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For Skid Row Runners, Triathlon Offers a Path to Sobriety

A running club at a homeless shelter on L.A.'s Skid Row has given more than 500 members a new lease on life.

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At the 2021 Herbalife24 Los Angeles Triathlon, Craig Mitchell walked into transition and began setting up his gear for the upcoming race. One by one, his fellow triathletes greeted him:

“Oh, hey! It’s The Judge!”

“Good morning, Judge.”

“Ready to race?”

The fact that Mitchell is a judge for the Superior Court of Los Angeles County is not a remarkable feat in a multisport context—after all, triathlon sees plenty of people from plenty of professions. What is notable, however, is that Mitchell’s triathlon team is partially made up of people who once appeared in his courtroom.

The Skid Row Running Club is a passion of Mitchell (affectionately known as “The Judge”), who formed the group in 2012. “I was invited down to the Midnight Mission on Skid Row by Roderick Brown, a man I had previously sentenced to prison,” Mitchell said. “After he was released from prison he was paroled to the Midnight Mission. He wanted to introduce me to the people who were helping him put his life back together.”

During that first visit to the Mission, the president, Larry Adamson, asked if the judge had any interest in being a part of their work helping people who are homeless gain self-sufficiency and a better life. In that conversation, something clicked in Mitchell’s head.

“I understood how vital regular running was to my own health, both mentally and physically,” he said. “I thought a running program might bring this benefit to those in recovery at the Mission.”

Mitchell offered to start a running club at the Mission. It wasn’t something that was formally organized; instead, Mitchell simply showed up on Mondays and Thursdays at 6 a.m. and ran with those who wanted to go for a run. At first, there were only four consistent runners showing up each week. Then six. Week by week, the group grew, and the ragtag bunch became an organized crew of runners.

“The name was originally the Midnight Runners,” Mitchell said. “Then when we expanded beyond the Midnight Mission, drawing runners from the other missions servicing Skid Row, we chose the name that best identified who we were.”

Today, the Skid Row Running Club regularly averages 50 participants in group runs. For the most part, the club is like any other running crew on the streets of L.A. But there are some rules unique to the group.

“With methamphetamine being the number one drug on Skid Row, and given the fact that prolonged use seriously impairs one’s mental health, the club has had to explain to several former runners that their mental health condition is not compatible with running safely,” Mitchell said. “There have been times when runners have ventured out into traffic as a result of them being under the influence of meth. We also have had to learn how to handle runners who relapse [after a period of sobriety].”

RELATED: From Addict to Active Recovery

Relapsing occurs with some regularity in the Skid Row Running Club. In response, the crew has developed approaches to make sure that when a relapse happens, fellow runners are there to support that person in their renewed efforts to remain sober. Many of the runners in the club serve as sobriety sponsors to runners who are fairly new in their recovery. “Since we run three times a week, we have a pretty good idea of who is doing well, and who may be struggling,” Mitchell said.

As the group grows, so too do their goals. They have raced many events, from 5Ks to ultramarathons. When one of the group’s members, Mario Ocampo, remarked on a training run that he wanted to participate in a triathlon, fellow club members said they’d sign up, too. Originally, the plan was to race the L.A. Triathlon in 2020. When that was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Skid Row Running Club organized their own self-supported half-iron-distance event. A year later, they finally got to fulfill their dream of crossing the finish line of the L.A. Triathlon.

Mitchell never envisioned he’d do a triathlon. Then again, he also never thought he’d form a running club that would serve more than 500 members of Skid Row. But his role as The Judge was meant to be, and has been one of the most fulfilling of his life.

“I genuinely believe that the Skid Row Running Club has played a crucial role in helping our members maintain their sobriety and go on to live healthy, meaningful and satisfying lives,” Mitchell said. “I have watched many, many of our members start out in the early stages of recovery, grow stronger over time, get back in school, start new careers, re-establish ties with their families, become self-supporting and feel 100 percent better about themselves. The club has provided a real community for its members, and the support of that community has made a real difference.”

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