EAGLE RIVER — The success of the Running Free Alaska program at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center can be told anecdotally with the kind of too-good-to-be-true hype you hear on late-night infomercials: Lesa Stanley, 41, lost 21 pounds! Andraya Lafleur, 29, chased away the blues! Patricia Stickman, 48, discovered a healthy and legal high!
It can be told analytically in the data compiled by Tim Alderson, who started the program last winter for his master’s thesis in counseling psychology at Alaska Pacific University -- and is in the process of turning it into a nonprofit venture because he couldn’t bear the idea of the program ending when his research did.
And it can be told by the inmates themselves, who see Running Free Alaska as a way to get fresh air, get healthy, chase boredom, chase goals and replace bad habits with good ones. For those with a chance to get out, they see their participation in Running Free Alaska as a way to stay free once they gain their release.
Tisha Negus, 34, has been at Hiland Mountain for four years on drug charges and hopes to get out in November. She said she’s motivated to keep running because she thinks the people she will meet through running “are absolutely the kind of people I need to hang around.”
“I have to not come back here,” she said.
Alderson, a recreational runner who is training for next month’s New York City Marathon, was an intern at Hiland as part of his master’s degree program when he read an article in Runners’ World magazine about a running group at a prison in Topeka, Kan.
He proposed something similar for Hiland, and 25 inmates joined the pilot program that ran for 12 weeks last winter.
Before it began, Alderson used an assessment tool developed by the World Health Organization that measures psychological, physical, social and environmental health. When he tested inmates again when the program ended, their mean scores increased by 21 percent.
Here’s what else happened during those three months:
• 21 of 25 women completed all 12 weeks of training, which consists of one-hour workouts three times a week. Two of the four who dropped out did so because they were released from prison.
• The women on average lowered their 5-kilometer times by five minutes. Four got 10 minutes faster and one got 15 minutes faster.
• Inmates lost a combined 46 pounds.
• Four reported that they stopped taking mental-health medications.
The pilot program ended with a 5-kilometer race won by Lafleur, who ran in high school at Soldotna and is a Mayor’s Marathon veteran. In prison on felony DUI charges, Lafleur was at a Kenai Peninsula facility before moving to Hiland Mountain late last year.
“It was really sad and depressing. I was seriously down and out,” she said. “I got up here and only a month later Tim started the program. Hallelujah!”
‘No coddling here’
The second edition of Running Free Alaska attracted 40 inmates and concluded Saturday with 5-K and 10-K races; Lafleur won the 10-K in a time of 49 minutes, 5 seconds, and Negus won the 5-K in 28:23.
The program doesn’t cost the state of Alaska a penny, Alderson said. Runners are charged entry fees for races and must stay out of trouble during the 12-week program or risk expulsion.
“There’s no coddling here,” he said. “They have fun, but they earn their way. It is work. It’s not just social hour.”
Women wear prison-issue gear -- mostly sweat pants and the ubiquitous yellow shirts. They run in flat, slip-on canvas shoes with no arch or ankle support. If they make it through six weeks with 90 percent participation, they get a pair of new running shoes from Skinny Raven, which is a partner with Running Free Alaska.
“This is the first time I’ve had running shoes in my entire life,” said Stickman before dropping her voice to a whisper. “They’re real expensive.”
When weather permits, practices are held outside on a rutted gravel oval, where 4.6 laps equal a mile. When weather doesn’t permit, runners stay inside and work out in a small room where 22 laps equal a mile.
Hour-long practices are held three times a week and are run by a crew of volunteer coaches who are among the city’s top recreational athletes.
“These girls are tough,” said volunteer coach Nora Miller.
“The weather has been horrible,” added Siri Moss, another volunteer. “Look at us in all our technical gear, and they’re wearing cotton and sweats and everyone is still out here walking and running.”
“They don’t even have running bras,” Miller said.
Healthy and busy
Alderson has ambitions to expand. He wants to establish a transitional program that gives participants a way to stay connected to running once they are released, and he’d like to explore taking the program to a men’s prison.
Negus said keeping the program going is a no-brainer.
“It’s something that keeps you healthy and busy,” she said. “If you have a healthy mind, a healthy body is going to follow, and vice versa.”
Stickman, who is in prison on drug charges, says she was an addict for 20 years and never once ran. Now she loves to run. She loves how it makes her lungs feel, how it makes her blood pump, how it puts a smile on her face. She has learned that running gives her a natural high.
“Endorphins, serotonins -- they call them ‘feel-goods,’ “ she said. “When you’re doing drugs, that’s what we wanted to feel.”
Stanley, who went to prison in 2009 and should get out in February, lost 21 pounds thanks to the program. Maybe as important, she has gained a sense of control through her participation.
“My background is pretty rough, so if I can commit to something like this, it’s easier to make other little commitments,” she said. “It strengthens you.”