Mike Solomon will hit the streets tomorrow for all the right reasons. Homeless last year, and hooked for much of his life on drugs and booze, he has since recovered and will compete in the half-marathon at the Baltimore Running Festival.
Gone are the long hair, the scruffy beard and the feeling of despair that had turned Solomon's life into a hopeless fetal tuck. Clean-shaven, hair trimmed and a transient no more, he'll start the 13.1-mile race looking like any other hopeful Joe.
"I'll be running alongside chemists, accountants and cops," said the Philadelphia man. "I used to run away from the police. Now I'm running with them."
Why the turnaround? Solomon, 43, said his life began to change that day at the rescue mission last year when he was offered a clean T-shirt, shorts and running shoes - and asked to jog a mile.
Jog he did. It made him feel ... good.
"I was sweating but when I finished it was like I could do anything," Solomon said. He has since completed a marathon and two half-marathons. He said he has also stayed clean, taken computer training and moved into his own apartment. A widower, he gained custody of his 13-year-old daughter. All thanks to a Philadelphia program that tries to heal the homeless through long-distance running.
Founded in 2007, "Back On My Feet" seeks to boost their self-esteem, literally, step by step. Three mornings a week, an eclectic group of men and women from five city shelters gather before dawn to lace up their complimentary Nikes and traverse the streets of Philadelphia. Volunteers run beside them, shouting encouragement. Participants start slow, adding mileage in a planned, goal-oriented regimen.
Results have been positive, said Anne Mahlum, president of the nonprofit organization. From a startup of nine members, "Back On My Feet" has grown to 75. Success has prompted a spin-off for Baltimore, where organizers plan to start a sister program in 2009. To showcase its progress, BOMF is bringing 15 homeless runners to compete in tomorrow's races.
"That's pretty neat," said Lee Corrigan, head of Corrigan Sports Enterprises, which manages and markets the event. "We've never had the homeless here before. A few of them have jumped into races [spontaneously] in the past, but nothing organized.
"That speaks to the nature of running. It's mentally therapeutic and it creates a can-do attitude."
Statistics bear him out. Of the homeless who have participated in BOMF, said Mahlum, "nine have moved into their own homes and 14 have found jobs. Eighty-nine percent have suppressed their smoking habits and 100 percent feel better about themselves."
To date, Solomon is alone in having done a full marathon, finishing one in Delaware in four hours, 10 minutes. "At the end, I was prayin' and screamin' and singin' and laughin,'" he said. "I was delirious, man. Who'd have thought this wild child from the 'hood, who acted stupid all his life, could make his mark like that?"
Running, he said, requires discipline, commitment and responsibility - all requisites for managing one's life. The homeless learn those lessons early on, BOMF members said.
"I've taken shortcuts all my life, but you find out real fast that you can't cheat in a race," said Abdullah Dorch, 35. "You can't get from one mile to the next without running it."
The demands of the program - sobriety, a drug-free life and regular attendance at practice - cause some to drop out. Others are dismissed for hocking their running gear. But more than 75 percent of the homeless who emBRACe BOMF stick with it, program director Wylie Belasik said.
"One guy told me, 'When you do drugs, you feel great for an hour, then terrible, even paranoid, for the rest of the day. With running, you don't feel great while you're doing it, but you're terrific the rest of the day,'" Belasik said.
"Running isn't the sole answer to homelessness. But by getting these people involved in a positive activity that strengthens them physically and mentally, and giving them a support network, you see neat thing start to happen."
When he landed in a Philadelphia shelter last spring, Darrin McNair said he was "going nowhere fast. There were drugs, alcohol. I was homeless, hopeless, a nonexistent entity. I felt less than human."
Yet a group of his brethren seemed happy.
"At the shelter, I'd see these guys come back from running with smiles on their faces," McNair said. "I thought, in the midst of adversity, how could they be enjoying life by running?
"I wanted in."
Back On My Feet fit McNair, 39. He'll not forget his first race, a 5-kilometer, in June:
"To run with a number on my chest and with people cheering at the finish line sent thrills through me," he said. "Here's this old homeless dude receiving applause and the respect of his fellow man. For me, it was a whole new high that I didn't have to pay for."
McNair will participate in the 5K tomorrow. He recently moved out of the mission and said he hopes to find a job working with at-risk youths.
"People with the disease of addiction have a self-defeatist attitude," he said. "But I will never disqualify myself from anything again. And I'll run a full marathon before it's all said and done.
"If not for running, I'd probably be dead."
Homeless men will run for their new, better lives
15 of those competing in city marathon represent program
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