Everyone knows a runner.
Ask just about anyone, and they’ll be able to point to that person in their life – be it a friend, significant other or work colleague – who fits the profile. Mileage stickers on their car, ridiculously timed pre-dawn workouts and a selection of sweaty Instagram selfies are tell-tale signs. Whether you find them endearing or annoying, you may have found yourself skeptical of their claims that they “love” running and couldn’t live without it.
For many runners, their activity of choice can be seen as a luxury. In today’s world, it’s not a survival necessity in a strict life-or-death sense. Most people can get through their day with minimal walking, let alone running for miles.
But devout runners know there’s something more to it.
Hiland Mountain Correctional Center might be the last place you would expect to find dedicated runners. Up until five years ago, the women’s prison located in Eagle River wasn’t that place at all. But that’s when Tim Alderson started on his Master of Psychology degree at Alaska Pacific University and began interning at Hiland Mountain. He was inspired by prison running programs he had read about, so Alderson decided to create a similar program at Hiland for his thesis.
The first experimental session lasted 12-weeks and culminated in a 5k race. The 25 female inmates filled out a health questionnaire at the beginning and another at the end. At the conclusion of the program, all markers of health – physical, mental, social and environmental – for the women had improved.
He knew he was onto something and Running Free Alaska was born.
The program is non-profit and is run almost exclusively by volunteers. There are 15 volunteer coaches from the local community, a Runner’s Council made up of inmates and a board that oversees the program. Lisa Keller – a well-known local triathlon coach – is in charge of the training.
Running Free Alaska as it is planned today consists of two seasons.
The session running from January to May starts out inside the gym but eventually makes it outside to the “track” – an approximately 800-meter loop around the Correctional Center yard. The spring session culminates with both a 5k and a 10k race. The fall session runs from June to October and finishes with a 5k and 10k, but also includes a half marathon.
Interested incarcerated women must fill out an application to be enrolled in the program. Twice per year, the applications are reviewed by the Runner’s Council and the coaches. Not every interested inmate is able to be part of the program – they must be deemed a good fit and also pass a physical exam. Additionally, women may be asked to leave the program if they are not serious or take advantage of the privilege.
So why would women – who may or may not be feeling very optimistic about their future – want to take on the grueling task of training for a 3, 6 or 13-mile race? The perks of participation turn out to be many. The program has partnered with Skinny Raven to provide the new runners with shoes at cost, as well as quality sports bras. Maintaining good standing with the program is essential. Removal from the roster also means returning the new gear.
Beyond the material benefits, these fledgling runners experience the intangible rewards of running. The Running Free Alaska program has succeeded in creating a new culture at Hiland Mountain.
The running program has created a sense of community and has strengthened the relationships between the women. Mutual goals and struggles develop ties between people that would not exist otherwise.
For individuals, the program benefits are immense. With between 30 and 70 participants from season to season, the opportunity to spread change through this high-risk population is great. Giving these women a chance to feel successful and experience growth and confidence for the first time has often been a sorely missing component in their lives. Many of the women at Hiland Mountain have had experiences of physical and mental abuse – as well as substance abuse – from very early ages. For some, having a coach who invests in them may be the first time anyone has ever believed they were worth it – including themselves.
One runner, Gina, has been at Hiland Mountain for 6 years.
When she was first enrolled in Running Free Alaska, she was withdrawn, unsure of herself and appeared much younger than her chronological age – but coaches saw her athletic potential and her teammates provided her with support she had never experienced before. During her time in the program, she has come out of her shell. Confidence, emotional maturity, and leadership skills are all benefits she had experienced.
Gina’s commitment to the program is clear: not only has she been integral in developing the community surrounding the program, but she was one of only two women to race the half-marathon distance at the end of the 2017 fall season where she set a course record of 1:49:56. Gina also holds the course records for the 5k (22:01) and 10k (49:22). The times are very respectable by any standards.
The other half-marathoner was Suzette, who acts as the inmate liaison for the program. She collects the paperwork, schedules the physicals and always runs the half marathon. While the length of her stay at Hiland Mountain is uncertain, she is committed to supporting other women on their journeys.
While Gina and Suzette will be continuing in the program, other women have been able to move on.
Amanda – a Running Free Alaska alumnus – was released from Hiland Mountain several years ago, but the gifts she gained while there truly keep giving. Unable to qualify for a driver’s license, she runs wherever she needs to go.
There are many ways for community members to contribute either time or dollars to this meaningful program. Through RunningFreeAlaska.com, donations are accepted to defray the costs of the women’s gear. $75 buys a pair of shoes, $25 buys a sports bra and $100 fully outfits one runner.
Interested community members may also apply to become coaches for the program.
Orientations are only held twice per year, but candidates may contact Coach Keller via the Running Free Alaska Facebook page.
Additionally, the end of July sees the annual Running Free 4-miler, a fundraising race around the Hiland Mountain facility for general community members. Described as a “celebration of the redemptive power of running,” the race is cheered on by Hiland inmates who also man the aid stations. Registration details will be available on Running Free Alaska Facebook page as July grows closer.
If you have ever been a running skeptic and tend to roll your eyes at “13.1” stickers, the next time you might pause to consider: perhaps that person just chose the better addiction, and maybe those 13.1 miles are actually their pathway to a better life.
Sara Kennedy is a special education teacher in the Anchorage School District. She likes to swim, bike and run around Alaska, and camp and fish with her family. To reach Sara, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.