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Running to recovery in the LA Film Festival documentary, 'Skid Row Marathon'

Judge Craig J. Mitchell (second from left) greets Skid Row Running Club member Ben Shirley in downtown Los Angeles.
Judge Craig J. Mitchell (second from left) greets Skid Row Running Club member Ben Shirley in downtown Los Angeles.
Sharon McNary
Judge Craig J. Mitchell (second from left) greets Skid Row Running Club member Ben Shirley in downtown Los Angeles.
Judge Craig J. Mitchell (right) with a member of the Skid Row Running Club.
Sharon McNary
Judge Craig J. Mitchell (second from left) greets Skid Row Running Club member Ben Shirley in downtown Los Angeles.
Judge Craig J. Mitchell (in blue shirt) and members of the Skid Row Running Club in downtown Los Angeles.
Sharon McNary

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Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig J. Mitchell often begins his work day before dawn, running with a group of recovering addicts and homeless people. Some of them might have been in his courtroom accused of crimes.

Mitchell is the founder of the Skid Row Running Club. The new documentary film “Skid Row Marathon,” which premieres June 17 at the L.A. Film Festival, tells their story.

When Mitchell sits at the bench in criminal court, he sometimes wears running shorts and shoes under his robe — the better to hit the streets quickly at lunch. 

But on Monday and Thursday mornings for the past five years, he has come to Skid Row to run with anyone who shows up.

“We started out very humbly,” said Mitchell on a recent Monday morning just before a run. “On a good day, we'd have three or four runners.”

That morning, a boisterous mix of two dozen runners gathered in the traffic lane of 6th Street, in front of the Midnight Mission shelter. Some are addicts released to the judge from the confines of their rehab program for the hour-long run.

It’s a dicey venue for a running club. That morning, someone offered to sell the judge some meth. Last week, while trying to break up a fight, he got hit in the face.

Mishaps aside, Mitchell's group has grown in size and ambition. The judge has gone from putting a few Skid Row runners into the 2013 L.A. Marathon to training dozens of recovering addicts to run races in Africa, Asia and Europe.

“Skid Row Marathon” follows several runners as they try to stay sober and train together to run a marathon in Rome. Some of the recovering addicts featured in the film reunited with Judge Mitchell for their morning run.

“It's more than running,” said Ben Shirley, a heavy metal bass player and member of the club. “For me, it's meditation.”

Shirley stands out from the crowd — he has blue stars tattooed on his face and neck. He had been through a few rehab programs, but it was the Skid Row Running Club that finally made a difference.

“This is camaraderie,” Shirley said. “It goes beyond just running. It's trusting somebody, like the judge.”

When Judge Mitchell gives the signal, the runners head out. They tear along through truck exhaust, dodging potholes in the right lane of 6th Street.  They leave the sidewalks to the many tents and shopping carts and tarps, each a reminder of L.A.’s growing homeless population.

“I was very standoffish and I did not like Judge Mitchell,” said Shirley, recalling the start of the club. “[But] the more we ran ... the more it was beaten into me that I had to change or I'd be right on the street again. [This is] one of the best things I've ever done in my life.”

Gabriele Hayes, producer of the "Skid Row Marathon" documentary, had a table waiting a block from the mission. There was coffee and home-baked brownies for runner Rafael Cabrera, who served 29 years on a murder conviction.

The treats speak to the bond the producer and her husband, director Mark Hayes, have with the runners over their years of filming.

Initially, Mark Hayes couldn’t accept Judge Mitchell’s view that a person’s life cannot be defined by one bad act — even murder.

“But over a period of now four years, I’ve accepted [Cabrera] and I’ve forgiven him,” the director said. "And I understand that. Everybody is better served if he’s out of prison.”

The documentary started small and local.

“Four years ago in March, just before the L.A. Marathon,” recalled Gabriele Hayes. “We were really intrigued by this judge who started a running club on Skid Row. I am a runner myself and I thought, My God, [this] would be really an interesting story. He’s changing lives.”

Gabriele and Mark Hayes took on roles far beyond filming as the runners trained for their international marathons.

“Everybody’s skeptical at the beginning,” said Gabriele Hayes. “Going on the trips, organizing the trips to Rome to Africa, trying to pay bills, trying to sponsor people, trying to fundraise ... It’s a big commitment.”

Gabriele and Mark Hayes were not only making their film, they were helping make the trips happen.

“When we went to Africa, it was only four runners,” said Gabriele Hayes. “But going to Rome, we were 25, and you're looking at a bill of over $70,000 dollars.”

Mark Hayes says there’s no guarantee that everyone involved in the program will succeed. Several of the runners they followed relapsed into drug or alcohol abuse.

“Even though we’re kind of priming the pump, so to speak,” he said, "in a way, we still have no control over what happens.”

But Judge Mitchell is hopeful the documentary will shine a light on their cause.

“We hope that people who watch the film realize that putting lives back together is a worthwhile enterprise,” he said.

The Skid Row Running Club has recently been incorporated as its own nonprofit organization. Filmmakers Mark and Gabriele Hayes hope their documentary helps raise money to make the group self-sustaining.

"Skid Row Marathon" screens June 17 at noon at the Arclight Santa Monica as part of the L.A. Film Festival.

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