The sun was just starting to rise in a magenta sky over Rancho Potrero on Saturday as dozens of runners lined up to start a marathon, half-marathon or 6.5-mile race through the western Santa Monica Mountains.
Each runner in the Hiawatha Trail Race Oct. 6 had their own reason for getting up at the crack of dawn. Some were trying to set new personal records. Others were training for an Ironman triathlon.
But Fernando, clad in a baseball cap and sweatshirt, was at the event set against the backdrop of Mount Boney to put distance between himself and a lifetime of drug abuse and homelessness.
The 44-year-old Mexico City native was one of a half-dozen runners who were participating with Back On My Feet, a nationwide program that helps individuals overcome homelessness through distance running.
Fernando, whose last name is being withheld for confidentiality purposes, has lived for the past four years at the Union Rescue Mission, a Christian homeless shelter on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
He and Miguel, a fellow resident of the largest private homeless shelter in the United States, have found the road to recovery running with BOMF, a Philadelphia-based program with 12 chapters across the country that partner with homeless shelters and residential treatment programs to help members of underserved populations get their lives back on track.
It’s based on the idea that the skills learned from running—commitment, discipline, endurance and self-confidence—will transfer into other areas of their lives.
Fernando said the four years he’s spent training with the program have changed his life.
“I met a lot of people and I saw another way to live,” he said. “The old way was drugs. Now I know there’s another way. I’m learning how to adapt.”
Breaking a sweat, and a vicious cycle
Participants in Back On My Feet spend the first 30 days running with a team from 5:30 to 6:30 a.m. three days a week. Those with good attendance are enrolled in the Next Steps program, where staff members help them develop road maps for the next stage in their life through financial literacy classes and job skills training.
They can also earn financial assistance to help with housing, transportation and other barriers to employment.
The program is open to men and women 18 or older. Around 60 percent of the participants have children and more than a third are veterans, according to the BOMF website.
Illah Schalles is the member services manager for the Greater Los Angeles chapter of BOMF.
She said the program gives participants a new way of looking at themselves.
“It’s not like ‘I’m an addict’ or ‘I’m homeless’ or ‘I’m whatever this label is,’” she said. “Now you’re a runner. You’re a part of a team.”
In addition to the thrice-weekly training sessions, program members run 5K, 10K, half- and full marathons a few weekends a month. Some are even training for ultra marathons, which is the name given to any footrace longer than 26.2 miles. Due to budget constraints, they can sign up only for races that sponsor their registration fees.
Conejo Valley resident Erica Gratton is the race director for SoCal Ultra Running, which hosts trail running events in the Santa Monica Mountains and beyond.
When BOMF program staff inquired about financial help for the new Hiawatha Trail Race in Newbury Park, she agreed to sponsor eight runners.
“I just thought it was amazing,” Gratton said. “Major kudos to these people. It’s hard enough when your life is in order to stay on a training program to run.”
She also sponsored the team to participate in the No Name Race in Agoura’s Cheeseboro Canyon on Nov. 10 that will feature 50K, 30K, 15K and 10K distances. One of the runners she’s sponsoring is Miguel.
The 31-year-old father of two has spent the last two years in the Union Rescue Mission recovering from drug addiction and working his way toward permanent housing.
The Compton native said his kids like him better now that he’s sober. He’s even brought them along on a few training runs.
“I was never around before,” he said. “I mean I’ve always been there, but I was on drugs. Now that I’m sober, I’m running and doing the responsible thing.”
Kelly Buck is a program volunteer for Back On My Feet, which means she runs with the groups three times a week and accompanies them to races. A CPA by trade, the Echo Park resident said participating in BOMF was a way to give back. But, she said, it’s a two-way street.
She talks to Miguel about training for a 50K and he talks to her about his kids and looking for permanent housing.
“We’re both giving back to each other,” Buck said.