SURVIVING LIFE IN PRISON - THE FLORIDA MARATHON
Don't tell me about that puny little twenty-six mile plus race you ran in Boston, New York, Athens, or wherever. So you covered the distance like a Kenyan in a scant two hours and a few minutes or four hours, or over six hours - I salute you. That's nice. So what?
I've never run one of those twenty-six mile races, or even the hundred-mile "extreme" marathons. Instead, I run the Florida Marathon in which time and distance are stretched beyond the limits of human endurance - this race is for life, and I've been running it for thirty years. Although several thousand people in Florida are also running this race, we aren't competing against each other. I'm running against a much more lethal opponent - I must outrun Death. He has come close to catching me several times, but so far I've managed to pull ahead each time. I can't let up for a minute, or he will finish me. My race will be over permanently.
The concept for the Florida Marathon occurred to me in the Hillsborough County jail in the 1970's, where I spent almost two years in a cramped, dark cage packed in with fifteen other "pretrial detainees." We were never allowed outside for exercise. In fact, the only times I saw daylight were the van trips to the courthouse, when I would emerge blinded and blinking like Punxatawny Phil, the groundhog who comes out of his burrow in Pennsylvania every year to make his prediction for the end of winter or not.
Doing pushups, situps, and jumping jacks was "de riguer," you must stay in shape to defend yourself against the ever-present threats of violence from your cell-mates, especially if you have a well-known background as an undercover cop in SEU, the elite Selective Enforcement Unit. you see those old prison movies where the condemned man paced the cell, three steps this way, four steps that way, until he walked grooves in the concrete. I finally gravitated toward that, although in a bigger cell, walking in my flip-flops, two and a half feet per step, a little over 2,100 steps to a mile, 21,000 steps for ten miles.
It was about fifteen miles from the jail in downtown Tampa to my parents' home in Thonotosassa, and to pass the time I decided to walk home. I kept track, block by block, mile by mile. I pretended I walked to the house my ex-wife, Chrissy, and I had shared in Ybor City on Seventeenth Avenue, then kept walking past my old school, Franklin Junior High, at 40th Street and I-4.
I made it home that first night, and the next morning I kept walking. No sense going back to jail, so I walked to Miami, pace by pace. That took quite a bit longer.
Some prisoners thought I was crazy, all that walking, while they stared at the TV all day watching the Beverly Hillbillies, Hawaii Five-O, and Big Valley reruns interspersed with Price Is Right and inane game shows. Who was crazier?
A few men would join me from time to time, but most had given up or gotten out before I made it to Key West.
In all I did over a thousand miles in jail, then went to the prison reception center at Lake Butler for five weeks, got outside in the fresh air for several hours a day, and my mileage really took off.
When I left the county jail I was white as a ghost, as they say, pallid with a black beard. When my father and girlfriend, Debbie, came for our first "live" visit after five weeks of quarantine they didn't recognize the darkly-tanned, cleanshaven, short haired person who greeted them. Taken aback is the best description. Debbie said I looked like a German.
In four years at Raiford I got in some quite lengthy walks. I went through a number of training partners who couldn't keep up. From 1983 to 1987, at Zephyrhills C.I., I came into my own. Two friends, Gary Toth and Rusty York, joined me for about three hours a day of power walking, about twelve miles, which was the distance to my mother's house.
I don't know how we decided to set the goal of walking to Seattle - I take that back - yes, I do - in the GOLAB program, I taught a course on goal-setting, and one of the examples was, let's say you were going to travel to Seattle, on the other side of the country. What would you need to accomplish that goal? A reliable car, the money for gas and food, and a map to plan your route, so you wouldn't get lost.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of maps in prison, the library is full of them, so I charted a course to walk to Seattle. Gary and Rusty were down with it. What else did we have to do? We were in prison.
I wanted to retrace the route my family took each year from Tampa to Texarkana, to visit family, so we avoided the interstate, walked to Dothan, Montgomery, Alabama, crossed the bridge at Selma, and kept going, a thousand miles to Texas. It took about three months. I'd mark our place every day. The dots got farther.
Rusty wanted to see Tijuana, so we walked all the way west to San Diego, went south, then back north, past L.A., San Francisco, and the redwoods. It took close to a year to finally make it to Seattle. Gary and Rusty finally got out, left me there, so I kept walking on my own. I didn't want to return to Florida, so I headed north to Alaska, and kept going. Over the years I made it across the Bering Strait, down to the Kamchatka Penninsula, Vladivostok, over to Beijing - they still called it Peking then, I think.
I know a man who escaped from Russian prison camps three times. Each of the first two times he was recaptured, he was shipped to a forced labor camp farther and farther out into Siberia. This was during and after WWII. The third time he followed the railroad track an incredible distance west, and finally made it home to Hungary. As a displaced person, he chose to emigrate to Canada and start s new life, having had enough of Russians. I'd always admired his determination, so I decided to continue my walk across Siberia, then head south to the Middle East and Africa..
In the past few years I have slowed up with more obligations for my time, but I still try to get at least two or three miles a day in, even on Saturdays and Sundays with Libby in the visiting park, walking at least half an hour or an hour in two or three installments.
Overall, I figure I've covered close to 20,000 miles in the Florida Marathon, and I pray that the finish line, the open front gate to freedom, will appear before me soon.
I apologize for the gap in my commitment to daily entries for this blog. Life in prison has been very challenging the past month, and I've been going through some serious travails with a certain couple of very bad guards. It got so bad that I requested a job change from my long time job in the garden, and now I am serving food in the chow hall. At least I'm not enduring daily threats to be locked up "on the house," for no reason, or to be written up for strictly harassment purposes.
I am also working diligently on this prison diary project for the Anne Frank Center USA, which has parallels to the blog. I will try to reconcile the two projects and accomplish both goals.
Also, I am committed to completing several short stories, poems, and at least two plays in the coming months, so I've set some demanding tasks for myself. I am grateful to Libby for doing her best to keep up with the typing, which has become backlogged. I'll try to do better.