Journal Entry: Douglas Jason Way-04/14/2024-CHASING LISA

Journal Entry


One of the last things I did on the day I self-surrendered to prison was go for a short run with my wife Lisa. Trotting through the arboretum near our home transported me out of my painful reality for a brief period as my departure time approached. Encapsulated in those invaluable moments were all of the benefits from putting one foot in front of the other I had come to enjoy–connection to the most important person in my life, stress relief, overcoming adversity, accomplishing goals, and bettering my health. Such a simple activity, so much depth.

I started running years prior, first as a means of offsetting the effects of cigarette smoking and then as a way to relieve job stress. Not the grandest of motives perhaps, but hitting the road did the trick. When Lisa came into my life, running took on a new dimension as we began to complete races together. We progressed from 5Ks to 10Ks to 10-milers to half-marathons, and ultimately to a marathon on the streets of Paris, France. The adventures and shared accomplishments deepened our connection to one another.

I trained between races, but not with my own performance in mind. I liked chasing Lisa and my goal was to be in good enough shape to cross the finish line with her, no matter how fast she ran. With a few exceptions during those years, I kept up, even if I was a little worse for wear than her after each race.

Lisa became increasingly serious about lowering her race times at the same point that I was rediscovering my love of golf. We still ran together, but less frequently. She got too fast for me. On race days I started to play the role of head cheerleader, chasing her around courses in various cities in a different way. She would tell me that I was still a runner and I would reply, “No, I’m a golfer who periodically runs.” By the time I left for prison, I had decided to see if she was right. Was there still a runner in me?

After 16 days quarantined in solitary confinement in the maximum security prison at Thomson, I could not wait to get outside. Once I was shown where my bunk was and given a quick overview of the camp by one of the guys, I went straight out to survey my new proving ground. The one-third mile dirt track was a far cry from the suburban streets and lakefront path where I had previously put in miles with Lisa, but compared to a 6’x12′ cell, it felt like freedom. I looked forward to discovering what the laps to come would reveal.

In his book Eat & Run, ultramarathon champion Scott Jurek described his search for an answer to the question, why? “I started running for reasons I had only begun to understand. As a child, I ran in the woods and around the house for fun. As a teen, I ran to get my body in better shape. Later, I ran to find peace. I ran, and I kept running, because I learned that once you start something, you didn’t quit…I ran because overcoming the difficulties of an ultramarathon reminded me that I could overcome the difficulties of life, that overcoming difficulties was life.” I bought a pair of used basketball shoes for $5 from one of my neighbors and set out to see if I could run my way through the difficulties of life in prison.

That first day in October 2020, I ran 2 miles. By the time the snow and ice made the track too treacherous, I had worked my way up to 6-milers. There was an empowerment in feeling the strength in my legs and lungs come back. There was satisfaction in knowing that each run was an affirmation of the commitment I made to my family to return to them stronger in body, mind, and spirit.

When the weather broke and the track dried in the spring of 2021, I put on the running shoes I purchased from the commissary and headed right back out with curiosity about how far I could go. Could I run the 84.5 laps necessary to complete a marathon? One lap at a time, I intended to find out.

Slowly but surely, I built my stamina along with my mileage. I had to learn an entirely new brand of perseverance and mental fortitude. Not only did I have to deal with the elements and my body, but I had to wrestle with the torturous monotony of going around and around the same loop. The wind whips across the flat farmland of Western Illinois, and on one particularly blustery afternoon, it was doing its best to break my spirit while I was trying to get to 16 miles. I found myself talking smack to the wind. “You’re not strong enough to beat me,” I said as I trudged along. I was talking as much to my own self-doubt as I was to mother nature.

Running guru Dr. George Sheehan told of his inner struggle when he wrote in Running and Being, “…and I know I am made for more. And by becoming more, I am challenged to choose suffering, to endure pain, to bear hardship. At first the gentle swell carries me…But gradually the hill demands more and more. I have reached the end of my physiology. The end of what is possible. And now it is beyond what I can stand. The temptation is to say, ‘Enough. This much is enough.’ But I will not give in. I am fighting God. Fighting the limitations he gave me. Fighting the pain. Fighting the unfairness. Fighting all the evil in me and in the world. And I will not give in. I will conquer this hill, and I will conquer it alone.”

I channeled Sheehan’s defiance and determination into a mantra I say each time I come around the track: one lap at a time, strong and relaxed, just keep going. Guys in the camp asked me how was I able to run that far and that mantra was my answer. I just kept going and later that summer I ran a prison marathon. There were no medals and no big, cheering crowd, but I was fortunate to have several guys join me for short legs, and my buddies linked arms to make a human tape at the finish line that I busted through triumphantly.

2021 became progressively more tense as the prison administration cracked down on contraband with shakedowns and lockdowns. I got out as often as the restrictions allowed, but keeping a regular training schedule was difficult. It was a frustrating and stressful period.

New York City firefighter and endurance athlete Matt Long wrote of running as remedy in Long Run, “When I used to feel stress at the firehouse or at the bar, I had a simple solution: Throw on a singlet, put on shorts, lace up the running shoes, and do a hard six-miler in the park. Every run solved a problem or reduced its significance. I liked to say a run cleaned the chalkboard of life.”

Officers would harass, disrespect, dehumanize, and constrain me, scrawling their negativity on my chalkboard. But every chance I got, laps on the track allowed me to erase their writing and start fresh. One cold day, as I walked out of the range bundled up in my version of winter running gear, I overheard a guy ask my neighbor Big C, “Is JWay going out there in this weather?” Big C replied, “That’s how he frees his mind.” Exactly.

By the spring of 2022, we had a new warden at Thomson and the vibe was calmer. I quickly ramped my mileage back up so that I could run as many half-marathons as possible. I wanted to feel connected to Lisa and celebrate her accomplishments as she wan increasingly frequent half-marathons and marathons. I also wanted to attempt to increase my speed. By the following spring I had run dozens of half-marathons and was clocking times in the mid-1:40s. I thought I could break the 1:40 barrier which would be a personal record.

One morning I was out early and feeling good. I decided to push myself and go for a PR. Half way through, I was running below a 7:30-mile pace and it felt easy. If I could hang on, this would be my day. At the 8-mile mark, I heard the one thing that could stop me from achieving my goal, an officer yelling, “Count!” That meant I had to immediately come inside where I would be stuck for more than an hour. The moment of my expected victory passed.

Prison is routinely frustrating and disheartening, but in that moment I was not defeated. Even though I didn’t finish, I knew that I was much fitter and faster than when I ran that first two miles three years earlier. Jurek captured my realization well: “If you run long enough, [disappointment] tends to happen. Whatever quantitative measure of success you set out to achieve becomes either unattainable or meaningless. The reward of running–of anything–lies within us.”

Thousands of laps around that dirt track later and I am a changed man in body, mind, and spirit. Running has given me gifts beyond what I could have imagined when I began looping. I have been thinking about those blessings as the early arrival of spring 2024 brings with it the start of a new running season.

Going around and around used to produce a feeling of monotony that was symbolic of the cynical perspective on prison life. All that running, never getting anywhere. From another angle though, that endless loop becomes a spiral. My efforts have not left me stuck in place. They have allowed me to spiral upward as I progress and grow through this incarceration experience. I have been around the track so many times that I know every inch of it by the feel in my feet. I don’t need to watch the ground. I can lift my eyes to the horizon. Prison tries to make your world feel small, but when I run, I feel expansive.

The changes in my perspective have turned running into a meditation for me. I don’t need music or beautiful scenery or race spectators. “…the longer and farther I ran, the more I realized that what I was chasing was a state of mind–a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, come into sharp focus,” wrote Jurek, describing the shift that I too experienced.

Not only do my runs put me in a good place internally, but they also connect me more fully to the people in my life. I have had the pleasure of seeing guys in the camp start running journeys, motivated by seeing me out there. It is tremendously rewarding to watch them get fitter and go farther than they thought possible. I also hear from my loved ones on the outside that the stories of my exploits nudge them to pursue goals of their own. They all inspire me and remind me that limits only exist in our minds.

Matt Long ran the New York City marathon in 3:13. Three years later, after recovering from catastrophic injuries he suffered when he was hit by a bus, he ran it again in 7:21, an even more incredible feat. Scott Jurek was an unremarkable kid from a small town in Minnesota who loved to run. He went on to complete most of the top ultramarathons around the world, winning more than any other runner. He once ran 165.7 miles in 24 hours. Dr. George Sheehan was a mainstay at the Boston Marathon, annually conquering the hills long after the point in life when many people are glued to their easy chairs.

Each of them, and every runner who laces up their shoes on a day when they just aren’t feeling it, embodies the words attributed to philosopher William James: “Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never pushed through the obstructions.” I am grateful and honored to count myself among those pushing through the obstructions, to once again call myself a runner.

The closer I get to the exit door, the more my mind is focused on home. With each lap around the track, I now imagine myself running toward my family. Those laps also get me ready to chase Lisa. No matter how fast she goes, once I’m back by her side, that’s where I intend to stay.