On Sunday, Markelle “The Gazelle” Taylor will be at the New York City Marathon starting line on Staten Island.
Taylor is nursing a sore knee from running the Chicago Marathon last month, but he isn’t backing out. “I am a man of my word,” he told The Post.
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Reliability and accountability were values Taylor internalized as a member of the 1,000 Mile Club at San Quentin State Prison in California, when he was serving 15 years to life until being released in 2019.
“People in the running club, they listen to you. What your fears are. It was therapy,” he said. The unorthodox running club is the subject of a powerful new documentary “26.2 to Life: The San Quentin Prison Marathon.“
Premiering Nov. 11 at the Doc NYC film festival, the film tells the story of the track club, which started in 2005 when running coach Frank Ruona and other members of the nearby Tamalpa Running Club went into the prison and developed a program to train inmates.
Every year, they race varying distances eventually leading up to a full marathon, which is 105 grueling laps around the prison yard.
Director Christine Yoo, who read a 2016 GQ story about the California prison joggers, was immediately drawn to the project, though it took nine months to get permission to film there. She interviewed members, coaches and former inmates who had been released and wanted to capture the human stories and transformative nature of the club, which offered a sense of freedom within the walls of the notorious prison.
“When you are running, you can go places. Not just physically but in your mind. Many of the guys told me that when they are running, they can see themselves on the outside,” said Yoo, whose film featured music created by current or formerly incarcerated artists.
In a system that is heavily divided among racial lines, the running club is relatively diverse in terms of both ethnicity and age. Yoo said many are drawn to the club because they want to get into shape and lose weight.
“They stay because they find a place to belong,” she said.
Such was the case with Taylor, who served nearly 18 years after assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, a beating that resulted in the death of their son. Taylor had battled addiction and the demons of an abusive childhood and though he had earned offers to run in college, he didn’t entertain them because: “I didn’t feel worthy.”
Initially, he joined the 1,000 Mile Club in 2015 because members were given hats and sneakers from the outside. But he was also searching for purpose after his friend committed suicide after being denied parole for the fifth time.
And the club and coaches quickly became a lifeline for him.
“They were like family and they came in with no judgment. Being on the inside, you are stuck but when people from the outside come, they helped build a family structure and a community,” said Taylor.
That community rallied Taylor to realize his potential as both a human and a runner. While in San Quentin, he ran a Boston qualifying time. Taylor was released in 2019 and in a storybook twist, he was running in the historic race only six weeks later, where he finished in 3:03:52.
Now he works at a supermarket, has been sober for more than two decades and is on the board of the Tamalpa Runners. The club keeps tabs on other prisoners who were released and they reunite for at least one race a year.
“It’s an awesome feeling, and it’s overwhelmingly inspiring to be able to live the life that I am living now,” said Taylor, who hopes the film shows that “people who have been incarcerated deserve second chances. People do have the ability to change. Don’t just look at their crime but look at the person and the human they are today.”
Yoo echoes that sentiment and wants more prisons to adopt similar running programs, for which they’ve developed a tool kit and template. One in New Hampshire has already done it.
“Running isn’t the answer to incarceration but it’s the idea of community engagement that Frank has helped create. And community means continuity beyond the prison walls,” she said. “It has a ripple effect.”