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Photo by Jeremy Lapak on Unsplash.

I am stressed, anxious and in need of a release. It has been three days now. Someone in the know informed me that it will happen today, soon. 

Of course, nothing is ever certain in a place like this. I tighten my shoelaces, and adrenaline pumps through my veins like a high-speed freight train. I’m pacing and fearing the worst when I hear it. First, the crackling of a radio comes to life, then the words on the overhead speaker, “Yard call! Yard call!”

I’m off, down the corridor stairs, through two electronic exit doors to the recreational yard. A handful of others are behind me, with varying levels of motivation and enthusiasm. I pause, take a deep breath, and a calmness begins to wash over me like a cool ocean wave. 

For a moment, I close my eyes and become my other self — my more-human self. I plug in my headphones, adjust my shades, and suddenly I am alone, just another person going for a run. I run with music, never silence. The silence is a vacuum, allowing darkness to seep in, weighing me down as it slowly fills my mind. My body is craving a physical punishment. So I run.

I begin to jog, and as my legs loosen up, my stride lengthens as I pick up the pace to a steady run. The wind is on my face — the sun beckons, providing strength, and my feet pound out a familiar rhythm on the packed dirt. I notice the others, only glancingly, lounging on the benches, walking, and standing at the chain-link divider talking to other pods. I do not know these people. They certainly do not know me. There is no comparison between our individual sufferings. We are the only ones with this unique experience, living in our own self-sustaining hell. We are simply individuals whose circumstances have led us to the same place at the same time.

I keep running, feeling lighter with every step. The tethers, binding me in regret, begin to snap one by one: my impulsiveness; my failure as a daughter, a friend, a human — hardest of all, the recent passing of my mom, who was my one true champion. So I run.

As the miles go by, my thoughts clear, and I enter a meditative state where nothing can penetrate the tranquility. I do not have to focus on each step along the path, worn down by the thousands of conflicted souls before me. 

Eventually, what seems like only minutes has become an hour. I watch the officer make his way to unlock the gate. My time is coming to an end. 

I can make one more lap, and this one is my favorite. I sprint — well, nothing so graceful — I tear along the perimeter holding nothing back. Everything is a blur. My eyes fill with water, never tears. My arms are pumping, chest heaving, legs flying behind me. I feel nothing. No pain. No remorse. No grief. I am suspended in time. So I run.

It hasn’t always been this difficult to get outside. But like the rest of humanity during this devastating pandemic, we have had to accept change. What used to be an amnesty taken for granted has now become a contentious matter between staff and inmates. Quarantines, staff on sick leave, and a total separation of pods have relegated us to one hour a day recreational periods. That is, on a good day. 

We have not been at a loss for suffering. It is not the number of positive COVID-19 cases that caused the most damage, but the undocumented effects on our mental, emotional and physical well-being that has taken the greatest toll. As one highly susceptible to self-destructive behavior, I must be on the offensive, combatting any hostile ideations. So I run.

Initially, it all seemed tolerable, necessary and temporary. As time went by, staff shortages increased, and just as in the real world, recreation was the first to suffer. Administrative complacency set in. As long as we are not bothering them and acting out, all is fine on the home-front. Months crawl by and we are becoming increasingly isolated. Mental health visits have risen, along with prescription medications. I have witnessed severe depressions, apathy and weight gains topping 100 pounds. 

Each day we become more resigned to the fact that things are not going to change anytime soon. It has now been almost two years, and while many effects of the pandemic are immediately evident, an incalculable number are concealed, waiting to manifest in unforeseen and devastating ways. 

We have each found methods to cope — some healthy, such as exercise, reading or crafting. Some not so much, such as a renewed fervor for “hooch” (prison alcohol), or binging on TV and junk food. As humans, we have an amazing ability to adapt, to find comfort in security. One way or another, we find a way to survive. So I run.

Some question my sanity for the sweat, labor and torture that I put myself through. The cold, the rain, heat and humidity — it doesn’t matter. The miles keep pleading, and I keep responding. The truth is, my sanity depends and feeds on it. 

I have been running most of my life, but not until incarceration did it become so vital to my survival. It became something I can control. Something to give me purpose. Something to keep me alive inside. 

The high is a lasting one, that permeates every area of my life with a feeling of worth and accomplishment. I do not compare myself to other runners. Nor do I obsess over my pace or form. I’m not that kind of runner. But do not underestimate my will power. My shoes are heavy, my socks have holes, and my shorts feel like sandpaper. A pair of sweat-wicking shorts? I can only imagine. I flip through my magazines, marveling at all the new technology, and I wonder, “Who needs all this gear?” 

I have a Casio with a stopwatch. My only measurement of success is making it through another day. And it is all perfect. I need nothing more. So I run.

On multiple occasions, my anger and resentments were literally trying to kill me. I am a natural introvert, not prone to emotional displays or reliance on others. While usually alone, I am rarely lonely. 

On days I cannot get out, I feel the torture of a caged animal. The four walls of my cell crush me slowly until I cannot breathe. My anxiety can become so intense and debilitating that I cannot function. My heart pounds, I break out into a sweat, and everything becomes a chaotic blur as I frantically look for an escape. 

Medication has been exhausted. Therapy, while a temporary panacea in the moment, never had the fortitude to get to those places that even I didn’t know existed. No, those places can only be found and conquered through pure, savage force. I do not have time for platitudes or assurances. I must expel the poison eating away at me before there is nothing left to salvage. Curled in my cell, with the crimson warmth of my past sins flowing down my arms, I came to a moment of truth. I finally decided that this could not be it. I was not meant to live as a mindless, passionless waste of life. So I run.

My running makes me whole. It is there for me when I am feeling anxious and penned-in. It is there when my anger threatens to destroy everything I have managed to accomplish. It is there when all I want to do is numb myself to the reality that this life of mine was of my own making. It was there as I helplessly watched my mom decline and pass, knowing I should have been there. I will not let her devotion be in vain. 

I will rise above my own weakness and challenge any obstacle. Because when I run, nothing can touch me. For an hour, I have a future. For an hour, I am sane. For an hour, I have my mom. For an hour, I am healed. So I run. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

K.C. Johnson is a writer incarcerated in North Carolina.