I finished the Austin Marathon yesterday. It was a new course, with plenty of hills. Perhaps with some twisted delight, the race planners routed the final half mile up 11th street from Red River. This 80-foot climb over a mere three blocks caused fits of rage or tears as fatigued runners turned the corner to see the daunting climb standing between them and the finish line.
I had decided to follow my coach’s advice and adhere to a carefully planned race strategy. I would dial back my effort on early hills to save my legs, increase my pace modestly during flat portions of the race, and close the last few miles at an ambitious speed while retaining some energy for the final hill.
I imagined myself charging up 11th street. This was not an unrealistic goal, having followed a strict training regimen that pushed me beyond my limits. I had increased my long-run distance to 24 miles, learning to close at marathon goal pace on painfully fatigued legs. I did speed drills on Wednesdays, and woke up early on Mondays to conquer 12-mile runs before work. The training cycle confirmed what I already knew about myself: I am a disciplined and goal-driven person, whether in training or at my job.
I possessed these qualities throughout my life, even though I believed the opposite for many years. Somehow, I had come to view myself through a prism of shame. The messages I told myself sabotaged every goal. Shame stole my resilience, making the challenges of life impact me like a flat tire running over potholes. I look back on that time, and I’m no longer surprised that I descended into anxiety, depression, and addiction.
No one can endure self-loathing without eventually breaking.
This is how I spun out of control and committed crimes that landed me in prison. I don’t excuse my actions, but I do understand them. I met countless men whose self-image had been similarly corrupted. The lucky ones met kindly people who helped them to shape a new story about themselves, a story that opened the door to their true potential. These men weren’t “rehabilitated” so much as they were awakened.
It’s important for me to make that clarification, because there is a belief in our culture that prison has the power to rehabilitate. There has never existed an intervention where heaping shame upon a broken person leads to positive transformation. Yet, the predominant mode of human interaction between correctional officers and incarcerated individuals is the degrading of human dignity. There are decent people working as correctional officers, but they inevitably quit.
Texas prisons have one of the highest turnover rates of any state agency.
Harsh treatment was the norm. I remember one female Sergeant who worked as the risk management officer. One day, she and another female officer stationed themselves in sight of the changing tables outside of the mechanical building where I worked. The mechanical bosses were required to strip search us before returning to the main unit, so she decided to monitor the strip search. She and the other female officer laughed wickedly as she’d call out orders to the bosses: “Hey, you didn’t make him spread his cheeks!”
As part of my race strategy, I decided to name 11th Street after her. Whatever else happened during the race, I was going to run every step of that tortuous hill as fast as I could.
She was not going to be an obstacle that caused me to limp towards the finish line.
Things did not go according to plan during the race. The temperature was in the 50s with humidity levels above 85%, risking both hypothermia and dehydration. I managed to conquer the first 22 miles a bit slower than my goal pace; but I still had hope of achieving a personal record. Suddenly, a wave of nausea slowed me, and I began shivering and sweating profusely. I pressed on for another mile but had to stop. I sat down and vomited on the grass next to me. I knew that I was dehydrated, and that continuing to run the final miles would be risky.
But 11th Street was only two miles away. I got up, disoriented, and began to run slowly. Somehow, I made it to the last water station and forced down some water and electrolytes, which caused another wave of nausea. I pressed on, even finding some speed for the final half mile before 11th.
I turned onto the hill and saw my wife. She ran next to me, and we bounded up the hill together. As the finish line came into sight, the clock indicated that I had 40 seconds to cross the line to beat my personal record. I managed to sprint the final distance in 20 seconds. I received my medal, and struggled to the medical tent where they wrapped me in a hypothermia blanket and helped me to take in fluids.
I know that I’m capable of doing more marathons, but there are so many other hills to climb. This year, I’m building a coalition to transform how local communities respond to drug use. I’m part of the JustLeadershipUSA 2018 Leading with Conviction cohort, where I’m learning to draw out the leadership potential in others. Maybe I’ll do my first Spartan Race this year.
Whatever my next goal, I’ve put 11th Street behind me.