He started running in prison.
Around and around a little track behind the walls, never going far, never getting anywhere.
Jerry Straub served his time, then moved into a Minneapolis halfway house last October, with a monitor strapped around his ankle while he figured out his next step.
“While I was in, I made the decision,” he said. “My life has to change. I need to start making positive decisions and being around positive people.”
That’s when he saw the invitation to come out for a run, posted in the hall next to a bunch of pictures of runners high-fiving each other across finish lines and loping along in running shoes topped with ankle monitors.
It was his introduction to Mile in My Shoes, a Twin Cities nonprofit that organizes running groups at shelters and halfway houses, pairing residents with experienced runners from the community in the hope that everyone can find some joy and common ground along the route.
Half a year and dozens of group runs later, Straub has a place of his own and a good job working construction. But twice a week, he laces up his running shoes and heads back to the Volunteers of America residential re-entry center on Lake Street.
“I do 10-hour shifts and then I come run. That’s how much I like being a part of this group,” he said, barely winded after Thursday evening’s group run. “It’s been a blessing.”
He used to drink, smoke and sit around on the couch. Now, he’s training for a half-marathon.
The positive people he wanted to be around are all around him now.
Before and after every run, they throw their arms around each other and circle up. On Thursday, they went around the huddle, one by one, to share their hopes and goals for the days ahead: to lose a little weight, to find a job and a place to live, to be kinder, to get faster, to reconnect with their kids. Then they put their hands together for a group “woo.”
Mile in My Shoes co-founder Mishka Vertin — loaded down with bags of new workout gear — hugged her way around the group. New members get shoes, shirts and shorts to run in, and somebody to run with.
“No one runs alone,” Vertin said. She and her partner, Michael Jurasits, started their first running group at Catholic Charities Higher Ground shelter in Minneapolis five years ago.
Running, Vertin said, is just the hook. People sign up because they want to lose weight or get fit, or just because it’s something to do.
But “it ends up being so much more,” she said.
Each running group is split pretty evenly between members and mentors. The volunteers are there to help new runners figure out things like pace and breathing, and to enjoy each other’s company along the way.
“For the mentors, it’s a chance to get out of your bubble, to have your perceptions really changed,” Vertin said. “For the members, it’s a chance to talk about something that doesn’t have to do with your homelessness [or] your incarceration.”
There are employers who won’t hire someone with a criminal record. There are people who step over the people they see sleeping on the street. There are Minnesota lawmakers who don’t think felons on supervised release should be allowed to vote.
Mile in My Shoes is a space where they’re welcome and wanted. The runners inspire each other, encourage each other, even help each other find apartments and jobs.
“We’re just all human beings, out here enjoying the weather and going for a run,” said volunteer mentor Jason Rysdon of Minneapolis.
That’s the thing about running. Once you lace up your shoes and hit the road, you’re a runner. Not a homeless runner or felon in running shoes.
Sometimes a run gets off to a rough start. If you keep going, runners know, you can still finish strong.
There was a woman who came out for a run a few years ago, Vertin remembers. She had escaped an arranged, abusive marriage and was staying in a shelter with her five children when she joined Mile in My Shoes.
She started running and kept running, as she moved out of the shelter, enrolled in nursing school and raised her five kids. A few years ago, as she ran the final miles of the Twin Cities Marathon, the course took her past her new home, where her children were standing on the curb, cheering her on.
If you feel like doing some running or cheering, the annual Mile in My Shoes Downtown Run Around 5K on June 2 in downtown Minneapolis. This will the first race for many of the group’s new runners, so get ready to cheer and be cheered.
For more information about the race or about Mile in My Shoes, visit www.mileinmyshoes.mn.