Documentarian Christine Yoo’s “26.2 to Life” has you running a marathon in a few inmates’ shoes. [Santa Barbara International Film Festival]

“Running is good punishment.”

– 1000 Mile Club volunteer

Well into writer/director Christine Yoo’s documentary 26.2 to Life, one of the interviewees comments that running is the thing that all other sports use as punishment. Miss a basket? Screw up a play? Mess around on the wrestling mat? Run a lap. As someone whose wrestling couch used to run marathons, being on the receiving end of such “punishment” was nothing one looked forward to doing, though it was something he appeared to do with giddiness while the rest of us were dying on the indoor track. It was meant to build our endurance and would, in the long run, help us in competition, but it never felt like that. For runners, however, the act of running can become something zen-like, meditative, able to put them in touch with their bodies and free their minds/spirits. Yoo’s documentary explores the nature of running by following three specific members of the San Quentin 1000 Mile Club, an organization that provides an outlet for the incarcerated to expand their physical and mental health. Though not specifically political in nature, Yoo’s film may just change a few minds regarding the purpose of prison as a rehabilitative tool rather than a punitive one.

2_Markelle _the Gazelle_ Taylor

Markelle “The Gazelle” Taylor. Copyright, San Quentin Marathon, LLC.

For context, the 1000 Mile Club is a running organization operated out of the San Quentin Prison and led by coaches connected to the Tamalpa Running Club in Marin County, California. According to the official website for the 1000 Mile Club, the organization began in 2005 with Frank Runoa volunteering to coach the group and the name coming from a desire to see the inmate members running 1,000 miles. As we learn early in the documentary, Runoa and his team of volunteers coach the members throughout the year, starting easy and working their way up to a 26.2 mile marathon that closes out the season. Wisely, this marathon is what Yoo uses as a physical anchor to guide the audience through the program and three principal members whom the audience will follow for the duration. This means that after a brief introduction to Runoa and the program, it’s race day and we’re meeting the participants. Upon the race starting and the runners separating, Yoo singles out inmates Markelle “The Gazelle” Taylor, Tommy Lee Wickerd, and Rahsaan “New York” Thomas. Yoo does get interviews with a few other inmates, but the bulk of the documentary uses the lived experiences of these three inmates as the entry point to explore how the simple act of running can provide the kind of physical and mental rehabilitation that should be the intention of the prison system.


Coach Frank Runoa. Copyright, San Quentin Marathon, LLC.

To be clear, at no point does Yoo offer a political stance. The presumptions of many are that folks living in California are Liberals or Progressives, but that may not be the case at all. Instead, rather than exploring the complicated political issues that might distance audiences from the material, through the interviews with the volunteers and subjects, we are offered a human connection. By treating them as people and not just prisoners, there’s an opportunity for consideration that might not otherwise exist. This is one of the most beautiful things about art — the capability to shift perspectives. It may not make someone reframe their entire lives, but it may inspire some kind of change, and this is an immeasurable win for those who forget that, no matter a person’s crimes, the perpetrator is still a person. Of course, each of the three subjects have stories which would make someone shudder, but Yoo allows for space beyond a rap sheet; she allows for perspective. Through each candid interview, whether from the inmates or their relatives, the audience learns about the three men (their regrets, the choices they made then versus what they would do now) so as to provide a three-dimensional view of who they are beyond what society thinks of them. This is where the organizational structure of the documentary is most evocative, using the marathon itself as a natural way to shift between each subject, going back and forth between them as we check-in on their progress throughout the day, but also as a means of making tangible the mental journey that each are on. The further into the race, the harder it becomes, much like the reality that a commutation or reduction in sentence may ever occur. By using the parallels between the race and their lives, Yoo is able to get the audience to root for each of the inmates, subtly switching the excitement over them meeting their running goals into wanting to see each of them gain their freedom from prison. Impressively, the connection between the immediate and the long-term goals are not so disconnected that this comes across as manipulative. Rather, the inmates tell us that the best way to survive in prison, especially when serving a life sentence, is to remain positive and focused. Running proves to be the kind of exercise which strengthens the mind while also keeping them in tune with their body. So it goes beyond the presumption that a runner must take care of their body (no drugs, no alcohol, good sleep, etc.), they must take care of their mind, as well.


Rahsaan “New York” Thomas during the filming of 26.2 TO LIFE. Copyright, San Quentin Marathon, LLC.

Don’t expect 26.2 to Life to answer all of your questions about incarcerated living. There’s no explanation about anything that doesn’t directly tie to the subjects’ lives and running. So if you’re curious as to why it appears they have televisions in their room, what they do when not running (not all of them are as seemingly active as Thomas), or their food/living situation, you may need to go do your own investigation. This isn’t a slight on Yoo at all due to the fact that the doc is specific and narrow in its intention. She digs as necessary into any facet of their lives where appropriate to the subject, so don’t mistake the absence of information to somehow indicate a reduction to her message. In fact, had Yoo dug into other aspects, the documentary as a whole would’ve been thrown off its line and may not have maintained the focus and emotional integrity that makes the viewing experience as engaging as it is.

5_Christine Yoo_Cellblock

Center: Director Christine Yoo filming documentary 26.2 TO LIFE. All photos shot on location at San Quentin State Prison. Photo Copyright, San Quentin Marathon, LLC.

I’m of the mind that while the punishment should fit a crime, that the moment we stop treating people like people, we give permission for people to become the worst version of themselves. In other words, if we’re going to have a prison system that works, we need to have programs and systems in place that actually do the job of meting out appropriate punishment without dehumanizing them in the process. Sometimes that means focusing on rehabilitation by way of creating opportunities for things that life on the outside was somehow too far away (either in reality or perception) so that growth can occur. If prisons are not to be the final stop or the first of many cycles in-and-out, then programs like the 1000 Mile Club should be nurtured and supported. Through 26.2 to Life, Yoo offers an opportunity for civilians to learn about a different way to view incarceration and the incarcerated. Through the simple act of running, these three men and their fellows found internal peace and the fortitude to change. Isn’t that what incarceration should be? An opportunity to develop empathy and understanding.

To learn more about 26.2 to Life, be sure to check out EoM senior interview Thomas Manning’s one-on-one discussion with director Christine Yoo.

Screening during Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2023.

For more information, head to the official 26.2 to Life website.

To learn more, head to the official San Quentin 1000 Mile Club website.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.


Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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