Last week I had the rare opportunity to hang out at the finish line of the 2011 Chicago Marathon … and witness some 45,000 runners cross. There’s no better place to see the human spirit determined and alive. Some tossed arms up in triumph, some fell into the arms of a loved one, others enjoyed their own silent victory party. But, for me, nothing compared to meeting Anthony Johnson, Wahid Rashad and Issac Denson there. They’re three men whose biggest challenges in life began long before these 26.2 miles.
Before this day, Anthony had slept on streets and park benches for 13 years. Wahid went from making more than 80K a year as a mortgage broker to next to nothing. Isaac spent nearly 20 years in an Illinois correctional institution where he was sentenced at the age of 18. All had experienced some form of homelessness but got a second chance in life through a nonprofit called Back on My Feet Chicago. Back on My Feet is a 6-9 month program that teaches individuals in homeless facilities to run and also supports them with educational and job training opportunities.
As is often the case in my job as an interviewer/storyteller, these men had much to teach me. From Anthony, who recently completed his certification as an unarmed security officer, I learned what he calls his “one block at a time” approach to anything in life. “That’s what they taught us,” he said. “You start running just one block, then walking a block, then you run 2 blocks, walk two…then three.” Before he knew it he was running 5, 10, 20 miles and earned the nick name: “The Running Man.” “That’s what they call me,” he’ll tell you, “Anthony Running Man Johnson.”
Wahid is now studying to renew his mortgage broker license and leading a running team at his transitional housing facility. He didn’t let his 63 years stop him from tackling this race and says it was his tribute to Back on My Feet. “I was down and out,” says Wahid. “Back on My Feet turned all that negativity around. Just by putting one foot in front of the other my whole outlook changed.” Wahid says he’ll continue to give back through public speaking and waking up at 5am to run through rain, snow and sleet to lead his team.
On the day of our interview Issac was celebrating one year since he had been released from prison and a new job at a bank. He’s also working towards getting his Bachelor’s degree in Human Services. Hearing of his early life sleeping on floors and in bathtubs with no family support was enough to put most anyone’s life challenges in perspective. Certainly my own. When Isaac talked about running this race in honor of all the homeless and two babies he and fiancé lost just before birth a few months ago, his watery eyes met mine… and, before we knew it, we both had tears streaming down our faces. All of the sudden the line between homeless man and film producer were blurred. We were just two human being sharing a very human moment.
“I know today I’m going forward, and not back,” he said through tears. “If you don’t open your horizons you just stay in a box and won’t be anything but the size of that box. I choose to get out of the box. It won’t define me.”
Thank you Issac, Wahid and Anthony for your amazing stories… and insights that remind me of how we are all so very much the same … and how very fortunate I am to be doing this work. For more on their stories and how they fared in the big race stay tuned for the Back on My Feet film next month!
[Note: If you are interested in getting an on-film credit for this film there is still time to donate - http://spot.us/pitches/959-a-film-to-help-homeless-runners-go-the-distance]