San Luis Obispo resident Michele Gordon was teaching parenting classes at San Luis Obispo County Jail when she met Santana Courtright, who was serving part of a three-year sentence on the women’s honor farm.
During one session, Courtright mentioned that she had started running on a treadmill, working up to 6-mile runs on the weekend.
“She (Gordon) said if you run 6 miles, you could run a half marathon,” Courtright, 28, recalled. “It was actually really cool that she said that.”
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“When I got out, she did what she said she would: helped me get shoes and running clothes and ran with me weekly, sometimes two to three times a week,” Courtright said. “It has completely changed my life.”
Watching Courtright’s transformation inspired Gordon and friend Sheila McCann, a former public defender and owner of House of Bread, who for some time had been trying unsuccessfully to start a running program in County Jail.
Instead, they decided to launch a running group in the community. RunFreeSLO, which received nonprofit status last fall, aims to connect people who are in recovery or currently struggling with addiction, homelessness, recent incarceration, trauma or mental health challenges with the power of running, according to its website.
“Running is really akin to life,” Gordon said. “All the skills you need to navigate life can be hashed out through running.”
Gordon and McCann have been running together about 10 years. Both have finished multiple marathons, including the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run and rim-to-rim runs in the Grand Canyon ranging from 23 miles (McCann) to 46 miles (Gordon).
“For me, personally, running and exercise has helped me sort things out and helps me make better decisions,” McCann said. “A lot of people who get into trouble with the law are not bad people. They make bad decisions, often under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
“We’re trying to reach that group.”
Gordon added: “We broadened it to not only include addiction but mental health, trauma … if you want to use running as a catalyst for change, we’ll support you in that.”
So far, the pair has handed out business cards at local races but is still getting the word out to potential participants. They’re always happy to have donations, but what they really want, McCann said, is to reach people in need who have a desire to run.
RunFreeSLO offers mentoring, gently used running clothes and shoes to beginning runners, and free race entries. (McCann trades bread for entries to local races, including City to the Sea, the San Luis Obispo Marathon, the San Luis Obispo Triathlon, and Castle to Coast.)
Participant Vincent Buzan, who got involved with RunFreeSLO last winter, got fitted with a pair of Asics running shoes at GH Sports. Gordon also gave him a pile of Runner’s World magazines and a training program.
Growing up in Arizona, Buzan was interested in baseball, not running. A catcher, he accepted a scholarship to play at Mesa Community College; but he said his drug use and lifestyle got in the way, and he was arrested before the end of his first year of college.
He served a total of 33 months in Arizona and California prisons for crimes, including robbery, and was released from High Desert State Prison in Susanville in July 2014.
Now working for a construction company in North County and starting classes at Cuesta College this month, Buzan is clean, sober and running — something he started doing in prison to “trim up.”
He got in touch with Gordon late last year and started training for the San Luis Obispo Marathon, but he switched to the half marathon after being plagued with an iliotibial (IT) band injury. He finished the half in April in 1:49. He also completed the SLO Triathlon last month and is training for the City to the Sea half marathon in October.
He said meeting Gordon and McCann has been a blessing. Their support was unexpected, he said, and not something he’d often experienced.
Running “gets me more centered,” said Buzan, 24. “It gets me more in tune with what’s important and what’s not. It gets me out of my ego. It gets me closer to God.”
For Courtright, running has changed her life. About four months after her release in June 2014 on drug-related charges, she finished City to the Sea with Gordon at her side.
Courtright now rises at 4 a.m. to work out at a Paso Robles gym, completing her long runs on weekends. She’s working toward an associate degree at Cuesta College, hoping to pursue a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Cal Poly and eventually work with youth in drug court.
She’s one of at least three runners who will pull on blue “Run Free SLO” shirts in October and lace up for this year’s City to the Sea race.
“When you surround yourself with positive things and people doing positive things you stay with it,” she said. “I can get up and go for a run, and the day is completely clear and in order. If I don’t run, it feels like something’s not right.”