BOSTON — Of all the runners in the first wave of the Boston Marathon on Monday, there was one lean, muscular marathoner with skinny ankles from Northern California for whom all the nervous energy held deep meaning. Markelle Taylor, a former life sentence at San Quentin State Prison, was free for the first time.
Just a week earlier, Taylor, who was released from prison in 2019, received the news that after three long years in which his movements were severely restricted and travel required special permission, he was finally on parole. He stepped off the plane with its running gear at Boston’s Logan International Airport a free man. “Man, that was a beautiful sentiment,” he said, a trace of his Mississippi family roots evident in his accent.
On the glorious morning of April 18, crisp and clear skies reminiscent of his Bay Area home, Taylor, 49, felt better and more relaxed than he had in years. Wearing his orange shorts, matching Nike Alphaflys, and the tank top he chose in honor of his Tamalpa track club in Marin County, California, he came out determined to accomplish his goal: run a third consecutive marathon in less of three hours. The “threes” were significant to him: Parole Hearing No. 3 resulted in his release after 18 years in prison for second-degree murder, and it took him three years to get off parole.
Taylor, who earned the nickname Gazelle, looked like she was out for a stroll as she crossed the finish line in 2 hours and 52 minutes. He kept a steady pace of 6:33 per mile and “didn’t go crazy” running too fast at first. He was excited when marathoners who noticed his performance asked him to pose for selfies. “You were like a metronome, man,” said a fellow runner who used Taylor as his unofficial pacemaker. “So consistent.”
Text messages from his coaches, supporters and Marin running friends began pouring in minutes later. They still are. “He’s mentally strong and he works really hard even when he’s hurt,” said Diana Fitzpatrick, who has trained Taylor and is the first female president of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race. “The support that Markelle has received from the community is because of who he is.”
The tight-knit community of Tamalpa Runners, who recently elected Taylor to their board, helps keep him balanced. He is proudly 21 years sober and counting. “They hold you accountable,” Taylor said of the club members, who have accepted him without judgment from the start. “It gets you out of your lazy mode. If you tell someone you’re going to run with them, you don’t want to let them down.”
Taylor ran his first sub-three-hour marathon in California on the Avenue of the Giants last September, where, spoiled by the redwoods, he finished with a time of 2:56:12, first in his age group and fifth in the overall. He was accompanied by his lifelong mentor, Frank Ruona, who, as a volunteer head trainer for the 1000 Mile Club in San Quentin, helped hone his talent.
Before the rise of Covid-19, which impacted San Quentin and curtailed club activities for more than two years, Ruona and other successful volunteer coaches ran two half marathons and one full marathon a year, the subject of an upcoming documentary.
Taylor was 27 years old when he was sentenced to 15 years to life for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, leading to the premature birth and eventual death of his son. He grew up a victim of domestic and sexual violence, was addicted to alcohol, and had a history of intimate partner violence.
He used that prison sentence as an opportunity to break old patterns. “He compels you to grow, mature and be wise,” he said. “It makes you a better person.”
Taylor was inspired to take up running as an antidote to despair after a close friend committed suicide following his fifth parole denial. The 5-foot-10 Taylor was by far the fastest runner at the 1000 Mile Club, earning the happy nickname of Gazelle due to her long, smooth strides, leg speed and grace under pressure. “Running was a form of freedom,” he explained three years ago. “It was my therapy, a way to escape. It kept me grounded.”
In January 2019, Taylor earned a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon by running a mind-boggling 104½ loops around the prison yard. He was released six weeks later. With the help of supporters, including a high-ranking California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation official who happened to be a runner, Taylor was granted permission to run in Boston if he stuck like glue to the coach traveling with him. He rode a charity team in the back corral but finished the first wave in 3:03:52, his personal best at the time.
When he runs hard, he recalls mistakes from his own past in the pain he experiences in his left ankle, which is embedded with metal screws, as a result of jumping a wall while being chased by three Rottweilers (“I was drunk and I thought I could jump.” , he recalled).
“Anger is a secondary emotion to pain, stress and fear,” he said of his old self. “It’s like a wounded dog. If you touch him, he will bite you and bite you to protect himself because he hurts you. It’s the same with people.”
Much has changed in his life since then. Just three years ago, Taylor lived in a reentry center in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, where residents had to take a breathalyzer test, remove their shoes for a contraband check and go through a metal detector at the gate. Today, Taylor lives in her own subsidized one-bedroom apartment in one of the Bay Area’s most desirable and prosperous communities: Tiburon. “Man, you can’t beat that,” she said.
However, the challenges he faces as a formerly incarcerated black man remain formidable. Taylor has held a variety of jobs in recent years, most recently at a shelter-in-place motel for the homeless run by Catholic Charities.
He enjoyed “helping people change their lives” as he experienced similar obstacles, he said. When the nonprofit’s contract with the state expired, Taylor was disappointed to learn that she was suddenly out of a job. To make ends meet, she now works for minimum wage at a grocery store.
The symbolism of the marathons is not lost on him. “Running is humbling,” she said. “Sometimes you have to start from behind, as I am doing now with the minimum wage. It’s like trying to climb that hill after more than 18 miles; sometimes you can have cramps and things like that. That’s like being turned down for a job you want because they asked for your fingerprints.”
“Being black and living with a criminal record, no matter how successful you are today, you will always be haunted by the past,” he continued. “Like some of those hills, society in general is very unforgiving, unless you get to your own backyard.”
However, he also believes that things happen for a reason. If he hadn’t received a life sentence, he probably wouldn’t have become a runner, weaned himself off alcohol, or developed into the warm, stable presence he is today. This week he told some new acquaintances that he was running for a higher power, a reference to his faith as a Jehovah’s Witness. He would like to find work as a coach or peer counselor which could possibly turn into a career.
Taylor launched a new sportswear line last year, an idea he had nurtured since his time in prison. His logo is based on a silhouette of Taylor breaking chains as he runs. And this week in Boston, the clothing slogan came true: “Markelle the Gazelle Runs Free.”