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The Homeless Running Club

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This weekend is the Dash for Democracy 5K run in Philadelphia. Some runners dress up like the Statue of Liberty and Ben Franklin, but among them will be a group of homeless men wearing matching yellow t-shirts. They're part of a group called "Back on my Feet." Producer Peter Crimmins recently went training with the group and sends this story.


By Peter Crimmins

It's 5:45 a.m. in Lower North Philadelphia, and sunrise is still about an hour away. In the dark, a group of men gather outside a Christian homeless shelter called Sunday Morning Breakfast. They stretch, they say a quick prayer, and they're off.

Back On My Feet is a running club. Today there are six African-American men in their 40s and 50s wearing oversized T-shirts and donated running shoes. One of them is Craig. He's been with the running club since it started in June. Three to five miles a day, three days a week. But today, he's lagging behind the pack.

"There a lot of times I wish I could keep up with other people," says Craig, who didn't want to give his last name. "But I can't. In life, you can't always keep up with everybody. Just finish the things you want to do. And that's all good."

Craig says that he feels stronger and looks better since he's been running, but that's not why he's running. He does it because he wants to finish something. Craig told me he doesn't finish a lot of things. Like, he never finished high school.

"If you said I would do this four or five years ago, I would have laughed at you."

"What were you doing four or five years ago?" I ask him.

"Not the right thing. I made some stupid choices."

Anne Mahlum started the program. "We've all made bad decisions, we've all been on roads that are rocky. These guys ended up on a road without a home."

Mahlum has already finished a few marathons of her own. Last summer she would run past the homeless shelter on her training route. The guys would wave at her, and that gave her an idea: she knows how good she feels when she starts the day running, so why not share that with these guys. Maybe it would help get them, you know, back on their feet.

"I'll be honest—a lot of them tell me now they were very skeptical of me. They would look at me like, 'Who is this young white girl? What is she doing?' I had a lot to prove."

Mahlum started Back On My Feet as a hobby. About a month later she got a new job as a manager of government affairs at cable company. At the time, she thought it was a great career move.

"The day before I was supposed to start, the best way to describe it is how a woman would feel the night before she's supposed to get married. Everything is planned, everything is set, people are out there ready to go, and this is the wrong guy. Wrong guy. You can't pick the moments that change your life. You can let them pass you by, or you can grab hold of them. That's what I'm doing."

So, Mahlum decided not to take that job. Instead, she made Back On My Feet her job. She turned it into a non-profit. Now she looks for funding and sponsors and gives the men incentives like movie tickets and iPods to keep running. But it doesn't always work out. The homeless shelter is a Christian program that demands sobriety. If you are caught drinking, you're out. So far Anne has lost two runners.

This group says it's not giving up. We just finished a 5-mile loop and the sun is rising. In two weeks, these guys will run the Philadelphia Marathon. They don't plan to win. All they want to do is finish.

  • Music Bridge:
    Take Your Time
    Artist: B Fleischmann
    CD: Tourist (Morr)


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