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Running Free: From San Quentin Death Row to Running Every Day in His Nike Frees

Posted on 06 September 2013

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by Bill Katovsky.   I was mountain biking home one recent afternoon with 30 to 40 pounds of groceries and a load of clean laundry. It was hot and I felt sleepy and tired, so I decided to take an extended rest in the shade. I sought out my favorite large moss-covered rock at the end of a two-mile uphill grade that curves through the thickly wooded canyon. It’s one of my favorite places in Marin County for running or biking. The sun rarely breaks through the lush canopies of the towering redwoods. The canyon’s almost always empty of people and the few homes here were built for near-total privacy, deliberately cloaked for seclusion behind the surrounding trees. Except for the dry summer months, the canyon sings with rushing water tumbling over the rocks of the nearby creek.

I still had another two miles to go before reaching home, and it’s almost all uphill. I was in little hurry to quit my siesta. I must have dozed off since I was briefly waken by the steps of a runner who was going by at a decent clip. He didn’t even slow down at the sharp, uphill hairpin turn where I was resting. About 20 minutes later, as I drifted in and out of sleep, I saw him running back downhill.  He was short, muscular, bare-chested, and was only clad in a pair of grey mixed martial arts shorts that hung down past his knees and a pair of black Nike Frees. He looked to be around 30. The following conversation, partially condensed, ensued:

Me: (in a loud voice) Hey, are you an ultra runner? You sure look like one!
Him: (He stops running and instead lightly hops from one foot to the next, like a boxer, for the entire time we talked). No, I just like to run.
Me: How long have you been running today?
Him: About an hour and one-half.
Me: I also like running here because of the privacy. You hardly ever see anyone here running. It is steep in sections. That’s why.
Him: I don’t mind.
Me: Well, you look like you do ultras.
Him: No, I just like to run ever since I got out of San Quentin prison.
Me: You were there…in San Quentin?  (His upper body was surprisingly tattoo free). Can I ask what for?
Him: Meth.
Me: Meth?
Him: Yes.
Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 10.52.34 PMMe: How long were you in San Quentin?  (The prison is also located in Marin County.)
Him: Two years.
Me: Well, at least you’re out.
Him: That’s why I love running.
Me: It must have been hard to be locked up for two years.
Him: They had me with all the death row inmates. I hardly ever was allowed to go outside for exercise.
Me: Why’s that?
Him: I was always out of control. So they put me in lockdown. I was the only prisoner on death row who wasn’t there to die.
Me: I don’t understand. Why death row?
Him: I was crazy, completely crazy. My mind was this crazy, wild, runaway thing. They had me on all these anti-psychotic drugs. Because I gave the guards a lot of trouble, they decided it was better to keep me with all the death row inmates.
AQUENTIN_P1.jpg_full_380Me: How many were there on death row?
Him: About 700 prisoners.
Me: Meet any of the famous ones?
Him: (pauses) Richard Ramirez.
Me: The Night Stalker.
Him: Yes, him
Me: Were you in SQ for dealing?
Him: No, just using. I tried to kill myself several times. Meth made it impossible for me to want to live. I once jumped out of a building.
Me: How high was the building?
Him: It was a three-story house. I jumped holding a 40-pound weight. I  shattered my arms. There’s metal plates in both of them. (He holds out his arms ). I also tried to hang myself several times.
Me: But here you are, alive and running. This must feel good.
Him: It does. I have to run every day.
Me: I see that you don’t wear a watch.
Him: No.
Me: Do you ever run in a race?
Him:  No…I just run. It’s what keeps me stable and in control of my head.  I can’t go back to that time in my life when I was using drugs and never able to control my wild, suicidal thoughts.
Me: How outta control were you in prison?
Him: I used to throw shit at the guards, stuff like that.
Me: You have made such a wonderful turnaround.
Him: When I was on meth, getting high was all that mattered. But then you need more and more of the drug just to get to that level where it doesn’t even make you feel high anymore.
Me: How did you take the meth?
Him: I shot up with it. (He points to his left forearm with his right hand).
Me: But you kicked the habit.
Him: Yes. I wanted to die almost all the time while using,
Me: You look so healthy and fit now.
Him: I was just stick and bones when I was using.
Me: Your story is remarkable. It really is.
Him: I just knew I had to make a change. Now, running gives me a much better natural high.
Me: That it does.
Him: Meth was killing me. Running is what keeps me alive.
Me: Have you used any meth since you got out of San Quentin?
Him: No… and I don’t plan to either.
Me: How long have you been out?
Him: Little over a year… Anyway, I  have to go. Someone is waiting for me. But it was great talking to you. Maybe we’ll see each other again around here.
Me: Before you go, do you need any water? I pointed to the water bottle on my bike.
Him: No, I’m good. I  don’t want to cramp. Thank you anyway.

I stood up, and walked closer to him. We told each other our first names as we shook hands. We then said our quick goodbyes. He went from hopping back and forth to running again. As he headed down the dark canyon that flickered with the late-afternoon sunlight, I got back on my bike and slowly pedaled home. I couldn’t help but replay in my mind his incredible story, a story of personal redemption and “breaking good”. It could just as easily have had an alternate, tragic ending — one whose final chapter would have concluded with his motionless body hanging from a self-made cloth noose inside his prison cell. Instead, his tale turned out positive, healthy, and life-affirming. He’s a free man whose new addiction is now running every day in his Nike Frees.

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One Response to “Running Free: From San Quentin Death Row to Running Every Day in His Nike Frees”

  1. eatsleepswim says:

    I love that story, especially since I live in Marin. Perhaps I’ll see this “free runner” someday.


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