Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell has certainly gone the distance for his friends on Los Angeles’ skid row.
On Sunday he’ll go another 26.2 miles as he leads members of the Midnight Mission Running Club during the Los Angeles Marathon.
For much of the last year, Mitchell has spent portions of Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays conditioning mission residents for the competition, which starts at 7:28 a.m. at Dodger Stadium and ends in Santa Monica.
Nine members of the club have signed up to participate in the marathon, with Mitchell paying the $175 entry fee for each.
The runners wrapped up their marathon training Thursday as Mitchell led them on a 7-mile route that began at 6 a.m. at the mission at 6th and San Pedro streets and meandered through Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo before ending up back at the mission.
Mitchell, 56, began running about 20 years ago when he was a deputy district attorney.
“I’d never run before, but the D.A.'s office was fielding a team for the annual Baker-to-Las Vegas relay race and they asked if I wanted to participate. Being an eager new employee I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Mitchell said. “When it was over I’d found my passion. Since then I’ve participated in about 35 marathons.”
His involvement with the Midnight Mission came by accident. A man Mitchell had sentenced to state prison was paroled to the mission, and one day he showed up in Mitchell’s courtroom on the 15th floor of the downtown criminal courts building.
“He wanted me to come down there and see what they were doing. So I went,” he said. While there, he mentioned to mission officials that he’d read a story in Runner’s World magazine about a shelter on the East Coast that had a club for runners and told them he’d be willing to help start one in Los Angeles.
Since then, about 30 of the mission’s residents, all recovering from alcohol or drug addiction, have taken part in Mitchell’s training runs.
Mitchell has persuaded others who work in his courthouse to donate their old running shoes to the Midnight Mission runners when they buy new pairs. He personally buys new shoes for the gung-ho runners who participate in marathons and half-marathons.
He has also committed to taking runners with him to Ghana when he participates in the Accra International Marathon in September. To help finance that trip the mission plans to stage a 5K and 10K fundraising run and walk May 18.
“There’s a joy in participating in competitive events, even if you’re just competing with yourself,” said Mitchell, who has accompanied his skid row runners to several half-marathons and 10K runs in the Los Angeles area. “There’s a joy in doing it, an energy. It’s highly motivational.”
The nine mission marathon runners went to Mitchell’s courtroom chambers to register for Sunday’s race.
“We sat at his desk and used his computer,” said Ryan Navales, a formerly homeless alcoholic who has spent 18 months at the mission and now has an administrative job there. “Not only does he have us getting up at 6 in the morning to run in the dark through the middle of skid row, but he’s created a definite bond among us. There’s a camaraderie that can’t be matched.”
Mitchell’s running buddies said the jurist has become more than just a mentor to them.
“He doesn’t finger-point and remind us that he’s a judge. He’s become my confidant. I can talk to him about anything,” said Ben Shirley, who entered the Midnight Mission two years ago with an alcohol problem. “I was intimidated by him at first, but not for long. I can trust people again. He’s gotten me into running, and that’s a part of who I am now.”
Shirley said running with Mitchell has led him to shed nearly 100 pounds, and the discipline he’s learned from getting up early to train has led him to become a music major at Los Angeles City College and a bass student at the Colburn School.
Runner David Askew said he also looks to Mitchell for personal advice.
“I’ve never been too much of an athlete. I was into art, not sports. But running motivates me to do better,” said Askew, who has been at the mission for about two years and now has a job with AmeriCorps assisting homeless people downtown.
Noting Askew’s artistic skills, Mitchell commissioned him to paint a portrait of his children. Later, Askew presented the judge with a charcoal portrait of Abraham Lincoln that now hangs in his chambers.
Others who work with Mitchell said his influence has extended to them as well.
“He inspired me to run my first marathon in Boston three years ago,” said Superior Court Judge Cathryn Brougham. “It was an amazing experience. It doesn’t matter what state in life you’re at, running is so good for your physical and mental health.”
The skid row runners say they expect to draw energy from the crowds that always line the L.A. Marathon route, which winds through Chinatown, Little Tokyo, the downtown Civic Center, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Century City, West Los Angeles and Brentwood before ending at Santa Monica’s Palisades Park.
“We’re all going to still be running 10 years down the road,” Mitchell said. “These people see themselves not as recovering addicts but as motivated individuals. You put on your running shoes and it’s all about the great run you’re going to have.”