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A runner's high in prison

Under CC license from Flickr user marksteelenz

KALW has partnered with radio producers inside California's oldest prison to bring you the San Quentin Prison Report: a series of stories documenting life in the prison, written and produced by the men inside. 

Chris Schumacher may be serving a life sentence, but when he runs, he feels a sense of freedom. Once an addict, he now finds that exercise can curb his destructive urges. He says thousands of laps around the San Quentin Prison track have changed his life.

On a brisk winter morning, Schumacher prepares for his daily run. With his gym shorts and Nikes on, he heads to the track.

“A little bit of warmup is important. I definitely like to stretch,” Schumacher says. “I set a goal for myself, like, I'm going to run five miles, or I'm going to run ten miles. And then once I have the distance set, I can start thinking about time.”

On a typical day, there are approximately 500 inmates on the lower yard and 25 visiting geese, so Schumacher has to maneuver carefully as he runs. “You definitely don't want to run into anybody while you're running in prison," he say. "I have to be aware of other people, because they don't know I'm coming sometimes.”

Schumacher began running in the Air Force, where he says he had to cover two miles in under 20 minutes. “But it wasn't until I came to San Quentin that I really got into it,” he says. “I really got into the zone, and this is where I ran my first full five miles.”

Running changes the way Schumacher feels in the moment. “For me, when I’m running, I'm able to be with my body, be with my breath, be in the zone, be in tune with what's going on around me,” he says.

But it’s also helped him in other ways. “It’s something that keeps me steered away from those other negative influences we know are so common in prison,” he says. “You definitely get those endorphins kicking off and that runner’s high. That’s important to me because I used to use other things to get high: drugs, alcohol. And since giving all that up, running has been an outlet for me.”

Schumacher is 40 years old and has been clean for over 13 years. He's diabetic, and says running confers health benefits as well. “It helps me control my blood sugar," he says. "And I get a lot of emotional and spiritual benefits while I'm running: a sense of accomplishment, a sense of achieving one's goals. It takes me out of the prison environment for a little while.”

Schumacher’s endurance continues to improve. Last November, he competed in the annual San Quentin marathon: more than 100 laps around the track. He led the pack for the first 11 miles, but then, because of his diabetes, his blood sugar dropped. He couldn't finish the race. But he says he'll be back again next year.