Film Reviews

Life in prison is hard. Running a marathon of 26.2 miles is hard. Put them together, and the challenge becomes one of, not just stamina, but also of redemption.  This transformation is shown cleanly in Christine Yoo's inspiring documentary about the race for freedom -- or as close as a prisoner behind bars can get.

 Yoo goes inside San Quentin Prison, "the Q." She concentrates on three men: Markelle "the Gazelle" Taylor, Tommy Lee Wickerd, and Rahsaan "New York" Thomas. She gives each a chance to tell his story, of his crime and subsequent regret. Thomas worries that his son will think he's a loser. Wickerd married while in prison; his wife, his helpmeet, lives 375 miles away, so they watch "The O.C." together while on the telephone. 

Yoo also profiles other runners, including Eddie Serena, who belongs to the Society of Professional Journalists as the editor of the San Quentin house newspaper. "My voice is free," he proclaims. Yoo also profiles the coaches, volunteers like Dianne Fitzpatrick and Franklin Ruona. He, once a marathoner, explains his calling to this work: "I am my brother's keeper."

He coaches the prisoners, who gladly wear t-shirts rather than orange jump suits and whose running shoes belong to the state so must be returned. They run, lap after lap, in this race that is more of endurance than contest. Runners are screened from the landscape; they run hard around six 90º-turns. The 26.2 miles comprise 105 laps around the crowded Lower Yard filled with lazing men. Chris Scull, a member of the 1,000 Mile Club, says, "It's hard to run around this long in a circle."  "Running," admits one marathoner, "is usually a punishment in every other sport."

Scull is a marathon alumnus who belongs to the 1,000-mile Club, which boasts a 0% recidivism rate (the national rate is 67%). They run to be known for more than their crimes, heinous though they be.  Markelle Taylor was able to meet requirements not only for parole but also for the Boston Marathon, and Yoo follows him to triumph outside of prison. Inside, she shows a rare view of San Quentin Prison and rarer view of the community built by these elite athletes.

The documentary is positive without being sentimental, inspiring without being religious. "26.2 to Life," like a good run, is about determination, perseverance, and the power of movement.

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