I like to listen to NPR ONE while I am working. The app delivers public news, Pandora style. The first story in today’s feed was Mike Huckabee announcing his run for the White House. The last time he ran for president I was incarcerated in the NH State Prison for Women and had just begun co-coaching its first running team. Huckabee, who happened to be campaigning in New Hampshire at the time, was invited by our warden to visit the prison to observe us in action. To Huckabee's credit, he took her up on the invitation, and she orchestrated his surprise visit during one of our practices.
On a scorching summer day, his campaign crew flooded our prison yard, donning cameras, ties, and ‘tude, while Huckabee stood to the side watching us run through our routines. Some of the women were excited by his presence, others indifferent, while a few were visibly (and verbally) upset by cameras filming them in a place none of them wanted to be seen. This is the reason you don’t hear much about prison life the way it truly exists. It’s like incest - hidden from view by both the perpetrator and the perpetrated. I remember telling some of the more agitated women that whether we liked it or not, Huckabee’s presence couldn’t hurt us and might just help, which turned out to be accurate to some degree.
Eventually, Warden Fortier waved Mia (the team’s co-coach and not her real name) and me over to meet Huckabee. I apologized for dripping sweat as we shook hands and chatted like two ordinary people, about the team, the benefits of running, our personal running journeys, and the Boston Marathon. He praised the team for the efforts we were making and told me if I ever wanted to run Boston, to let him know. After I got out I never heard back from him after trying to follow-up on his offer. Like most promises made in prison (and political campaigns) they fade away almost the moment they are spoken or maybe it was fact I openly voted for Obama.
The better promise Huckabee made and kept day, however, was in his donation of running shoes for each and every member of our team. Many of the women had been running in their prison-issued felony flyers and would have fared better running barefooted except barefeet aren't allowed in prison either. Some women were able purchase the pathetically overpriced, prison-approved running shoes which were only a tad better because they sported laces and a bit of sole.
Politics and religion aside, I have to hand it to Mike Huckabee. He energized our little team with his simple, and likely forgotten donation, of running shoes. As the scripture goes, “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass”, so it was in this case.
Once the donation had been made, it took a near act of God on our warden’s part to get the special approvals and security clearance required to get them into the prison . It wouldn't surprise me in the least to find out the shoes had been stripsearched before being issued to the team. Then there were the rules and regulations associated with actually receiving the shoes. In order to receive a pair, you had to have already been an active member of the team before Huckabee’s arrival. If you received a D-report your shoes were stripped from you and you were removed from the team, which doesn't sound a bit unfair unless you consider that you could receive a D-report for simply rolling your eyes at the wrong time. If you didn't show up for practice your shoes were also at risk. Inside prison, the shoes became a status symbol and there were some tense moments because of them but ultimately, it all worked out. There were times it seemed the only glue holding the team together was Nike herself.
For example, one woman who joined the team was going to be denied a pair of shoes because she had not joined the team in time. It wasn't exactly her fault she had signed on late - unless not being incarcerated sooner counts. That's how weird it gets in prison. The woman (let’s call her Shalane) joined the team as soon as she had cleared maximum security which happened to be a few days following Huckabee’s arrival BUT before the the order for the shoes had actually been placed. When Warden Fortier asked me what size shoes I wanted for myself, I told her to donate mine to Shalane, the newest member of our team. Warden was hesitant about my request at first but finally agreed (sharing isn't allowed in prison). I happened to be sitting in “the tank” having an attorney visit when she approached me so I suppose she felt assured that bullying had not been involved in my decision process. It was one of the few acts of true service I was actually allowed to perform inside the prison and it proved to be quite rewarding.
Shalane had been making excellent progress with her running. At first she was only able to walk around the field, then gradually she began running parts, until finally, she could run several laps without stopping. By the time the shoes arrived she was able to run the entire race distance without stopping. Shalane told me later that she had never run in her life but when she left prison she was going to keep on running instead of taking drugs. She had hit the endorphin high enough times to realize running could actually be her new addiction. I would often tell the women that running was a drug if they kept at it long enough, that I was an addict just like them but my drug happened to be legal. My encouragement might have been a bit overstated. One day, I walked into the gym to find a woman nearly going into cardiac arrest on the treadmill. I thought she was about to die but, just in that moment, she revived and found the energy to scream, “F*** you, Cooper! You LIAR! I am not feeling it!”
I was quite relieved those were not her dying words. She might not have been “feeling it” but Shalane was. Whenever there was free yard time, Shalane was out running laps even if we’d already had practice earlier in the day. Shalane earned those running shoes. She deserved those shoes. Those shoes were her ticket to a new way of life. Whenever one of the women asked me if I was bummed because I didn't have a Huckabee pair of running shoes, I just smiled. I knew those shoes were on the right feet. I don't know what happened to Shalane but I like to imagine she is still out there running in her Huckabee shoes past the trauma that once led her to the place she had found them. Don't you?
Team Happy Feet, as we were eventually to be known, sort of happened by chance. Warden Fortier had attempted to bring a running coach in from the outside to form a team. The woman was a sweetheart with good intentions but wasn't equipped to bring a team together the way it needed to be in order for it to be successful. She was at a total disadvantage by being an outsider and couldn't attend consistently or forcefully enough to keep it moving. We all felt frustrated by the experience as we watched another good thing fall apart. Then, out of the blue, I was called into the warden's office with Mia. She asked me what could have happened differently with the running team to make it a successful experience. You aren't often given a chance to express your opinion in prison but I gave her my thoughts, as did Mia, and at the end of the conversation warden said, "Well, congratulations ladies, you are now the coaches of our new running team. I will announce it publicly and it's your job to make it happen. Have a good day.”
I remember sitting there dumbfounded. Neither Mia nor I had ever coached or been part of a running team in our lives. Mia was barely a walker, let alone a runner! Collectively, the two of us knew just about zero when it came to coaching a running team. Imagine being told you were now the coach of the breathing team simply because you breathe well. Where would you begin?
Warden Fortier made it pretty clear we didn't have much choice in the matter. She announced the team meeting over the speaker system and it was our job to get the women to attend. We talked it up and discovered the women were a bit more hopeful knowing I was going to be coaching them - the only thing they knew was that I could run. I had at least proven that much to them.
My first days in prison I was only allowed out of my cell for exactly two hours a day. One hour I would spend running circles in the tiny space they called C-Tier. The space was probably 22’ x 18’ but don’t hold me to that if you are planning a prison bust. I am terrible with distances and I don’t want to be held accountable for any failed attempts. I only know the space was less than ideal as an indoor running track. I would literally run circles around the small space for the entire hour. Eventually, I realized that if I ran in figure eights it put less strain on one side of my body and made it easier to keep a steady pace. I drove the other
women insane with my monotonous pounding during our forced confinement. I didn't have running clothes. I wore the felony flyers, the blue pants, and the red t-shirt issued to me when I arrived. It was all under video surveillance - the crazy woman running figure eights inside the prison. I got blisters and blisters inside the blisters but I needed to run more than ever. When my first hour was up, they’d stuff me back in my cell, and I’d wait it out until my next free hour when I was allowed to shower and make phone calls home to my family. When I was finally allowed to go outside for the first time, I stood at the edge of the field and asked the guard, "Am I allowed to run?"
Apparently, that was not the best way to ask a prison guard for permission to circle the prison yard. The guard's face tensed and her hands reached for her radio as she looked at me suspiciously and said, "Run?! What do you mean, Cooper?"
Realizing my mistake I shook my head and said, "No, like jog... jog around the yard in circles... on that track. Can I jog?"
The look of relief on her face made me laugh for maybe the first time since my incarceration. She gave me permission to jog - not run - and let me loose into the yard where I felt like the whole world had opened up to me again. I can't remember how many laps a mile was but seven comes to my mind. I just looked in my journal and found the following entry from August 6, 2007:
“I also ran 7 miles this morning. It’s 47 laps around the field.”
I guess seven was pretty close. The guards had measured the yard somewhere around that time in preparation for our big race which is how I was eventually able to figure out the mileage. I mostly remember it felt like freedom to run outside after the confinement of figure eights inside.
The first time I ran around the field, I could hear the women yelling at me as I went by, "Run, Forrest, Run!" or "It won't work, Cooper! Everyone gets fat in here!" or "Knock it off you freak!" I tuned them out. It was my only escape from the pain tearing me apart, day after day. Eventually, the women stopped yelling at me and accepted that running is what I did. Some of them even came to respect my efforts. One woman told me she thought I was trying to show off at first but then realized that running was my thing, it's just what I did. This is the reason many of the women had renewed confidence in the running team after discovering I would be coaching.
There's almost an entire novel in the story of that running team alone. The abridged version is that Mia and I had everyone cast votes for a team name and we became Team Happy Feet. I wanted Felony Flyers but was quickly overruled. Over the ensuing weeks, I made up running drills and coached the team alongside Mia until our big race day which I think happened in August of 2007 but perhaps it was later. That part of my journal was somehow lost and I am not sure it will ever be recovered but that's another story.
Our big race was against a local running team from outside. Lieutenant Michaud was somehow affiliated with the running team and had managed to convince them to run against us in a legitimate race inside the prison fences. He was a true rock star, working with Warden Fortier and Sergeant Lagasse to make sure we received medals, prizes, and the support we needed to be successful even when all odds were against us. The challenge they faced was maintaining balance between their foremost duty to prison security while giving us the breaks we needed to succeed. That might not sound like it would be a difficult pairing but prison doesn't operate like real life - it doesn't even pretend. Prison is hell and any time you try to bring a bit of heaven into it, don't expect it to be easy.
When race day arrived, the women of Team Happy Feet became the heroes of my heart forever. I count it one of the most amazing days of my life. It was the only time during my prison sentence I was happy to be there. I remember remarking to one of the guards, "I am so happy I am in prison today!" She looked at me in complete disbelief but it was true and, to this very day, I am grateful I was there to witness Team Happy Feet take 1st, 2nd, and 3rd overall in the first race to ever be held behind those prison fences.
It wasn't the fact that the team performed so well. It runs deeper than that. It was watching these women who had struggled over the months to organize themselves, commit to being a team, overcome obstacles, and push beyond their own limits to achieve something truly meaningful. None of them quit. None of them gave up. Most of them had never run a day in their life let alone a race. There were women at the end of the race, puking after pushing themselves beyond their physical limits to cross the finish line. One woman with a cane tripped just as she approached the finish line. I ran over to help her up, berating myself for having let it happen at all, but as we lifted her to her feet and tried to get her to a chair, she swore wildly at me to get out of her f'ing way so she could finish the race. She was scraped and bleeding and there was dirt in her teeth but she yanked her cane out of my hands and continued forward until she crossed the finish line, every muscle twitching from exhaustion.
Every woman out there had a story.
At the end of the race, the visiting team who had blessed us by simply agreeing to show up, had gained a whole new view of the women we lock up like animals. They, like me, fell in love with them. They, like me, didn't want to leave them behind.
At the end of the day, every member of the team received an actual medal with their name and race time inscribed on it. It’s against prison rules to have medals so the deal was that we could wear our medals for the day but had to send them out of the prison the next dayF. It was something to watch us, all wearing our medals, marching around prison in the afterglow of victory. The morale of the entire prison had been lifted. The women who had not participated physically on the team had been there cheering us on. Our victory had become their victory. We had proven something that day.
I will never forget walking through my tier listening to the women calling home. I can't write about it without crying. One woman was saying to her children on the other end, "Guess what? Mommy got a medal! Mommy entered a race today and got a real medal! Really! I am not kidding. Mommy got a medal today! I am going to send it home to you so you can see, okay?"
I heard another woman say, "This has been the best day of my life. I don't mean the best day of prison but the best day of my entire life."
She was serving a life sentence.
Another woman told me she had never done anything good in her life until that day. She said she had earned some certificates from prison programs but she didn't count those as being real but this, her medal was real. She had been on a team. She had worked hard. She had earned a medal. She wanted me to know it was the only time she had ever done anything good in her life.
The next day we all sent our medals home to the people who were waiting for us on the other side. I had two medals, one for first in my class and one for overall winner. I sent them home to my children but I don't think it held as much meaning to anyone else - how could it? When I returned home I found the medals stuffed in the bottom of a container of junk items. I decided to give them to the attorney who sent me to prison and to the attorney who got me out.
It's been eight years since that race and, from what I have heard, there hasn't been another race since I left. Some of Team Happy Feet have moved on from prison, and some from this life. Some have left and returned while others will never leave until it is from this life. All of those women, every single one of them, are the heroes of my heart and if you knew what I do know about them - if you were allowed to walk or run a mile with them - they would also become the heroes of your heart.
It's easy to talk about what is wrong inside of prison because there is so much of what is wrong but I want to share something that is good and right. What is good and right inside of prisons is the hearts and souls of the women who inhabit them.
I don't know why there hasn't been another running team inside the prison, or why there’s never been another high school graduate since the first two graduated in 2007. I don't know why a prison which has been deemed a violation of human rights is still operating year, after year, after year. I don't even know why Mike Huckabee is running for president again or if, along the campaign trail, he will stop into the prison to see how the women are faring. All of it is one grand and unfathomable mystery.
What I know for certain is what those running shoes meant to the unconquerable spirits who dubbed themselves, "Team Happy Feet," but who ran with iron will.
I won't be voting for Mike Huckabee in 2016 but I will be forever grateful for his donation of running shoes to a group of women who put them to the ultimate test.
So that's my Mike Huckabee story. When people ask me, "Didn't you meet Mike Huckabee and shake his hand?" I say yes but what I really want to tell them is that the cooler thing is that I got to run with Team Happy Feet and I will never forget it.