They Thought There Was Nowhere Left to Run
Upon the theatrical release of a documentary about a marathon that takes place inside of San Quentin State Prison, I speak to Christine Yoo, director of 26.2 to Life, about capturing that unique race.
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What does it feel like to be in prison? This goody two-shoes cannot comprehend it. How must it be to have one’s freedom taken away so completely? The closest I’ve come to incarceration was in those first couple of weeks of the pandemic, before we were even allowed to go for a jog within a mile of our homes.
26.2 to Life is a new documentary about the inmates of San Quentin State Prison - California’s most notorious maximum-security correctional facility.
The story? They run a marathon over 105 quarter-mile laps of the prison yard.
It’s a personal story. 20 years ago, a friend of director Christine Yoo was sentenced to 271 years in prison in what she tells me was a “gross miscarriage of justice - he really didn’t have a voice in the process.”
When she read about the inmates - known as the 1000 Mile Club - in GQ, as a habitual runner herself (“The longest I've run is like 15 miles, but usually I do 3-5 miles on a daily run.”), Christine wanted to make a film. She couldn’t stop thinking about how the sense of freedom and runner’s high that she felt during runs would feel like for those in prison.
Originally intending to remain in her wheelhouse and create a narrative film based on the true story of the 1,000 Mile Club, 26.2 to Life instead became Christine’s debut documentary feature.
“After I started going in there, researching and talking with the guys, hearing their stories, hearing their voices, seeing San Quentin and seeing those racing events, I knew people needed to see it for what it is, straight from the source.”
She speaks of the true crime genre and how it more often explores the law enforcement and victims’ perspective.
“Those are very important perspectives to show. However, for this piece I was interested in providing a new perspective - making three-dimensional portrayals of people in prison.”
The film is sitting pretty with an 83% fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating (100% audience score), and it’s a compelling film. It’s positioned firmly in the “feel good” category, humanizing the inmates and telling their whole stories without feeling schmaltzy or absolving the inmates of their crimes. Purposefully, the film does the opposite of glamorizing America’s dark prison system.
A few thoughts from watching 26.2 to Life:
105 laps of the prison yard requires some mental strength. It reminded me of the normal things of running track or on a treadmill, but also of a backyard ultra - the loopy ultramarathon of running the same 4 miles every hour until you can run no more. Taxing both mentally and, of course, physically.
There is much talk of using running to tackle the stresses of being in prison and a new study from the University of Auckland suggests that as the vagus nerve - a key component of your fight-or-flight tendencies - is stimulated during activity, the substances emitted may help you get closer to the hallowed Flow State, or at least be a little calmer.
They had to borrow shoes to run. Can you imagine running a marathon in someone else’s shoes? I’m certainly going to be a little more grateful for my kit on my next run.
Sadly, for the race tourists and completists among us, the San Quentin Marathon is one that you can’t sign up for, and I sincerely hope it’s never an option for you.
What do you think running did for these men?
“A lot of these men have never completed anything in their life. They're society's failures, if you will. Once some of these guys completed, say, five miles, it gave them a lot of confidence.”
“With that confidence, they were then able to pursue their GED qualifications and reconnect with family members.”
“Having that confidence that running gives, knowing that you're engaging in something really difficult and you're overcoming it, I think sets off a chain reaction of one positive act after another.”
“These guys, many of them - over the decades that they are behind bars - lose touch with family members. So, the community - the coaches who come into the prison - provide friendships and those relationships.”
The star of 26.2 to Life, Markelle ‘The Gazelle’ Taylor speaks directly of this during the film while getting a second chance at being a top runner, having been a teenage track star.
Having already screened the film in San Quentin, I spoke to Christine as she and Markelle were about to embark upon a tour of screening 26.2 to Life around the country, including in other prisons.
With a goal of giving hope to the hopeless and maybe allowing futures to be built, the team’s work is already showing signs of having an impact as The Mayor of Sacramento presented the film to the California State Legislators.
What have you learned about the running community?
“It's a group of very highly motivated people. Running has the power to transform people, and our goal is to help establish more running clubs across US prisons.”
It’s a lofty goal, but in time, there will be other inmates around the country who can benefit from building the mental fortitude gained from running a marathon in the most grueling fashion possible.
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