By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The five-mile run at dawn ends on a dystopian stretch, a street in Los Angeles' Skid Row lined with homeless men and women waiting for a free breakfast.
The runners, in contrast, give off a healthy glow as they chat about the run and the challenges ahead. The squalor of Crocker Street is a stark reminder of how far they have come.
A year ago, Oscar Knight, 53, couldn't stop drinking and lost everything. He moved into The Midnight Mission on Skid Row, embarked on its recovery program, joined its running club, ran with the group in the Rome Marathon and got "very close" to Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square.
The dozens of recovering and homeless addicts who have taken up running to help stay sober say they owe much to an unlikely benefactor - in Knight's words, "the glue of the group."
Craig Mitchell, dressed in running gear, peels away from the group on Crocker and heads to his chambers where he will don the black robe of a Superior Court judge.
Mitchell, 59, often has no choice but to sentence people to prison for life. A man he had put in prison was on parole and in recovery at the Mission, leading him to Skid Row four years ago.
Mitchell has run 50 marathons over 20 years and knew that running in a group is good therapy.
Up at 3:45 a.m. twice a week, Mitchell arrives at the Mission on foot. At 6 a.m., the runners wade through a chaotic courtyard packed with people and carts, and take the first strides into the fetid, trash-strewn streets.
'RUNS SO FREELY'
"He comes down to the inner city, to Skid Row, which is one of the most challenging areas to live in and he runs so freely," said James Knox, 34, a recovering addict who started running last November.
Some 1,500 people sleep on the streets of Skid Row, a place riven by mental illness, drug addiction and violence. Last March, police shot dead a homeless man steps from the Mission.
Mitchell estimates that 75 to 100 people have come through the club and believes they stay clean at a higher rate than the Mission's population at large.
"Completely separate from them maintaining their sobriety are the relationships and friendships that have developed between the runners, myself, the mentors, and the networks," said Mitchell.
Mitchell funds some of the club's costs out of his own pocket, while family and friends, who know he can't ask for donations as a judge, "just come forward."
The trips to marathons abroad - to Ghana, Italy and next year Vietnam - "beat any Christmas morning I have ever had," said Mitchell, "because you just look at the wonder on their faces."
"When we went to Rome recently, so many of them came up to me in quiet moments and said 'Judge, I can't believe this. It seems like a dream. When am I going to wake up?'"
Their story will be told in the documentary, "Skid Row Marathon," out next year.
Ben Shirley is a poster boy for the club at age 50. Four years ago, he walked into the Mission "dying".
"Four bottles of vodka a day, $300 a day heroin habit, distended liver, enlarged heart... just homeless, couldn't die," said Shirley, once a successful rock musician.
He was recently accepted at a San Francisco conservatory where he will study composition.
"He's a confidante, he's my mentor," Shirley said of Mitchell. "He is just one of the guys, who will lend a hand, who genuinely cares. I have not come across that ever in my life."
(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Ken Wills)