Christine Yoo: 26.2 To Life

For many of us, the holiday season presents an opportunity to spend some time thinking about people less fortunate than ourselves. This week on Sea Change Radio, we spotlight a story of hope, determination and redemption. Our guest is Christine Yoo the director and producer of the new documentary film 26.2 to Life which takes viewers into the San Quentin Prison Marathon and its 1000 Mile Club. We learn about the inspiration behind the film, discuss the challenges of long distance running behind bars, and look at what the film reveals about our prison system and the effect it has on millions.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Christine Yoo (CY) | 00:23 – There were a lot of people there with brothers or fathers or mothers in prison, or their kids in prison too. It’s a cycle that is self-perpetuating.

Narrator | 00:38 – For many of us, the holiday season presents an opportunity to spend some time thinking about people less fortunate than ourselves. This week on Sea Change Radio, we spotlight a story of hope, determination and redemption. Our guest is Christine Yoo the director and producer of the new documentary film 26.2 to Life which takes viewers into the San Quentin Prison Marathon and 1000 Mile Club. We learn about the inspiration behind the film, discuss the challenges of long distance running behind bars, and look at what the film reveals about our prison system and the effect it has on millions. 

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:38 –  I am joined on Sea Change Radio by my high school classmate, Christine Yu. Chris is the director and producer of the new documentary film 26.2 to Life. Christine, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Christine Yoo (CY) | 01:51 – Hey Alex, how are you? Glad to be here.

Alex Wise (AW)  | 01:55 – First, why don’t you give us a brief synopsis of 26.2 to Life, and then I want to dive into how you came about the project because it’s, it’s really a labor of love. It took six years, right?

Christine Yoo (CY)  | 02:07 – Yeah, absolutely. Six long, very long years. So 26.2 to Life takes you inside the San Quentin Prison Marathon. And it explores the transformative power of running through the lens of the prisons running club, which is called the Thousand Mile Club. And within this club that is organized by these volunteers who are elite marathon runners that go into the prison throughout the year to coach a group of incarcerated men, they train so that every November they run a 26.2 mile marathon entirely behind the prison walls, 105 laps around this prison yard. But more than running the film really explores, uh, what, what led these men to the starting line at San Quentin and highlights their rehabilitative journeys to, to define themselves, you know, to be more than their crime. 

Alex Wise (AW) | 03:12 – So how did you get interested in this project and how did you decide which characters you were going to follow as, as, as the story unfolded in front of you? 

CY | 03:24 – So, my relationship with the prison system started more than 20 years ago. Um, I had a friend who was also fellow Korean American who was wrongfully convicted, and he was sentenced to 271 years in California state prison. Um, it really impacted me a lot. Um, I knew his whole family and how devastating it was for them. And he was somebody that I felt basically could have been my brother. You know, we had like the same type of family vacations, you know, grew up very similarly. Our fathers went to the same school in Korea. Um, and so because of his incarceration, I really started to wonder, uh, what does that look like if you know you’re going to die in prison? I mean, what does that act? How do you actually carry out a life? You know, because people still need to find a way to live. So what does that really actually look like for people? Uh, and the, so I guess basically the opportunity to explore that question came to me in 2016. I woke up one morning and I saw this magazine article in GQ and it said, this San Quentin marathon. And it just immediately captured my imagination. I’m not a marathoner, but I am a runner. Um, and so I could see how people could gain a sense of freedom or a sense of wellbeing, uh, by running. So I immediately contacted the coach. I did an online research to find whatever I could find. I reached out to Coach Frank, who lives in Novato, California, Marin County, and basically drove up to meet him immediately and, uh, told him why I was interested in this topic. And originally I was going to do it as a regular motion picture, you know, because that was more my background. I had more of a narrative background. Um, but he told me I had competition as well. So Conde Nast had also approached him to do a motion picture. Um, and I thought for sure, you know, he was going to end up going with them. But I just kind of left him and I just said, look, you know, this is like a, a classic David and Goliath fight, but you know, they probably have 50 projects in development. I will, you know, devote myself to give all my concentration to this project. And, uh, you know, we all, we all know who won that fight in the end and I left back down to LA convinced that I am sure that I wasn’t going to get it. And then he called me up a week later and said that he wanted to go with me. And so I went into the prison for a half marathon event. That was like the first time I was going into San Quentin. And again, I was going to do this as a, like a regular movie. So I basically went in there with, uh, I got permission to go in there with a pad of paper and a, and a pencil.

AW | 06:36 – And then Was that with the help of Frank, or you had to go through the whole system independently? 

CY | 06:42 – Yeah, so he got me gate cleared to go in with the volunteers to, to just observe a half marathon event. This was in 2016. So the minute I start walking down into the yard and they’re all gathering for the, you know, the start of the marathon, I mean, it felt very festive, <laugh>, you know? And I was like, wow, this is, there’s like a kind of a feel good feeling going on right now. There’s like this, you know, fun community-like atmosphere, like it felt like a picnic or something.

AW | 07:19 – Yeah. You get that feeling in the film, like people are really cheering each other on. 

CY | 07:23 – Yeah. And I’m like, but wait, but we’re in a prison. You know, I mean, this is a really weird juxtaposition of feelings. And I wanted to explore that. And so then I just started talking with other guys, and over the course of the next few months I started talking with, uh, you know, of course different coaches and volunteers and guys who had been released. And I sort of just could not believe all of the things that I was hearing and seeing and felt that I needed to get outta the way and tell this, tell this story as a documentary. So that’s just kind of where it started. 

AW | 08:00 – Yes. I, I thought it was very effective how you get into their stories a little later. But the first reminder that this isn’t just a fun feel good story is they’re starting a marathon, then all of a sudden there’s a, a lockdown or a yard down and, and also you’re doing an interview with somebody a few minutes later in the film and they’re like, oh wait, that’s an alarm. I have to sit down. And they’re like, it’s almost like a timeout for a, an elementary school kid or something like that. It felt so infantalizing to me that somebody I, I can understand the, the protocols that go into that, but it, it was a stark reminder that this is not just the YMCA’s annual turkey trot. 

CY | 08:40 – Yeah, sure. And then, yeah, so when these alarms go off, and it could be for any reason, you know, any outbreak that might be going on in the prison or some medical alarm or something like that. And sort of what accentuates it even more is that as an outsider, as a free person, you have to remain standing, you know, so also that guards can see, uh, immediately who is a free person and who is incarcerated.

AW | 09:06 – Wow, I didn’t realize that. 

CY | 09:08 – That’s also why you wear different clothing too when you go inside the prison. So like the guys, they were blue, the guards, they were green. The new people that come in wear orange. So there’s a lot of colors that are just completely off limits to you as an outsider when you go in. So, you know, we always kind of made it simple and I always told people to wear all black, but there’s always invariably someone on the crew who doesn’t quite get the memo and shows up in blue jeans. So I got accustomed to keeping, you know, an extra set of sweatpants in the car <laugh> for, for someone to change into, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to go in.

Music Break | 09:54

AW | 10:37 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Christine Yu. She is the producer and director of the new documentary film 26.2 to Life. So Christine, let’s talk about some of these people, some of the stars of the film and their journeys and view how running and the Thousand Mile Club affected their outcomes.

CY | 11:01 – I knew just from my own personal experience with running how running can make someone feel better, um, how after you do it, you always feel better about yourself. But what I didn’t really realize then, what I know now was really the impact of the running community to make personal and social transformation. Uh, so a lot of these guys, you know, they would tell me over and over that they started to run because, you know, they just wanted to lose weight or, uh, you know, get, get in, get in better shape or just, uh, do something healthy. But what happens is, you know, a lot of these people in prison, obviously, I mean, they are considered society’s failures, you know, who haven’t accomplished a whole hell of a lot in life. So what happens is that when they complete their first five miles, suddenly they’ve actually done something that they’ve never been able to do before. So what happens? They get a lot of confidence. And with that confidence then that they can go out then and do it inspires them to get their finished getting their GED or reconnect with family members or, you know, it leads to a whole host of other positive activities that, which is, I believe the reason why that out of all of the release members of the club, there is a 0% recidivism rate. Compare that to the national average, which is 67%, you know, after five years,

AW | 12:36 – Even with violent criminals?

 CY | 12:38 – Oh yeah. Mo most of the people in San Quentin that I, you know, that I interviewed and that were participating in the film are considered quote unquote violent felons. Right.

AW | 12:49 – No, I mean that 67% recidivism rate, I know that homicide is, is a much lower recidivism rate than people assume.

CY | 12:58 – Sure, yeah. I mean, a lot of times with lifers, recidivism rates can be very, very low overall, you know, few percentage points. But that’s also because more than not, lifers end up spending at least a decade behind bars. And there is a lot of data that shows that as people get older, they age out of crime. You know, I mean, you don’t do the same things you did when you were 18 or 19, right? I certainly don’t. Um, and, uh, but those are the acts of course, that people are imprisoned and held accountable for, or, you know, what the prison system has been set up to hold them accountable for. But like the natural aging process, you know, people, people do age out of those behaviors. So, but that is why also mandatory minimum sentencing, which, you know, came in, um, during the tough on crime era, which is what has caused this whole ballooning of, uh, and created mass incarceration as we know it.

AW | 13:59 – How did your perception of the prison system change from when your friend was imprisoned to going through this journey with these incarcerated individuals over the last six years of making the film?

CY | 14:14 – Well, I think when my friend was locked up, I mean, I felt really powerless to do anything. I was incredibly depressed. How do you actually, how does an individual deal and interact with the prison system? You, you know, what actually, what can one individual do? But that is really why I felt that the story of the Thousand Mile Club was incredibly empowering and felt that that’s really why it needed, needed to be seen and, and shared with, with more people. Uh, coach Frank Rona, uh, you know, the head coach, he began coaching at the club, uh, in 2005 and over a few years he started gathering a community of other runners who had come in to, um, help him coach. And over this time, I mean, now the club has been going, you know, on for 18 years. Uh, there is a whole community of people that has been created both inside that now has this ripple effect and continuity for people on the outside. Which again, I think that’s why that it contributes to the 0% recidivism rate. Um, and it really showed me what one person can do. ZHe didn’t go into this as any kind of social change maker or even a prison advocate in any way. I mean, he was always actually like a voting Republican, though, you know, criminal justice and, and prison issues is, is something that people on both sides of the aisle can a lot of times get behind for, for very different reasons. But it is an area of commonality. But, you know, I think just through his humanity, uh, he was able to, uh, bring people into this through his really sheer passion for running. Uh, and, um, you know, not only have the men been, uh, transformed, but I would say the volunteers have all been equally transformed by the experience. So it really was an empowering story for me to be able to really highlight the power of what one individual can do to create community and ultimately change. I mean, from the ground level up in the most real of ways.

Music Break | 16:44

AW | 17:45 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Christine Yu. She is the producer and director of the new documentary film 26.2 to Life. So Chris, let’s talk about race a little bit. In the film, you explain how the prison population is kind of self-segregating in some ways. There’s the Native American group, there’s the Latino group, there’s the, the white skinheads. How do you think the Running Club was a way to kind of bring people together within that population? And on a larger societal sense, what kind of conclusions can one draw about an activity, a community driven activity in any kind of non in-prison format?

CY | 18:27 – Well, first off, you know, prison by Nature is a highly segregated society. You know, that’s how they splinter off into groups and, and organize that way. I mean, people don’t have to stay out of their, stay within their race. That’s like an unspoken but actually spoken kind of rule of how it all operates. However, in a place like San Quentin where there are tons of, you know, different rehabilitative, um, programming available for people, um, within the groups there’s usually, um, mixed races. You know, so people from all different backgrounds, um, participate in these self-help groups and athletic programs. However, you know, a lot of athletic programs, similarly, there are, um, team sports. And so a lot of the team sports also break down into our self-segregated. Um, but I think the beauty of running is that it is an individualized sport. And so probably, I mean, out of the athletics, it is the most integrated club in the prison. Now, when people leave these clubs, leave these groups, they still go off and they are self-segregating. But in a place like San Quentin where again, there are so many programs, you do see a mix of races, you know, I also volunteer at the Media center. You know, that’s what I actually really loved again about the Thousand Mile Club, is that it really showed me that this is a group of people that have managed to transcend prison politics to, you know, be together in community. And I thought, wow, you know, if these guys can do it, you know, what’s going on with us out here in the free world? And San Quentin is, is unlike any other prison in the state of California, if not perhaps the world, you know, they call it the Harvard of Prisons, <laugh>, uh, the University of San Quentin, you know, for that reason.

AW | 20:30 – And not even thinking about the beautiful view that they get. I mean, it’s an amazing piece of property. And then there’s lots of programs like Ear Hustle is the most famous publication now, uh, from coming from this until 26.2 till life came out. But it seems like a very highly functional place as prisons go.

CY | 20:50 – Yeah, as prisons go. I mean, it’s literally right on the bay in the Bay Area. And so when you walk from the front gate to the Sally Port entrance into like the, into the prison facility itself, it’s about a quarter mile strip along the bay. And it’s probably one of the most beautiful walks. <laugh> out there. <laugh>.

AW | 21:13 – Yeah. No, it is, it’s kind of why, one of the reasons why I think Alcatraz is so iconic because it’s like, wow, these people are stuck on this island and they get and they have to just look longingly at this beautiful city.

CY | 21:27 – But on the other hand, you know, like a mile away, at least they get a view, a good point. And there are a lot of places, places they don’t at all, you know, I mean Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, the weird thing about San Quentin is that because it is the oldest prison, it has this, you know, Spanish mission style architecture comparatively to any other prison you’re going to see in the state of California, except for maybe old Folsom, I mean, which are basically cinder blocks, four inches by four feet windows. I mean, these places look extremely institutional. Um, and San Quentin at least has that variety as far as prison variety is going to go.

AW | 22:02 – But you give a glimpse into the cells and that’s a pretty good reminder that this is no Hilton.

CY | 22:09 – No, it’s no walk in the park. And that was very important for us to show because we do spend a lot of time out into the yard. And I did not want people to think that, Hey, these guys just get to like run around and, you know, spend all day running. You know, they do go back to the reality of being in four by nine cells and it’s two people. It’s uh, basically imagine you and another guy living in your bathroom.

AW | 22:38 – Yeah. It is just, it seemed very cramped. Even just watching it, it made me feel a little claustrophobic. I can’t imagine what it’s like. And this is not considering solitary as well.

Music Break | 22:53

AW | 23:26 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking to Christine Yu. Her new film is 26.2 to Life. Do you think that their participation in the Thousand Mile Club, the ones who whose sentences were commuted, do you think it it accelerated their release?

CY | 23:43 – You know, when people take up the sport of, of long distance running, traces of it end up going into all different areas of their life, you know, so the benefits are decreased anger, better sleep, teaching discipline and time management, learning to take on challenges, knowing that you can complete a goal a, a task. You know, there’s a phrase that you hear in prison a lot called people say hurt people, hurt people. because it’s a cycle of violence that perpetuates itself. You very quickly realize that most people are in prison because of systemic poverty, systemic racism, you know, usually people don’t have access to good education, have unstable family environments, drug addiction and drug addiction, you know, and they’re all interrelated. And a lot of that, again, has to do with, um, multi-generational incarceration. There was a lot of people there with brothers or fathers or mothers in prison, or their kids in prison too. It’s a cycle that is self-perpetuating. So, you know, a lot of people who are in San, Quentin are there to rehabilitate themselves, to strive for more, to strive for better for themselves. So they’re trying to break that cycle of violence for themselves and find new, a new way of life, you know, express through running. because you know, they, they’ll tell me, you know, the minute that you start running, suddenly you start caring about what you eat, what you put in your body. You don’t want to do drugs, <laugh>, you know, and people in prison have all kinds of choices just like that we do out here. Same thing, you can get drugs in prison, <laugh>, and you can get all that stuff in, in prison. So, you know, that’s also one of the reasons why, say for example, we’ve been contacted by prisons all over the country that actually want this film to see this film. And, asking us for help to organize new running clubs, you know, actually across the country. So say for example, in the state of North Dakota, it’s my understanding from their Department of Corrections at about 80% of that population have been locked up due to drug related crimes. 80%. And again, because of there is a running club at Missouri River County Correction Center. And so again, they experience very low recidivism rates. So that’s why they want to screen the film in like prisons across that state. It’s this idea of, okay, well we can replace the addictive high with a runner’s high. You know, right now the, the film is playing every day across California’s 32 prisons. It’s accessible to the 95,000 people, men, women, and children that are locked up in the state every day at four o’clock, which is count time in prison. So that’s like prime time <laugh>. And so we’ve just actually received word that there’s a new club that started in Salinas Valley Prison One is started by the San Francisco Probation Office. Um, and so in 2024, a lot of what we’re doing is going to be furthering our social impact goals to bring the film to more facilities across the country. And we’ll be creating like a how to form a Prison running club handbook. And we’ll have support from different corporate sponsors that we’re working with to, to provide potentially new club starter kits of, um, you know, shoes and a digital clock. And then along with the handbook, we’re not suggesting that, you know, certainly running is going to solve the mass incarceration problem, but it is what, it’s certainly, I fail a step in the right direction. It is a very low barrier for entry for prisons to adopt rehabilitation programs. And what these screenings do is that it puts us directly in a direct interaction and conversation with prison administrations to hopefully adopt more a rehabilitative approach. ’cause a lot of prisons, of course, don’t have any rehabilitation programs.

AW | 27:53 – The film is 26.2 to Life. Christine Yoo, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

CY | 28:00 – Thank you Alex for having me.

Narrator | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Bill Withers, Bob Marley and Chuck Berry. To read a transcript of this show, go to to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site. Or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.