Convicts, Addicts, Attendees Run with a Purpose

Author: David McMillin       

Skid Row Running Club

Craig Mitchell, a judge in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, and members of the Skid Row Running Club, rest after a morning run. (Mark Hayes/Skid Row Marathon)

As the sun rose in Los Angeles on April 9, the second day of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries 2019 Convention & Exposition, a group of 140 attendees laced up their running shoes for a common convention morning activity: a fun run. This one, however, was a bit different. The runners were not limited to the lanyard-wearing recycling professionals who would attend sessions at the L.A. Convention Center later in the day. Instead, it included some runners who have spent more time in prisons and addiction treatment facilities than in exhibit halls and ballrooms.

Those participants belong to the Skid Row Running Club, an organization that aims to support individuals who have battled addiction, committed crimes, and taken wrong turns in their lives. “We don’t pass judgment,” Craig Mitchell, the club’s founder, told me over breakfast during my recent visit to Los Angeles, hosted by L.A. Tourism. “We welcome everyone who wants to work toward making better decisions in their lives.”

Not passing judgment on those who live or have lived on Skid Row — a section of the city lined with L.A.’s homeless population and a stark reminder of the challenges of affordable housing, drug use, and mental health — might seem like a daunting task for anyone. But Mitchell does just the opposite for a living: He is a Superior Court judge of Los Angeles County. After teaching high school for 17 years in south-central Los Angeles, Mitchell earned his law degree in 1991. He launched the club in 2012 when a man he had sentenced to prison came to his office to thank him after he was released.

The club meets in downtown L.A. on Monday and Thursday mornings. On Saturdays, Mitchell drives the group to Pasadena — a 10-mile trek — for longer runs that are followed by picnics. Some members come and go, a cycle that Mitchell said can reflect the struggles of overcoming addiction. However, missing those runs isn’t always an indication that someone has slipped back into addiction, but rather moved forward in a more productive path. For example, a convicted felon who regularly runs with the group had just been hired by the city’s department of water protection, a major accomplishment that will require more of his time and potentially get in the way of those morning meet-ups. When Mitchell spoke of others who have attended college or relocated after reuniting with family members, he beamed.

“If you would have asked me nine years ago if I would be doing this, I never would have predicted it,” Mitchell said. “But I feel so fortunate that my life took this turn.”

He listed some of the members’ names like family members — Ben, Rafael, Dominick, Roderick — and his passion for trying to help them navigate a new approach to life is contagious. Lawyers, police officers, students, and professionals who otherwise would never have a reason to set foot on Skid Row have joined the running club. Bill Karz, vice president of digital marketing for the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, is one of them. A native of the Los Angeles area, Karz has been everywhere — he has run a marathon on all seven continents — but he’s clearly most enthusiastic about those he’s run close to home. He joined the ISRI morning run, which marked the first time that the Skid Row Running Club has participated in a run held as part of a convention meeting in L.A.

“It was truly amazing to see my worlds collide when we ran with ISRI,” Karz told me. “I’ve been running with the Skid Row Running Club for six years, and I’ve been with Los Angeles Tourism for nearly 13 years. Bringing both organizations together for the sake of corporate social responsibility was incredible. It was a great moment to have the running club meet so many people from out of town and join them on a run through the streets of Los Angeles before sunrise. I’ll never forget the sight of our club and the convention delegates running together as a group past the Broad and Walt Disney Concert Hall.”

In addition to spending an hour exercising with the runners, ISRI donated to the running club — a gesture that Mitchell appreciated. For the first few years of its existence, he and three others “basically underwrote everything,” he said. However, the money wasn’t what Mitchell most appreciated about the ISRI experience. It was the the human connection ISRI participants made with the Skid Row runners.

“These people will talk to you about anything,” Mitchell said. “It’s part of the openness instilled in them [in 12-step program meetings]. And the run [with ISRI] was especially meaningful because it was a chance to have real conversations with the rest of the world. That’s what they’re looking for. They want to be acknowledged by the larger community.”

Skid Row Running Club

Members of the Skid Row Running Club join attendees for a morning run during the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries 2019 Convention & Exposition. (Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board)

Join the Skid Row Running Club

The business events community can follow in ISRI’s footsteps at the PCMA EduCon in Los Angeles. At 6 a.m. on June 26 , Education Conference participants can join the Skid Row Running Club for a fun run through downtown. Two courses will cater to runners of different experience levels. You can register for the conference at the PCMA EduCon site. Pre-registration for the fun run is required.

If you want to help the club prior to visiting Los Angeles, you can donate at Skid Row Running Club’s website. Contributions support running clothes, running shoes, and events. Each year, Mitchell takes the most committed runners from the Skid Row community on a free trip to compete in an international marathon. The club is currently training for a 26.2-mile race in Ecuador.

David McMillin is a Convene associate editor.

PCMA EduCon