If volunteer coach Frank Ruona was ever tempted to forget that the athletes he coaches are serving time in a maximum security state prison, the latest setback to the San Quentin Marathon brought home that reality earlier this month with the deaths of two death-row inmates from drug overdoses, and a subsequent prison lockdown.

RELATED: San Quentin prison marathon delayed by California wildfire

The marathon, which takes inside the prison walls every year in November, was initially postponed until December 14 due to poor air quality from the Camp wildfire, which also caused the cancellation of a number of other races including the Monterey Bay Half Marathon and The North Face Endurance Challenge. But the latest situation has meant the suspension of all volunteer activities in the prison, including the running club, and the postponement of the race itself. It is now scheduled for Friday, January 11, 2019.

Steve B., Tommy, W., Troy D. Photo: Jonath Mathew, courtesy of 26.2 to Life

“It has been a tough November and December for the guys in our club,” Ruona told us in an email, referring to the 1000 Mile Club runners who regularly train under his guidance and that of several other coaches and community volunteers. According to Ruona, the prison has been on lockdown for the past month and the inmates confined to their cells, with no training possible.

San Quentin Head Coach Frank Ruona. Photo: Jianca Lazarus, courtesy of 26.2 to Life

The annual marathon, which is run on a quarter-mile loop inside the prison walls, is restricted to a select group of inmates known as the 1000 Mile Club, who train with the help of Ruona, two other volunteer coaches and a few community volunteers. A documentary scheduled for release next year by Christine Yoo entitled “26.2 to Life” reveals the powerful effect running has had on those men who are looking for some kind of redemption.

“The club members look forward to the marathon all year,” says endurance runner Dylan Bowman, one of the community volunteers for the 1000 Mile Club, “so I’m sure they’re really frustrated to delay it again… With the yard shut down, they can’t train, so it’s not ideal for maintaining hard-earned fitness.” 

The 1000 Mile Club working out. Photo: Jonath Mathew, courtesy of 26.2 to Life

The men who died were not members of the 1000 Mile Club (death-row inmates are not allowed to participate). Their deaths were initially assumed to be suicides, but are now being investigated as possibly accidental opioid overdoses. Opioid addiction is a major problem at the institution.

Ruona has come to know the runners well–their development and potential as runners as well as their personal histories–and speaks of them with compassion, even continuing to work with several who have been paroled and are now running in the local community.

When we spoke previously, Ruona was expecting 36 entrants, but possibly only 18 finishers. With the latest setback to their training, there could be fewer starters.

Markelle Taylor, the “Gazelle” of San Quentin. Photo: Jonath Mathew, courtesy of 26.2 to Life

The frontrunner is a man named Markelle Taylor, aka “the Gazelle.” Two years ago, Taylor ran 3:16, a personal best and the course record. Taylor started serving time for a murder conviction in 2004 (the year before the running club began), but earlier this year his sentence was commuted, and he could be released some time in early 2019. Now 46, Taylor’s qualifying time for the Boston Marathon is 3:20, and Ruona is hoping to somehow get him there. 

If all goes well and the marathon takes place on January 11, it will be the 12th running of the event. Ruona says, “Hopefully they will get a couple of weeks in late December and early January to get back into their running routine and be ready for the marathon.” 

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