DRAPER, Utah (AP) — In the house in which Isaac Wood grew up, running was a topic of conversation daily. Wood’s brother was a high school track coach. Wood’s father was a sports agent who represented about 50 Olympians over the course of his career. Wood himself was a runner, though after a while he suspected he would be a better coach. He had the disposition and the mind for it. Watching a race, he could pick out just about any runner in the pack and recall his strengths, his personal best times.
On a Tuesday morning in October, however, Wood might have had an easier time picking out his runners’ worsts: sexual abuse, one to 15 years; rape, one to 15 years; murder, five years to life; and on and on.
“Be patient! Be patient!” he shouts in encouragement nonetheless as a group rounds a turn. “You guys are doing great.”
Thousands of runners will jam the streets of New York City, as they do each spring in Boston, as they do nearly every weekend someplace, for any number of reasons.
The Draper Invitational involves less fanfare, but plenty of meaning for its participants still, reported the Salt Lake Tribune. On a crisp fall morning, a few dozen of them, who have broken lives and now hope to piece back together their own, gather inside the tall chain-linked fences of the small yard at the Utah State Prison.
“You guys have put in the work,” their coach says. “Be confident. You could be somewhere else. You could be doing a lot of other things. But you’re here. I’m proud of you.”
They take their marks and go.
By the end of the day, about 30 runners will have finished a 10K, half-marathon or the full 26.2 miles of a marathon. For Wood, each man who crosses the finish line is validation of a project he was leery to take on at one point.
Wood, 27, was working as an assistant track coach at Weber State when he opened what he thought was a letter from a recruit.
“Running has become a calming influence in our, at times, chaotic lives,” the letter read. “The men taking up the challenge of distance running do not fit the stereotypical profile of a convicted felon. We have chose running as our avenue to recovery.”
The writer, Jason Penney, is a sex offender who first came to the prison more than 15 years ago. Behind bars, his weight had ballooned to more than 260 pounds from 200 as his depression worsened. When he started walking circles around the track in the yard, he wore sunglasses to hide his embarrassment as others mocked him.
As he stuck with his routine, however, others started to follow. He formed a group and tried to lead them using tips he found in a few copies of “Runners World” magazine available in the prison library, but two years ago he started writing to colleges and coaches asking for help to prepare for a marathon.
He wrote to two dozen colleges and coaches.
Only one person ever responded.
“I just felt compelled to do it,” Wood said. “I don’t know where it came from. I just thought this would be a good thing.”
Growing up in Davis County, Wood had driven past the Point of the Mountain plenty of times and either ignored the concrete and barbed wire or glanced dismissively at it. Suddenly, he found himself inside a world he had never fully imagined. He gave himself outs at first. “If I fear for my life too much, I’ll end it,” he told himself. Soon enough, however, he had learned the men’s names and was recruiting more to join the group for his bimonthly clinics.
“I had never run before,” said inmate Seruka Tiliaia. “When I first started, I was just sprinting. He taught me to pace myself.”
Tiliaia, who is serving a sentence of five years to life for murder, finished first in the 10K race.
“I need to run for myself,” he said afterward. “This helps me.”
When Wood interviewed for a job opening with the BYU track team this fall, the first question his boss-to-be asked him was about the prison. The day of the prison’s invitational, Ed Eyestone, the Cougars’ coach and two-time Olympian, tagged along with his new director of operations to watch him work.
“We call him Moneyball because his mind is so sharp,” Eyestone said of Wood.
At BYU, Wood now handles recruiting and event logistics. He also coaches the school’s running club, prepping athletes hopeful of walking onto the team someday.
In the prison, he coaches men he knows will walk out some day.
“I feel like I’m a pretty forgiving person. I know they’ve done things,” he said. “They’ve done things that have affected peoples’ lives, but I try to forgive anyway and love them for who they’re trying to be now and not what they’ve done.”
He tells them, “Maybe when you get out, you can use this as an outlet.” He jokes, “I don’t think anyone in the world has done something criminal after a 10-miler.”
With another lap around the track comes another round of encouragement. Wood calls out the runners by name, shouts their times, offers some advice.
“Nice and relaxed,” he says to one.
“Use each other. Switch off who leads. That wind is tough,” he shouts to the group of marathon leaders.
A decent breeze can kill a marathoner’s time, but the runners here are already dealing with tough conditions.
Their shoes are old and tattered. The trail they run is bumpy with tight turns. The track loop is tiny and they run it over and over and over: 26 laps for a 10K, 55 for a half-marathon, 110 for the full thing. They have hip and knee problems from all the turns, Wood notes.
“The fact that they’re able to do what they do in their current setting gives credence to their mental toughness and their drive,” he says. “This facility is not meant for athletes.”
Nevertheless, eight of the nine men who signed up for the marathon completed the race, the fastest coming in at 3:44:44 despite dealing with some bad cramping.
“If these guys get out,” Wood said, “some of them could qualify for Boston.”
The coach, however, hopes the runners’ successes can be measured by something more than just time and distance. With each lap Matthew Aiono completed, his breathing grew heavier. So did Wood’s applause.
Aiono had lost 40 pounds since taking up running in the prison yard. But after just eight laps, his side ached and he was thinking of slowing to a walk as his view of the Oquirrh Mountains quickly turned into a view of the Oquirrh Facility cells on the other side of the yard.
It’s not uncommon for inmates to gather when Wood’s runners work out. Sometimes, a voice comes over the intercom reminding them it is against the rules to bet. And as Aiono looked up at a group, he said he saw a face he recognized. In July, he hugged his friend and said goodbye for good, he hoped. Seeing him back inside the prison walls, Aiono suddenly resolved to keep running.
“I never stopped,” he panted when he had finished his race. “I never stopped.”
When he had caught his breath, he stood next to the track and talked with Wood.
“Thank you, coach,” he said after a moment. “Thank you.”