[Editor’s note: Steve Brooks is a contributing writer for Prison Journalism Project and San Quentin News, a newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison, in California, where he is incarcerated. In this first-person essay, Brooks shares how his love for running has helped forge important relationships within the Mile 1000 Club.]
I begin my day next to a baseball scoreboard, beneath a gray sky and a sun just poking out through the marine layer that blankets the San Francisco Bay. I stretch my calves and hamstrings and simulate a few strides. I take a few deep breaths and expel them from my lungs.
I look around and I see John, Darren, Mike and Tommy, who are some of my white teammates, already out on the track. I smile and greet each of them as I set out for a 5-mile run beneath the gun towers on the lower yard at San Quentin State Prison.
As I take smooth, easy strides along the track, a strange irony enters my mind. I don't have to think about the things that other Black joggers think about. I don't have to worry about a checklist or the danger of running through a predominantly white residential neighborhood. I don't have to worry about whether I'm wearing the wrong clothes or looking too threatening. All the cops know me here, so I have no fear of being shot. I'm a man who has never experienced the discrimination that might come from running while Black.
I am a member of the San Quentin 1000 Mile Club. I had heard about the club from another incarcerated person that I knew in a different prison and was excited to join upon my transfer here. Running has led me to see the problem of racism through a different lens. In our club, there is no cloud, no judgment, only the exhilaration of our footfalls and heavy breaths as we run together—all races, colors, and creeds.
Our total membership includes about 50 people ranging in ages 20 to 70. About half our members are white, many are Black, Latino, Asian or Middle Eastern. We also have runners with disabilities and those who are transgender. What brings us together is our common interest in running and our goal of becoming better people.
One of my running pals is Tommy Wickerd, a former White supremacist with a bald head, muscular frame and arms covered in tattoos of Nazi insignias. Whenever we find each other on our running track—a ¼-mile asphalt-and-gravel circuit in the yard with six 90-degree turns—I tell him, “You sure make it look easy.” His response is always the same: “1000 Mile Club!”
Over the years, Tommy and I grew closer through community runs and growing respect for one another as athletes. We have shared prison-made protein bars and seafood burritos together, which is something we would have never done earlier in life. In some prisons, men are beaten and stabbed for just trying to be friends with people outside of their races. I've only had a few white friends in my life. I grew up being called the N-word and other derogatory names since I was about eight years old. My ancestors were slaves, and most of my family left Mississippi and came to California to escape the Ku Klux Klan. I never felt equal enough to have white friends.
But this club is an escape from feeling the heavy weight of hate. It’s a welcome reprieve from being considered the scum of the earth. We are accomplishing something and serving a higher purpose.
I still remember my first San Quentin marathon in November 2017. I started slowing down at the 13-mile mark. But I kept going, and the last five miles felt like I was trudging through six inches of snow. My stomach was in knots and my hamstrings were seizing up. My arms started dangling. My breath became panicked. A sip of water hurt. What kept me moving toward that finish line was people from all ethnicities cheering for me—teammates, coaches, prison guards, doctors, nurses and teachers. At every turn, someone was there nudging me forward, running beside me, clapping or yelling words of encouragement. At that moment, it didn't matter that I was Black and some of them were white. I ended up finishing the race in four hours, and I was hooked.
Our club was started 15 years ago by an educator named Laura Bowman. Five years after she started the club, Frank Ruona, a 75-year-old U.S Army veteran and USA Track and Field certified coach, took over. When Ruona comes in, he often brings an impressive team of coaches, including Olympic gold medalist Eddie Hart, three-time Olympic trial qualifier Diana Fitzpatrick and ultra-runner Dylan Bowman. Rouna also makes sure we get new running shoes each year.
During some of our runs, Tommy and I occasionally have serious conversations. When rioters attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, we men inside were just as shocked at how much unresolved racial tension there still is in this country.
"It reminds me of how ignorant I was 19 years ago as a white supremacist gang member," Tommy said as we ran side by side. "A lot of white people feel they should be treated better than everyone else, but as far as I'm concerned, we're all the same."
Tommy and I always talk about how important our diverse running community is, and our relationship works because we put community first.
As a club, we don't really get to run like we used to since the COVID-19 pandemic ravished San Quentin and the rest of the world. Our coaches have been banned from entering the prison. We have been running a lot less and my lungs have been burning a lot more. But our passion is still there.
Reaching the end of my 5-mile run, I am drenched in sweat and my heart begins to slow down. I stretch my legs and watch the others. “Good run, you guys," I say to them. "1000 Mile club!" Tommy shouts.
I grab my water bottle, finish its contents and tell my teammates I’ll see them later. I walk back up the stairs to the North Block housing unit, shower and return to my cell.
Brooks has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California chapter for two of his columns in PJP. He has also completed two college degrees in liberal arts and social and behavioral sciences and plans to obtain a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He has been incarcerated for almost 28 years.