Prisoner, Marathoner

Nowadays, so many people run marathons that it isn't the amazing accomplishment it used to be when I first started running as a teenager in the late 70s. Back then, people thought you were overdoing it if you ran 6 miles. But on March 22, 25,000 runners of all ages and abilities participated in the Los Angeles Marathon, and next year, inspired by their accomplishment, many more will train and become marathoners.

Last week, my brother finished his first marathon, and I am one proud big sister. In fact, I am so proud you'd think I had run the marathon. You see, 2 ½ years ago, Jonathan was an overweight smoker who felt tired just going up the stairs. Today, he runs every morning, teaches spinning classes and leads boot camps.

In federal prison.

That's where he ran his marathon, on the quarter mile track at the medium security federal correctional facility in Arizona where he is serving a 4 year sentence for helping burn down a horse slaughterhouse. Ninety-five laps, around and around the prison yard for 4 hours and 14 minutes, to do what I know he never imagined he could do when he was a free man.

With all the sadness and pain that a family feels when a loved one goes to prison, there just may be a silver lining. My brother will come out still the passionate animal rights activist I love and admire so much, but he will have added marathon runner to his life resume. And probably at least 4 years to his life for having quit smoking the day he entered prison. Always a close family, this ordeal has brought us all closer: when I visit Jonathan, I spend 5 hours on Saturday and 6 hours on Sunday sitting opposite him in a large cafeteria-like room, talking. No phones, no meals, no TV or radio, no one else joining us -- uninterrupted time with my brother. I joke that we have spent more quality time together these last 2 1/2 years than in our first 40, and he smiles ruefully.

To combat the ennui of prison life, after his prison job each morning Jonathan jogged around the track. Never having exercised regularly before, he slowly, slowly built up to 6 miles a day. The prisoners and guards took note and started to refer to him not just as that vegan who reads all those books about global warming, but as a runner. He gradually lost 22 lbs. and began teaching spinning to fellow inmates. Now, he also leads a boot camp class for prisoners.

I have always admired Jonathan, as he has been an inspiration for my own animal rights beliefs. He is a man of unwavering conviction, who has given his life to saving animals as an animal rights activist and to saving humans as a firefighter/EMT. But his discipline in his strict vegan diet and his commitment to walking his talk never translated into exercise. So I marvel at this new athletic side of my brother -- an expansion of self even in the most closed of quarters. Jonathan is proof that we can make big personal changes in the most adverse of situations. Alongside his usual requests for tomes about social inequity and environmental devastation, he recently asked me to send him a book on cross training.

Breaking personal boundaries is contagious: knowing a runner in the LA Marathon will motivate many people to train and run farther than they ever dreamed they could. Many years after Jonathan has been released, the lifers will tell of the prisoner who ran around the prison track for 26.2 miles, and that will undoubtedly inspire a new inmate to quit smoking, shed a few pounds, train every morning and run a marathon too.