STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You've heard about running from the law, but what about running with the law? A Los Angeles criminal court judge is asking people to do that. He organized a running club made up of residents from a shelter and addiction center on skid row. For many members, running has been the key to recovery. Anna Scott from member station KCRW reports that this weekend, members are lacing up their shoes a long way from home.
ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Skid row is not a quiet place, even at 6 a.m. People shuffle in and out of tents that line the sidewalks, and in the street a few yards away, about a half-dozen men pass by, doing something that would look perfectly normal almost anywhere else in LA - jogging.
CRAIG MITCHELL: We go about five-and-a-half, six miles. We'll go down 6th Street over the bridge.
SCOTT: They're members of a running club that started at the Midnight Mission shelter and addiction treatment center. The club's founder is one of the last people you'd expect to find hanging out on skid row.
MITCHELL: Good morning, Tom.
TOM: How are you doing, judge?
MITCHELL: Good. How are you?
TOM: Good to see you.
MITCHELL: Nice to see you.
SCOTT: Craig Mitchell is a judge in LA's criminal court. About four years ago, a man he'd once sent to state prison called him up and asked him to come down to skid row.
MITCHELL: And when I came down here, I met with the president of the Midnight Mission. And we sort of put our heads together and came up with the idea of coming up with a running club.
SCOTT: One of the club's first members was Ryan Novales. Before landing at the mission, he'd been homeless for more than a gear. Alcohol and drug addiction had cost him apartments, jobs and relationships.
RYAN NOVALES: You know, the most recent one was my daughter and her mom. You know, that was a really big thing. I just couldn't stay sober. So when I came here, you know, I was really out of options. It just didn't seem like it was ever really going to change.
SCOTT: Running became a big part of his recovery. The physical exercise gave him a boost, and so did the unexpected friendship he found in Judge Mitchell.
NOVALES: He saw us for who we are, you know? And he treated us like equals. And that was important, you know, in those early stages, you know, trying to find some kind of self-worth and some self-confidence and some positive momentum in life.
SCOTT: Novales today has been sober about five years and sees his daughter regularly. He's moved to an apartment and now works at the mission. He's still a member of the running club, and he's one of about 20 members participating in the Rome marathon this weekend in Italy. To get ready, Judge Mitchell takes a field trip with a bunch of them.
So what's going on here?
MITCHELL: We're buying about 15 pairs of shoes tonight.
SCOTT: Are you buying them, or...
MITCHELL: At this point, I am (laughter). You can't run a marathon in raggedy shoes, OK? So it'll be great.
SCOTT: Judge Mitchell is also paying part of the $77,000 tab for the Rome trip. Runners who can afford it have chipped in, too. Besides mission residents and former residents, the club includes a handful of professionals from around the city. Mitchell says he's gotten plenty in return for his investment.
MITCHELL: A real boon to my own life is meeting people who have unique attributes, qualities, personalities, etc., and to partake of that. You know, I won't forget these encounters that I've had with these guys.
SCOTT: One of these guys is Eduardo Alvarado, a runner who's lived at the mission since last summer. He never thought he'd run a 26-mile race.
EDUARDO ALVARADO: Not in a million years. No, I never - I never - especially to Rome. I mean, it's like, I can't believe that this is happening, you know?
SCOTT: The Midnight Mission running club laces up its sneakers for the Rome marathon on Sunday. The starting line is right in front of the 2,000-year-old Coliseum, a long way from skid row. For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles.