‘Run with joy and love’ | ET REALITY

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On a recent glorious afternoon, jogger Markelle Taylor, also known as “Markelle the Gazelle,” entered the dark sally port and crenellated towers of a place he was once delighted to leave behind: San Quentin State Prison. . Accompanied by volunteer trainers from the prison’s 1000 Mile Club, Taylor, who was imprisoned for 18 years for second-degree murder, couldn’t wait to see his brothers, all sentenced to life in prison.

Taylor, 50, fully earned his long-standing nickname in 2019 at the San Quentin Marathon, where he ran 104 and a half laps around the prison yard with his series of 90-degree turns, fast enough to qualify. for the Boston Marathon, which he ran six weeks after his release.

After finishing his sentence, Taylor sought to return as a mentor to his fellow racers still inside. Three months ago, he finally got the go-ahead from state prison officials. He now returns to San Quentin to train runners every other Monday.

On this visit, it took him less than a minute to run into an old friend dressed in a blue prison uniform. “Hey!” said Sergio Álvarez, who has been incarcerated for 10 and a half years. “I see you in the paper, man, and on television. You are doing the right thing and speaking up, brother.”

It means a lot to Taylor to be mentored by people who mentored him, especially Frank Ruona, who turns 78 next month and plans to retire after 18 years as the club’s head coach.

“He’s a great example of the qualities that make a good coach,” Taylor said. “Faithful, loyal, honest, unbiased, an accomplished speed runner with records and time under his belt.”

But Taylor brings her own special qualities to her new role. “Being a lifer or an ex-con who went through some tough times, I bring that flavor of connection,” he said. “I want to give them hope, just be there for the guys in any way I can. To help them go out and be better athletes.”

Runners filtered through the unkempt grass of the yard, dodging a baseball game in progress, a Spanish choir rehearsal, and a handful of Canada geese that are the prison’s feathered convicts. Track training begins at 6 pm after dinner and the mandatory daily count.

Tim Fitzpatrick, who intervenes when Ruona retires, gathered the runners, whose nighttime silhouettes cast long shadows on the crumbly dirt of the track. Fitzpatrick, a finisher of 28 marathons and 38 ultramarathons, takes over at Ruona along with his wife, Diana, president of the Western States Endurance Run 100 Mile and two-time Dipsea champion, and Jim Maloney, another longtime coach and facilitator. restorative justice in prison.

“We want a training race, not an effort race!” Fitzpatrick said of the evening’s workout: six exercises, or fast-paced intervals, each driven by an exuberant, loon-like whistle he invents with his hands.

In “Ready… set… exercise!” Taylor began walking his fellow runners around the track; The most complicated section is a right angle that ends in a space between the metal fences. During breaks he chatted with old friends like Darren Settlemyer, a fellow Jehovah’s Witness who was the first to suggest that Taylor join the running club, knowing he was stressed about the suicide of a close friend and an upcoming parole hearing. When Taylor started running, “everything connected mentally and spiritually,” he said. “I was free for four years before they released me.”

Taylor grew up a victim of domestic and sexual violence and was addicted to alcohol. She was 27 when he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for assaulting her pregnant girlfriend, resulting in the premature birth and eventual death of her child.

“I didn’t know how to process all that misplaced anger,” she said. “When you feel like you are nothing, you tend to gravitate toward the negative. I feel much better about who I am today. “I’m quite aware that I’m trying to hold on to the good things in my life.”

There is an abundance of goodness. Taylor’s return to San Quentin is part of an extraordinary year in her life. He is one of the subjects of “26.2 to Life: Inside The San Quentin Prison Marathon,” a documentary film by Christine Yoo. She’s been traveling across the country to film festivals, walking red carpets from Santa Barbara to Woods Hole and routinely receiving standing ovations during post-screening Q&As. His naturalness and warmth as a speaker have allowed him to connect with the audience about his story and the need for prison reform.

“Markelle gives us hope, which is a blessing,” said Kirivuthy Soy, a member of the 1000 Mile Club. “That he got out shows that just because you’re a lifer doesn’t mean you’re going to be here forever.”

For Taylor, the enthusiastic reception from audiences and the experience of watching the film repeatedly is rewarding and healing. “The more I see it, the more it helps me internally process what I’ve been through in my life and remain accountable for the pain and suffering I’ve caused,” she said. “The conferences give me a sense of purpose and well-being and help me with my sobriety and cleanliness.”

After twenty-two years sober, he continues to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Marin County, where he lives. “I think if you don’t go it’s like forgetting where you come from and you can stumble along that path,” he said.

His life as a film festival favorite feels far removed from his everyday reality. Like many formerly incarcerated people, he struggles to find meaningful, well-paying employment: Taylor makes $17.25 an hour as a supermarket cashier. “I get along with everyone and I’m fair,” he said. “But being black I have to work harder than anyone else, and with a criminal record it’s really difficult. “They will judge you and they may not even be aware that they are doing it.”

Your willingness to ask for help is a strength. He’s also not afraid to go after what he wants. At a screening at San Quentin on January 6, he stood up in an open forum and asked the director, Ron Broomfield, if he would allow him to return as a volunteer. “He put me on the spot,” Broomfield recalled. “He didn’t realize that I’m a big advocate of returning citizens coming back to be mentors, because they can reach people in ways that we can’t.”

Broomfield, now director of adult prisons statewide, is also co-chairman of a committee created by Gov. Gavin Newsom of California charged with transforming the prison into the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center, a concept inspired by Scandinavian campus-style prisons. . Initial plans call for renovating a furniture factory where Taylor dyed and finished chairs for 50 to 60 cents an hour and turning it into a $380 million educational center, with more space for restorative justice and other programs.

The documentary has led many runners to apply to be volunteer coaches; At night training, there were 15 runners and 14 coaches, a teacher-student ratio that most schools would envy. Among the newbies was Peter Goldmacher, vice president of investor relations at Dolby Laboratories, who saw the movie about a year ago “and thought he definitely wanted to be in it,” he said.

Taylor is recovering from a torn meniscus and other injuries. He took some time off and felt lonely when he didn’t run. Between travel and work, he hasn’t been able to train as regularly as he would like. “When I run, I’m much more focused,” he said. “It helps me get up.”

This fall he plans to run the Chicago Marathon and the New York Marathon. After running three marathons in a row in under three hours, most notably a 2:52 in Boston two years ago, he would like to reach the mark again. But his mission now is “to be an ambassador for life,” he said. “The important thing is to run with joy, love and a sense of purpose and not chase my own personal goals.”

With renewed confidence, he’s considering possibilities: perhaps a TED talk or expanding his Markelle the gazelle athletic equipment line.

“I can’t change the mentality of the masses,” he said. “All I can do is live the best I can. Doing that can radiate like a light, so that everyone else can see.”

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