A small group of runners passed under a canopy of lush trees as a blurred mustard sun broke through the haze of an unseasonably humid morning.

Near the front of the pack was Shane Peterson, a 42-year-old with wide shoulders, bald head and a salt-and-pepper stubble. Sweat was pouring down his neck as he rounded a city block near E. Lake Street in south Minneapolis and was greeted by a gantlet of cheering runners, their hands forming a narrow tunnel to the finish of a 3-mile run.

“How ya doin’ brother?” yelled a fellow runner, Ben Kressel, as he slapped hands with Peterson.

“Never been better!” Peterson replied, pausing to catch his breath. “Never been better.”

For Peterson, the spirit of warmth and camaraderie on this May morning is a world removed from the secluded confines where he has spent most of his adult life.

Just eight months before, Peterson was sitting in a cell at the state prison in Rush City, waiting out the remainder of a 16-year prison sentence for second-degree murder in connection with a drug-related death. Across his upper chest is a tattoo in cursive that reads, “I will have my vengeance,” a reminder of a darker time of his life.

Like many runners in the group, Peterson is not here just for exercise. He is trying to rebuild his life and break through the crushing isolation of life after incarceration by connecting to a community of distance runners known as Mile in My Shoes. Three mornings a week, while much of the city is still asleep, Peterson and a team of fellow runners — including a few former convicts still wearing ankle bracelets — hit the streets, cheering each other on as they zig and zag through empty parks and city sidewalks.

“It’s scary, what I chose to be,” said Peterson, referring to his criminal past. “This is one way of leaving that person behind and proving to the world that I have fundamentally changed.”

The idea for the community running project originated with Mishka Vertin, a distance runner who used to work as a public defender in the Bronx borough of New York City, and her partner, Michael Jurasits, a sound designer.

In 2009, Vertin spotted an article on the wall of a drug-treatment program in Manhattan about a man who had been imprisoned for years, and had discovered that a distance running regimen had helped him overcome his depression and recover from drug and alcohol addiction. The person featured in the article had even completed the New York City Marathon by training with a team of other runners with chemical dependency problems. Vertin was so moved that she took up distance running and became program director for the New York City chapter of Back on My Feet, a nonprofit that uses running as a vehicle to combat homelessness.

When Vertin and Jurasits moved from New York to the North Loop of Minneapolis, they were immediately struck by the segregated nature of the city, and how disconnected residents were from those outside their immediate neighborhoods and social spheres. “It felt like we were surrounded by a lot of people who looked exactly like us — all day long,” she said.

The couple began to think of ways to create more interactions between isolated pockets of the community, including people experiencing housing instability, those struggling with drug addiction and ex-convicts trying to reintegrate back into society.

Connections on the run

Once again, Vertin turned to running. The project started modestly, with a small team of about six runners living at the Catholic Charities Higher Ground homeless shelter in Minneapolis. The first runners — all residents at the shelter — were given running shoes and workout gear in exchange for their promise to show up at least two mornings a week to run. The group attracted so many participants that Vertin decided to launch running teams at other transitional housing sites throughout the Twin Cities metro area.

Now, in its fifth year, Mile in My Shoes has running teams at a half-dozen locations, including the Higher Ground homeless shelters in Minneapolis and St. Paul and two halfway houses for former inmates re-entering society. All told, more than 200 people experiencing homelessness have laced up new shoes and run their first mile as a result of the group’s outreach efforts. More than 100 have completed a 5K race, and six have completed at least one full marathon. The organization has also attracted dozens of volunteer “run mentors,” who provide extra inspiration by running side-by-side with members.

“People come out because they want to get in shape and they want structure, but they keep coming back because of the relationships they have formed,” Vertin said.

There are hugs when new runners arrive for orientation, and team embraces before and after each run. Early one morning, about a dozen members of Mile in My Shoes — including several former prisoners living at a nearby halfway house — huddled in a tight circle in an empty parking lot on E. Lake Street. With their heads bowed as if in prayer, they went around the circle and shared their personal routines for preparing for a long run.

“I just do my thing, and try to find someone faster than me and catch up,” Peterson said, grinning. Moments later, the group lifted their hands in the air and yelled, “Mile in My Shoes!” followed by a high-pitched, “Woo!”

Routine builds trust

For Peterson, who was released from prison in September, the friendly hugs and cheers were intimidating at first. He recalled arriving a bit late for his first morning run, and immediately saw a dozen people huddled in what seemed like a close embrace. One of the women mentors came up and hugged him. Sixteen years in prison had left Peterson wary of physical contact, and he was unsure of how to react. “Everyone was smiling and happy and all I could think was, ‘OK, what’s going on here?’ ” he said. “It took me about four months before I could actually put my hand in the middle of that huddle and do the ‘Woo!’ ”

Now Peterson is one of the group’s most committed members, showing up religiously for every training run and race. He’s recruited new members to his team, and is mentoring other members just out of prison. Peterson credits the running regimen with helping him cope with the anxiety of returning to mainstream society, where the stress of finding work, a place to live, and even shopping at a Target store had once seemed insurmountable. He holds a regular job cutting hair at a barber shop in West St. Paul.

“For the first time in years, I actually trust people,” he said.

On a recent Sunday, Peterson finished a 5K race along the Mississippi River in 24 minutes, just under his personal best. He seemed to bask in the moment, waving and cheering on other runners as they neared the finish line on the Stone Arch Bridge.

“I keep telling myself that the worst day out here is still better than the best day in prison,” he said.