This Wednesday, new documentary Skid Row Marathon screens at cinemas across the UK. The film shows how a running club for homeless people and recovering addicts set up by Los Angeles superior court Judge Craig Mitchell is transforming lives, one step at a time.
We asked Alex Jackson, 21, from Manchester to review the film. He might be forty years younger than Judge Mitchell and live a few thousand miles away, but Alex knows a thing or two about the power of running to change lives.
Alex joined The Running Charity – a charity that harness the power of running to help young homeless people – after years of struggling with his mental health. He became homeless in his teens and credits The Running Charity with connecting him to a sport that he loves, offering him a positive focus, and improving his self-belief.
For me, running is life. It is survival and I’m surviving.
“Skid Row Marathon is a really, really good film. One of the things that spoke to me was how they the runners had the motivation, even after what they have gone through. The situations and the stories in Skid Row Marathon are incredible.
“In the film, Rebecca says how you don’t expect to see homeless people or former addicts running marathons. But there they are. And if people like that can do it, what is holding other people back? The people in Skid Row Marathon have stories of serious addictions and being homeless. They have got off the drugs and they are fighting back. They are so inspiring.
“One guy, Rafael, had spent 29 years in prison for murder. He spoke to me on a very personal level. All he wanted to do all his life for the 29 years he was in prison was help the family that he ruined. That is one of the key reasons to keep going: to help people. And Rafael never gave up.
“I suffer with several mental health illnesses. But when I run, all of it seems to disappear. I have been quite isolated all my life. When you come into a club like the Running Charity, it is a big family that you have missed.
“I had moved into the Salford Foyer, which is a supported accommodation hostel for young people in Salford, in 2016. I joined The Running Charity when George came in to see if anyone wanted to come running.
“Meeting George and The Running Charity was the turning point. If it wasn’t for George, I wouldn’t be here. The Running Charity gave me a purpose, a reason to get out into the world. Now I want to do what George does – he inspires me and saved my life. If I could do that for one other person, that would make me feel worth something. That is what my mental health does – it makes me feel worthless. But if I am fighting for someone, I feel like I have a purpose.
“Compared to where I was last year… I have a house, a new girlfriend, a dog and a cat, more responsibility, money coming in, I run six days a week. I was self harming but have been clear for eight months.
“When I’m running I am free. I have such an open world to explore – all the beauty in the world. I love going to new places. When I did Burnley Ultra Marathon, it was such a beautiful environment. It is an escape. But it is also more real than any other reality.
“The Skid Row Running Club is doing the same work we do at The Running Charity. I see lots of similarities between our groups. It would be amazing to go running with them one day. I would love to shake Judge Mitchell’s hand. It is people like the judge and my coach George that inspire people like me to do something with our lives and to start running.
“For me, running is life. It is survival and I’m surviving. When I started running, my goal was to run the London Marathon. And two weeks ago, I actually did it.”
We also spoke to Rafael Cabrera, who has spent more than half his life in prison but now runs with the Skid Row Running Club. Here, he explains just why Judge Craig Mitchell, who started the running club, is such an inspiration.
Rafael Cabrera on Judge Craig Mitchell: “He has been giving all his life”
“I know Craig Mitchell better than almost anyone. So I am going to tell you about his life. He is like a father to me. He cares about people.
“Did you know he couldn’t read until he was nine years old? At nine he learnt to read then lost his mom. His mum had promised she would not pass until he knew how to read. She had terminal cancer. At 12, his stepmom made him go to work. He had to pay for the utilities and buy all his clothes and undergarments.
“At 18, he applied for UCLA college and was accepted. He moved into a dorm but after the first semester was told he had to move out because he didn’t have any money. He lived in a VW van, was going to school and working – taking showers behind the restaurant where he worked. When he graduated from UCLA, he became a teacher for 17 years. He got married, had two boys and a daughter – and then went to law school. So he was working as a teacher, getting off at 4pm then going to law school until 11pm.
“I met Judge Mitchell in 2004 when I was in prison. He was at my parole board hearing as Deputy District Attorney to say if I was a threat or not. He said when he first read my file, he thought this guy should never go home, but that seeing me, I deserved a second chance. I didn’t get parole but wrote a thank you card and we started a correspondence that lasted until I got out in 2011.
“I’d send him 16-page letters. We talked about everything. He played a big role in getting me out. In one of the last letters, he said he believed I was less capable of breaking the law than him. And he is writing this from the bench as a judge. I really appreciated it.
“All of his life he has been mentoring kids. He has been mentoring another of our runners since she was 15. She is now doing her Masters. And do you know about Noah or Jose? They were living in a gang infested area where everybody always ended up going to prison and using drugs. He saved two kids there. He was picking up these kids in housing projects and taking them to school. One of them is now a neuro surgeon, the other is a professor.
“So he didn’t start this running group by chance. Judge Mitchell is the kind of person who has been giving all his life.
“All this comes from his mother. She took him to witness the Watts riots and that made an impact on him that is indelible. She lives through him. He is like Thomas More, he will not stand by. Those are his morals. I hope one day they do a movie about his life.”