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Keep On Running: On Mark Hayes' New Doc Skid Row Marathon
Sarah Bradbury , April 22nd, 2018 09:37

It may be London Marathon day, but the sofa-bound can still vicariously participate in Mark Hayes' new documentary about an LA running club

“We’re all hopeless die-hard alcohol drug addicts, the least likely people you’d expect to be running or doing anything with their lives,” Rebecca’s voiceover tells us halfway through documentary Skid Row Marathon. Having wound up homeless in LA with her infant son, plagued by a persistent drinking and drug habit, she’s just one of the members of the “Midnight Mission” family shelter whose life has been transformed by joining a running club in the most unlikely of places.

The award-winning documentary is the brainchild of director Mark Hayes, made in collaboration with his partner and producer Gabrielle Hayes over a four year period in the notorious downtown area of Los Angeles named Skid Row. In the closing moments of the film, we read that 57,000 people live on its streets and in its shelters. While not the direct focus of the movie, its scenes of impoverishment and squalor form the disturbing backdrop to the heart-wrenching and heart-warming stories of redemption and reincarnation through running Hayes explores in the foreground.

Mark’s previous documentaries focused on the Cold War, including From Red State to Golden State (2013), and One Germany, the Other Side of the Wall (2011). But the American director and his German partner were drawn to invest their time and energy to document this unique and compelling story by one man making a difference in a situation that had otherwise made them feel helpless: “The film is not about homelessness per se but it’s about one person making a difference in people’s lives,” the director explains. “We lived not far from Skid Row ourselves. We had seen this problem but not really come up with any type of action that we could take to be part of a solution. And then we read this article about the Judge. He was doing something, he started a running club. We found it very inspiring that he was running with these individuals, and giving them a second chance at reintegrating themselves into society.”

In vivid, compelling detail, the film reveals that by day, Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell spends his hours dolling out life sentences to criminals, a job he tells the camera “weighs down on him.” In his spare time, he leads a motley crew of recovering alcohol and drug addicts, the homeless and newly-released ex-convicts, in a running club, once a year taking those he can gain funding for to participate in international marathons such as Accra, Ghana, and Rome, Italy. As Hayes skillfully captures, the impact on those he runs with – Ben, a former punk rocker and alcoholic who describes himself “waddling just a bit further each day” to run himself sober; David, who shows the camera the hole he crawled in and out of each day “with the rats and the pigeons” as a drug addict before going clean; Raphael, a gang member who was jailed at 18 for murder and is now redefining his life having been paroled after 29 years; and Rebecca, who speaks of a trail of wreckage left by her spiral into a life of hard drugs as she runs at pace with her fellow runners – is profound, inspirational, and inescapably uplifting.

That’s not to say the process of telling their story was without its challenges: “You’re shooting on Skid Row. It’s early morning, it’s dark out, people are everywhere,” Gabi recalled. “You’re there with cameras and people throw bottles at you and come up to you and don’t want you to film. So that was a little bit scary. But then we got used to it and were able to follow the group.” And the filming conditions were not the only hurdle the team had to overcome: “Many of the individuals on Skid Row are addicts, alcoholics, criminals,” Mark continued. “We would start filming, let’s say with one person, then two weeks later they’d be gone. We would never see them again. Even till this day, we still haven’t seen them. People would basically vanish.”

A reflection on the transience of life on the margins of society, finding consistent subjects for their documentary would prove difficult as individuals would relapse or simply disappear without trace. A fact that makes the journeys achieved by the four people who become the focus of the film even more astounding, and a full appreciation of the patience and investment of time needed to restart a life, stark: “The film shows what investment is necessary to reclaim a person’s life,” Judge Craig asserts. “To restore the viability of that person. If homelessness and addiction could be solved by passing laws and throwing money at the problem, it would have been solved a long time ago. Homelessness is going to need the infusion of a tremendous amount of human capital. I hope that is made loud and clear.”

The other key takeaway is just how life-changing running can be. As Judge Mitchell explains, he has understood for many years that running is central to his physical and emotional wellbeing. But there’s now also a lot of scientific research behind why running is such a vital component to help people in their addiction to drugs and alcohol: “The chemical processes that go on in the brain, the strengthening of one’s ability to withstand the urges to take drugs and alcohol. I mean there is a real scientific basis and it confirms what you and I intuitively understood long before reading the science behind it.”

Receiving one award after the next in the US (thirteen awards from ten different US film festivals in fact) and having already received an incredible critical reception, the three reflect on how the film seems to resonate strongly with people, beyond the locale of California or even the US: “The film has hit a universal nerve and people are responding,” says Mark. “You have to change your attitude to people living in the rough or a homeless situation. You have to give these people a second chance and a fresh look.”

“People are more informed, they have a sense of their ability to impact people’s lives whereas before seeing the film there was a lack of understanding of how they could get involved. That’s been wonderful to see,” adds Judge Craig.

In particular, as the trio promote the film in the UK and the Judge prepares to run in the London Marathon (his third marathon in six weeks… yikes) they were particularly struck by the reaction to the film and the charitable emphasis on the capital’s race: “I think it is a wonderful reflection of the innate decency and desire to help other people that exists in the UK,” Judge Craig says. “The London Marathon is all about charity. 41,000 people are not going to win the race. On a more important level, 41,000–1 can do a lot of good by what they’re going to be doing on Sunday.”

Accompanying Hayes’ documentary is a short CinEvents & Get Shorty film which hears from runners in the UK who echo the sentiment in Skid Row Marathon – whether a celebrity or athlete, former criminal or drug addict, the power of running to empower individuals to take back control of their lives and help redefine who they are through building resilience, developing discipline, forming friendships and celebrating achievement is not to be underestimated: “You get back what you put in, not like with society,” says one featured member of The Running Charity.

Watching both films as I also prepare myself to run the London Marathon this Sunday, reflecting on my own relationship with running and the psychological, physical and emotional challenges and highs I have experienced, the exploration of these same elements, in far more extreme conditions hits a serious chord. Suddenly I see the practise of running, the race itself, my efforts to train and fundraise for charity (the incredible Whizz-Kidz) alongside thousands of others in a much broader light, and the sense of community it generates and transformative power it holds feels truly overwhelming. Most amazing, is its simplicity: “It’s just one foot in front of the other,” remarks one recovering addict and avid runner. “But it’s like magic. And it’s there, available to everyone.”

Skid Row Marathon will be in UK Cinemas on 9th May for one day only including an exclusive short film about the transformative powers of running. Sarah Bradbury is running the London Marathon on behalf of Whizz Kidz, a charity supporting kids with disabilities in the UK. You can find her sponsorship page here