for plenty of disappointment without my help.
I decided I would run with him for as long as physically possible. Someone would be driving a truck along the route just ahead of the runners. I could always drop out if I wanted to.
“We’ll see how long I can keep up.”
Everyone grew silent as he stopped and scanned the group surrounding him in the parking lot. A dozen of us waited for him to speak. Our motley crew included a handful of civilian runners he’d met through OSP’s running program, a few distant relatives and his eight-year-old daughter who was a toddler when he entered prison. Then there were the random strangers like me who showed up to run by his side or support him along the way without knowing his last name, his favorite color, or what crime stuck him in prison for years. We confused him. He was not a runner before he went to prison and he was unfamiliar with the ways that the running community will show up for each other.
He started to speak to our group with the prison as his backdrop and the road to Albany a sliver of tar in the distance. His words were chopped, emotional. Not what I expected from a dude who’d surely been hardened by years behind bars.
“A year ago, I was running one mile around the prison yard,” he said.
One mile. Singular. It was the farthest he’d run in his life at the time. Twenty-six miles less than the distance he was about to tackle.
“I started dreaming about running home that day.”
At the time, he didn’t know how far that would be (27 miles) or how close that distance is to a marathon (less than a mile) or even that a “marathon” is an official distance (it is, but you probably know that).
He didn’t realize “the wall” is a wave of fatigue that cripples marathoners toward the end of the 26.2 miles, it was simply the 26 foot barrier between him and the world. He trained with ketchup bottles for water vessels and strawberry jam mixed with hot chocolate packets for fuel. And he’d never run outside the yard.
My head was spinning. All of a sudden, everyone’s feet were spinning too as we darted between the parked vehicles and hit the road to Albany. Our group of five crossed a busy intersection beneath a red stoplight, like ants marching through the stream of idling cars.
We sprinted through the city that Chris spent six years in but never knew. Past the gas stations and chain restaurants that he could probably hear but never saw. We were flying. Not at a 7:30 pace — we were running much faster. It wasn’t all that surprising that Chris wanted to get as far away from that place as fast as he possibly could. His feet were a whirlwind against the cracked pavement.
He might not have run outside before, but he clearly figured out how to move quite fast while he was inside those walls.
“We got two hours of yard time for good behavior,” he told us as his legs churned like a cheetah's. I strained forward to try to hear him over the hum of traffic.
“I could max out at running 64 laps. Which is 18 miles.”
I did some quick mental math. Two hours divided by 18 miles equals holy shit, I am going to get dropped today. I pushed harder. I hate math.
Chris started talking about how running helped him survive prison and turn his life around. When he got arrested, most of his family stopped speaking to him. He didn’t know how to be a father to the child he left behind. He was broke and alone and angry. He felt helpless.
“I wasn’t a good person when I went in,” he told us. His candor was surprising, admirable.
“Running gave me my first goal. As I worked toward running goals, I was inspired to tackle other ones, too — academic, financial, personal. The farther and faster I ran, the more I believed I could accomplish anything. Each day got a little bit better than the one before.”
“Did you have help or encouragement doing all of that?” I asked, fighting for the oxygen to speak.
“Not really,” he replied. “Most people inside want to keep you down. You’ve got to motivate yourself to make positive changes. The more you change for the better, the less people want anything to do with you.”
Chris didn’t let that stop him. He went from running one mile to running 18. He achieved his personal trainer certification, he repaired broken relationships, he earned money to help support his family. One small step at a time. He realized he could tackle life the same way we get through every run, the same way my tired limbs were staying with Chris: one step at a time.
As Chris kept talking about life inside the walls, I hit my own fatigue wall hard.
Lead surged through my blood and my legs felt too heavy to lift from the paved earth. My muscles pleaded for mercy.
The red Chevy truck ambled ahead of us. I could drop out.
I didn’t want to.
My weary legs dodged a discarded beer bottle as Chris started shouting excitedly in front of me.
“Look at those trees! That water!” He was galloping.
I glanced up. There was a murky puddle. A dirty creek. Naked tree limbs prodding a grey November sky.
Oregon might be the prettiest state in the nation, but she allocated very little obvious beauty for that particular roadside. Chris’ enthusiasm would fool you into thinking we were cruising along a majestic ridgeline on Mount Hood, not hurdling litter on the narrow shoulder of an unimpressive state highway.
There was nothing especially pretty to look at, but there was also no wall in sight.
“It’s a glorious day to be alive!” he bellowed.
I recognized his attitude: When I find immense joy in the smallest of pleasures because I worked tirelessly to earn them. It’s the first glimpse of a pastel sunrise at mile 87 of a 100-mile race, when my legs have endured months of hard training and hours of running through the night to reach that moment. It’s the glory that cuts through the pain.
Chris persevered through six years of hell. He slept behind bars, subsisted on unidentifiable mounds of food, gazed at nothing but dirty cement and rusty barbed wire for years on end, with just a glimmer of hope in a sea of despair. After six long years inside, he was finally out, running home through wide open spaces.
It was beautiful.
I squirted water into my parched mouth from my handheld bottle, the kind marketed to runners that nestles a bottle into your palm with colorful, lightweight nylon. I imagined a ketchup bottle in its place. I squirted again.
I was so captivated by everything Chris said, I kept forgetting he was technically running his first marathon. Mostly because he didn’t do or say anything to remind us, even as we surpassed the longest distance he’d ever completed — the 18 miles he squeezed into his two hours of yard time.
I’ve paced a number of friends through marathons and stood on the sidelines of dozens more. The common experience after 16 miles is to start showing massive fatigue and frustration. Strides crumble, profanities fly, tears flow, complaints are abundant. And this is all from runners who get encouragement from crowds waving cowbells and colorful signs, aid stations stacked with sugary snacks and pyramids of water and a soundtrack of energetic bands and boom boxes blaring Top 40 hits.
Chris was stoic. Perpetually grateful. Persistently positive. Even without crowds and cowbells and pop songs. Instead of colorful course markings and bright signs marking the way, he charted the route with maps he borrowed from inmates working for Oregon’s DMV. Instead of aid stations every mile, he had the lone truck. He made it seem like it was the most support he’d ever known. It might’ve been.
But we knew Chris had enough tenacity to succeed without much support. He endured prison; he would easily get through this run.
It wasn’t until well after our twentieth mile that he finally showed a small sign of wear and tear.
“My calves are alive!” he sang.
It was a complaint, but a decidedly more positive alternative to the “I’m so dead” that I usually hear from friends at this stage of a marathon — not to mention from my very own quadriceps for the last three hours.
I frantically searched my vocabulary for an equally positive alternative to my go-to cheer of “you’re killing it!” Talk of “death” and “killing” seemed a bit insensitive considering where Chris had just been.
“There’s no question you can do this,” I called out.
Our companions echoed my words.
“There’s no question you can do this,” they said.
I wasn’t sure if we were talking about the run or life outside. I hope Chris heard both.
His stride was strained, but he was smiling.
His resolve buoyed my own. His story of dogged determination in running and life fueled my drive to stick with him. His appreciation for mundane scenery and coveted banana splits inspired gratitude for the big and small — for the rush of sugar from skittles we ate with four miles to go, for the incredible display of resilience and tenacity from Chris. For being there to see it.
I wanted to do this run because I thought I could offer a small amount of help to someone in need. I didn’t expect to find myself getting so much help in return.
We hit our 27th mile and started approaching our final destination. As we ran into Albany’s quaint city park, we saw a small crowd of our running friends and a few of his relatives bobbing in the distance. Chris picked up his pace, bouncing through the physical exhaustion from running for three and half hours straight.
Colorful posters dotted the grass, welcoming him home. Someone had stretched a ribbon of toilet paper across the damp path marking a finish line. Or the start.
He broke through the makeshift finish tape. Strands of toilet paper danced in the wind.
He looked up at the ashen sky, and then folded into himself. I finally met the request of my tired legs and stopped. In that moment, we had almost nothing in common, but we still shared a powerful connection: the strength we know through running.
I had no business running as fast as I did for as far as I did that day. Chris faced an equally dismal shot at a better post-prison experience. The Department of Justice reports that 76.6 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within five years. Statistics predict he is more likely to recidivate than reform himself. But Chris was no longer a statistic: he was a human, a runner. And damned good at being both, based on everything he showed us over the course of 27 miles.
I still didn’t know his last name, or his favorite color, or what crime landed him in prison. But I did know him for 27 miles. For 3 hours and 34 minutes of making the impossible possible. And that was enough evidence to have a little faith.
I stumbled over to Chris and congratulated him with a hug. A small tear somersaulted down his cheek.
I started the day having no idea what to say, but knew exactly how to end it.
“I’m so excited I ran with you,” I told him.
It was the truth.