BOSTON — Of all the runners in the first wave of Monday’s Boston Marathon, there was a lean, muscular marathoner with slender ankles from Northern California for whom all the nervous energy held deep meaning. Markelle Taylor, a former inmate at San Quentin State Prison, was free for the first time.
Just a week earlier, Taylor – who was released from prison in 2019 – received word that after three long years in which his movements were severely circumscribed and travel required special permission, he was finally out of parole. He got off the plane in his running gear at Boston’s Logan International Airport a free man. “Man, it was a beautiful feeling,” 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. In his orange shorts, matching Nike Alphaflys and the tank he chose in honor of his running club Tamalpa in Marin County, Calif., he set out determined to achieve his goal – to run a third marathon in a row in under three hours. The “three” were significant to him: parole hearing #3 resulted in his release after 18 years in prison for second-degree murder, and it took him three years to get out of parole.
Taylor, who earned the nickname Gazelle, looked like he was out for a walk as he crossed the finish line in 2 hours and 52 minutes. He maintained a steady pace of 6:33 per mile and “didn’t go crazy” by 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.”
Messages from his coaches, fans and Marin’s racing friends started coming in minutes later. They still are. “He’s mentally strong and works hard even when he’s hurting,” said Diana Fitzpatrick, who coached Taylor and is the first female president of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. “The support that Markelle has received from the community is all because of who he is.”
The tight-knit community of Tamalpa Runners, who recently elected Taylor to their board, helps keep him on balance. He is proudly 21 years sober and counting. “They hold you accountable,” Taylor said of the club members, who accepted him without judgment from the start. “It takes you out of your lazy way. If you tell someone you’re going to race them, you don’t want to let them down.”
Taylor ran his first sub-three-hour marathon in California at Avenue of the Giants last September, where, pampered by redwoods, he finished in a time of 2:56:12 and placed first in his age group and fifth overall. He was joined by his longtime mentor, Frank Ruona, who, as a volunteer head coach for the 1000 Mile Club in San Quentin, helped him hone his talents.
Before the outbreak of Covid-19 – which ricocheted off San Quentin and reduced the club’s activities for more than two years – Ruona and other organized volunteer coaches organized 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, which led to the premature birth and eventual death of their 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 out of old patterns. “It forces you to grow and mature and be wise,” he said. “It makes you a better person.”
Taylor was inspired to start running as an antidote to despair after a close friend died by suicide following his fifth parole denial. Taylor, at 1.60 m, was by far the fastest runner in the 1000 Mile Club, earning the happy nickname Gazelle because of his long, smooth strides, speed of legs 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-blowing 104½ laps around the prison yard. He was released six weeks later. With the help of supporters – including a senior official at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who turned out to be a runner – Taylor was given permission to run in Boston if he stuck like glue to the coach traveling with him. He raced with a charity team in the rear corral, but finished with the first wave in 3:03:52, a personal best at the time.
When he runs a lot, he remembers the mistakes of his own past in the pain he feels in his left ankle, which is fastened with metal screws – the result of jumping over a wall while being chased by three Rottweilers (“I was drunk and I thought that could jump,” he recalled).
“Anger is a secondary emotion to hurt, stress and fear,” he said of his former self. “It’s like a wounded dog. If you touch him, he will bite you and bite you to protect himself because he is hurting. It’s the same with people.”
A lot has changed in his life since then. Just three years ago, Taylor was living in a re-entry facility in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where residents were required to take a breathalyzer test, take off their shoes to check for contraband, and pass a metal detector at the door. . Today, Taylor lives in her own subsidized one-bedroom apartment in one of the most coveted and affluent communities in the Bay Area – Tiburon. “Man, you can’t beat this,” he 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 working at a motel for the former homeless run by Catholic Charities.
He enjoyed “helping people change their lives,” having experienced similar obstacles, he said. When the nonprofit’s contract with the state expired, Taylor was disappointed to learn that he was suddenly unemployed. To make ends meet, he is now working for minimum wage at a grocery store.
The symbolism of marathons is not lost on him. “Running is humiliating,” he said. “Sometimes you have to start from the back, just like I’m doing now with minimum wage. It’s like trying to walk up that hill after 18+ miles – sometimes you can get cramps and stuff like that. It’s like being rejected from a job you want because they asked for 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. “Just like some of these hills, society at large is very ruthless – unless it gets to their 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, kicked his alcohol addiction, or developed the warm, steady 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 a job as a coach or peer counselor that could turn into a career.
Taylor launched a sportswear line last year, an idea he’d nurtured since his time in prison. His logo is based on a silhouette of Taylor breaking chains while running. And this week in Boston, the clothing slogan came true: “Markelle the Gazelle Runs Free”.