My Run in the Oregon State Penitentiary

Matt suggested the Oregon State Penitentiary Run to me last spring, noting it was one of his favorite events of the year. I thought it sounded a little crazy, but my friends thought it was all out crazy. Before I committed to it, I wanted to know what made it stand out and, while he couldn’t exactly pinpoint what it was, he said there was something special about this run, something different and, in ways, life changing. It took a few months, but he finally convinced me to drive down to Salem for this unique run.

Saying this is a unique run is an understatement, but there are many ways this is just like another run you’d find outside the prison walls. You register like any other race, wear an actual race bib, get water or juice along the course and a post –race banana. Unlike other runs, there isn’t day-of registration, you must be escorted to the restroom once you’re admitted and there is a strict dress code. Unlike other races, this event is free, although they accept donations and could really use a new timing clock.  This program is organized, funded and run by the inmates; they take pride in it and it shows.

We had sunny skies for the final race of the 2014 series and I showed up super early, since I knew it might take a bit to get checked in. I wasn’t even sure where to park when I arrived, let alone what building to enter. It’s not the most welcoming event, with the high walls, barbed wire and watch towers. I was so relieved to see a few runners making their way to the main building and asked if they were there for the run. I was even more relieved when they said they were, until they asked me why we were doing it. Without a good answer, I just had to note it was a good question.

You check in at the main office with your driver’s license and leave pretty much everything else in a locker at the front.  There’s a brief discussion reminding everyone that there are assumed risks entering a maximum security prison, including a prison riot. I really wasn’t nervous about any of this until friends and family started expressing concerns. Then to arrive, not know anyone else and have a lengthy process just to get to the yard, it gave me time to get a little anxious. Not nervous for my safety, just a little anxiety over the unknown. As you make your way to the athletic yard, there are holding areas that are locked down. Ten people are allowed to enter at a time to trade out their license for a visitor’s badge. Once you enter the holding area, you are locked in, until everyone is processed and the next door opens.

There were a few people there who, like me, were first timers and not quite sure what to expect. I was looking for the experienced prison runners, to pester with questions. One gentleman said it was such a worthwhile event, he drove down from Portland to run it and his daughter brought friends. Another repeat runner was returning for a story in Runner’s World. They affirmed that this would be worth the drive, worth the time and would give me a new perspective, which made me feel better about my decision.

That comfortable feeling left as soon as we walked into the yard, partly because I’ve never been inside of a prison and partly because many of the returning runners already knew guys on the inside. I felt totally out of place, but loved to see the faces light up as visitors walked in and called them by name. When someone remembers your name you feel special and I think that feeling is multiplied behind the prison walls.

I nervously asked people if they were running the 5k or the 10k and it seemed that the majority were running the 5k. The organizers reassured me that I had nothing to worry about, I could always run the 5k, if that made me more comfortable. You’re running laps in the yard, which requires some concentration, not just mindless running. Walking across the yard and into the card room for actual registration, my worry shifted to wondering how I was going to keep track of my laps. After I explained my counting dilemma, one of the organizers noted they could have a guy be my counter. I wanted to see just how challenging I could be, so I teased about wanting some earbuds and music. Instead of marking a ‘difficult’ next to my name, the guy behind the registration table actually offered for me his earbuds. Not because he didn’t need them, he was running too, but because they are that nice to the outsiders coming in to run.

As you’re waiting for the run to get started, the inmates mingle and introduce themselves.  Every single inmate I chatted with was friendly, respectful and incredibly grateful. Honestly, I would never have known they were in prison, except for the setting and their assigned prison blues. The men I spoke with were polite, articulate and quickly put me at ease; they didn’t deny they had made mistakes. They did want to be seen as people, though, and this program provides that opportunity.  Inmates and Outsiders running alongside each other, or at least in theory. Some of these guys are seriously fast and there was no way I could keep up.

The 5k started at one end of the yard and the 10k started at the other end, most of the runners taking part in the 5k and, after losing count of my laps, it might have been the better distance for me. I figured I had driven all the way to Salem, I might as well run a couple extra laps. Run laps I did and was absolutely blown away when they said they had actually organized a marathon once on the inside, it gives me a headache trying to figure out how many laps that would take.

A water station, a couple of DJ’s playing music, keeping the crowd motivated and guys tracking the finishers, every single one of them an inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary. These guys know how to organize a run, they just want participants. They have made bad choices, but the guys that take part in this program really are trying to turn their lives around, they just need opportunities. The OSP Run allows them to take a small step in that direction. I love how the organizer, Todd Gulley explained, “Bringing in outside guests humanizes us in ways that no other advocacy could. There is camaraderie in running that transcends social barriers. Ninety-three percent of us have release dates and will be joining you in running events in your community soon. We ask nothing more than to be judged on the content of our character versus our current address.”

Attend this run and you will see that character. They aren’t focusing on their past, but looking to their future and I know this is a trait I could use. I also could take a lesson in their thoughtfulness.  I was blown away when they pulled out a signed birthday banner for one of the guests.  They don’t have information on visitors, they just pay attention and actually listen. She had run several of the OSP runs and mentioned that the next one would fall on her birthday. These guys remembered that and when they pulled out the sign and sang “Happy Birthday” I think there were tears behind her sunglasses.

Matt included a great checklist in his preview, but I wanted to note to especially pay attention to the following:

  • Register early since a background check is required
  • Bring current ID and change for the locker
  • Dress appropriately:  wear leggings under shorts and nothing too tight or revealing
  • Arrive early, since it takes a little extra time to check in, get cleared and make your way to the yard
  • Relax and have fun, keep an open mind and be prepared to leave with a new perspective.

Next time I’ll wear my Garmin to help keep track of the distance, since I think I might have been a little short of a 10k. They emailed the race results and I think I might have missed a lap. I don’t usually run that distance, so I’ll never really know. I do know I’ll be returning to the Oregon State Penitentiary for another run inside the walls. I think next time will be even more rewarding, since I’ll enter knowing exactly what to expect. Not knowing anyone and being in such a foreign environment made me a little nervous, which I discovered was a ridiculous worry. All the people coming in from the outside to run with the inmates were amazing and the guys that are part of this program are nice guys that have made some seriously bad choices. It’s all about people supporting and encouraging others to be better and do more with where they are right now.

They’ve seen a 291% increase in prisoner participation, but are still only reaching less than 5% of the inmates. Many of these men will be released back into society and I think programs like this are so important to help make that transition a positive one. With this program they are not only getting the benefits we all know that come with running, but they are improving skills. It takes a lot of work to organize an event and everything from the sound system to the race bibs are paid for by the inmates and community sponsors. Often donations are collected one dollar at a time, but these guys are making this happen and it’s inspiring to experience it. After running it, I can see why guest participation is up 600%.

They are already looking towards their 2015 season and expect to have a schedule out sometime in December. I thought it was a crazy suggestion to go run in the Oregon State Penitentiary and you can imagine what my family and friends thought, but I’m so happy I listened and ran with my heart. It’s hard to explain what makes this run so special, I think you have to just go experience it for yourself. No one will ask you to be their pen pal, for your phone number or make you feel in any way uncomfortable.  They are simply grateful that people are willing to take the time to come run with them and their gratitude shows.  If you can find happiness inside the gloomy walls of the penitentiary, I think it’s a sign you can find happiness anywhere and maybe that’s what I love.  I’ll go with that until next season.

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