Running for her life

Dedication carries woman beyond addiction, crime, and homelessness

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By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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‘I strongly believe that my life has been saved,’’ says Jackie Kenyon. “But I’m not like a God guru or Bible thumper.’’

No, Kenyon is a recovering drug addict, a formerly homeless woman who stole from stores on Newbury Street to fund her habit, a child of alcoholic parents, a victim of domestic abuse, a convicted criminal who spent nine years bouncing between jails in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. And she is a marathon runner.

Kenyon trains at dawn, running along familiar city streets, never far from the church steps and alleys where she spent sleepless nights high on heroin and crack. Sometimes she passes familiar faces near Boston Common, people who once joined her getting high and drunk. As an addict, she hated sunrises because the daylight and the daily routine of commuting workers exposed her wasted life.

Now, when striding across the Longfellow Bridge and watching the city wake up, she says, “I feel like I’m connected with the world and I’m at peace.’’

From the bridge, Kenyon sees the Citgo sign in the distance and thinks about how the red-orange triangle will guide her and nearly 27,000 other Boston Marathon runners toward the finish line this year. She stops and she prays. “Thank you, God, for the direction my life has taken,’’ she says. “Help me stay on this path that I’m now choosing.’’ Then, the tears come.

The 2011 Boston Marathon will mark Kenyon’s third time racing 26.2 miles, her second time running the historic event. But it will be her first time covering the course as an official entrant.

Kenyon, 41, values marathon running as part of her sober routine, not as some bucket list pursuit. She earned a race number raising funds for Runners in Recovery. (“I am the cause and I am for the cause,’’ she says repeatedly.) She hopes to finish in 4 hours 15 minutes, knocking 25 minutes off her personal best. Someday, with more distance experience, Kenyon believes, her time will let her qualify for Boston.

“I was bawling all the way down Boylston Street last year I was so amazed I finished,’’ says Kenyon. “It was a high I never had before.’’

Inside her bedroom at St. Francis House, Kenyon appears in a race to make up for a life nearly wasted away. She fills the space with the photographs, mementos, and inspirational quotes collected since she last left prison in March 2008. The words of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer’’ hang above her bed. On the opposite wall, she posts race bib numbers and finisher medals. Documents confirming her Boston Marathon entry cover the door of a mini-refrigerator.

But the centerpiece is a display of family photographs, many showing Kenyon with her 26-year-old son Tyler and 4-year-old grandson Anthony. She looks every bit the doting mother and grandmother, though those relationships took time to build. Kenyon was sober for one year before her son allowed her to meet her grandson.

Now, she rearranges her training schedule to make more time for visits. She sometimes takes pictures during long runs and texts them to her son with messages like, “Hey, this is your mom. Here I am running 16 miles.’’

On race day, her son will be standing along the Boston Marathon course and cheering Kenyon to the finish. It will be his first time watching his mother compete in a marathon.

“I never would have thought she’d be running the Boston Marathon,’’ says Tyler Kenyon. “From where she was to where she is, it’s a complete turnaround. It’s been a long haul. We’ve been through a lot. The last time she was incarcerated, I was going to give up on her.’’

‘Ready to get sober’ Her last arrest came on May 23, 2007. It was also the last day she got high.

Police picked up Kenyon on a fugitive from justice warrant in front of St. Francis House, a facility with a day shelter she frequented when homeless and where she now lives in a private room as a permanent resident. The warrant stemmed from New Hampshire charges related to possession of a pair of crack pipes.

It was, she says, a blessing. “I was never so grateful as when I got arrested out here. I knew the leash around my neck was released. I know that sounds crazy because you’re going into custody. But there was no way I was going to be able to get high when I was in jail. I knew it was over. I knew I was going to get a long time. My hands just went up and I was ready to get sober.’’

Kenyon recounts her last arrest from the spot where it took place. As she does, a crowd of curious homeless men mull around, waiting to enter St. Francis House for a hot meal. Some shout “looking good’’ in her direction.

Wearing a running jacket, spandex tights, sunglasses, and a baseball cap with a long, black ponytail streaming out the back, Kenyon looks like a typical marathon runner ready for another day of training. Her 5-foot-5-inch, 120-pound frame appears toned and conditioned by many years of high mileage. But it’s been just 2 1/2 years since she dedicated herself to distance running and dropped the 76 pounds packed on by addiction and carbohydrate-rich prison food. Her face looks surprisingly youthful given her history, her smile broad and bright.

“The first time I heard her full story, I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ’’ says Bobby Balfour, coach of Runners in Recovery. “In my 23 years of dealing with this stuff and being in recovery, I’ve never run across anybody as dedicated to getting their act together as Jackie.’’

Or, anybody who has come so far.

Talking to a Boston police officer recently, Balfour mentioned Kenyon. The officer remembered throwing a blanket on Kenyon when she was homeless sleeping in Copley Square. Upon learning that she is nearly four years sober and running the Boston Marathon, the officer had the same initial reaction as Balfour. “You’ve got to be kidding me,’’ he said.

Kenyon understands why her story prompts disbelief. “When I start to tell people all the bad things that have happened to me, people look at me and say, ‘What are you still doing alive?’ ’’ And there were times, the months and years when she was incarcerated or too ashamed to contact anyone she knew, that family and friends thought she was dead.

Issues arise early Kenyon’s addictive behavior started young. She needed something, anything, to cope with her chaotic family life and low self-esteem.

At first, she turned to food. By age 9 she was smoking cigarettes. At 12, she started drinking beer. Soon, she started smoking marijuana and doing acid.

She gave birth to her son at 15. For a few years, she found a measure of stability, earning a high school diploma and attending school to become a hairdresser. But at 18, when her mother died of ovarian cancer, she moved in with her son’s father. It became a toxic relationship fueled by alcohol, cocaine, and physical abuse.

“I started going to bars and I’d let anybody watch my son,’’ says Kenyon. “I’d be so hung over in the morning, I didn’t even want to deal with being a mother.’’

Drunk driving convictions followed, as did prison sentences and unsuccessful attempts to stay sober. On Easter Sunday 2003, she relapsed, going straight to crack and heroin.

To pay for her drug habit, Kenyon stole from cars and stores in Back Bay. Once, upon seeing a mannequin with a fox fur jacket, she went to comedic lengths to get her hands on the merchandise.

“I snapped the mannequin at the waist,’’ she says. “And there I was running down the street with the top half of a mannequin with a fox fur because I was dope sick and needed to get high.’’

She says she did a lot more, but that’s all she is comfortable talking about.

“I’ve accepted my past,’’ says Kenyon. “I’ve forgiven myself. I’ve forgiven other people.’’

Giving back now Sitting in a common room at St. Francis House, Kenyon enthusiastically greets everyone who passes by and talks mileage, shoes, races. Today, she is part running evangelist, part coach, and part cheerleader, introducing residents to training programs offered by Runners in Recovery and Back On My Feet. If someone needs a running partner, she volunteers.

“The key to my staying sober is helping other people,’’ she says.

The way she lives today, a consistent routine filled with running and counseling women at the Boston Rescue Mission, serves as the best example of how much someone can change. She hopes to leave St. Francis House later this year and plans to pursue certification in drug and alcohol counseling at UMass-Boston.

When imprisoned at the South Bay House of Correction during her last sentence, Kenyon met a woman through Alcoholics Anonymous who ran marathons. Something about the challenge, about how the woman described the joy of finishing, inspired Kenyon. She asked the woman to be her sponsor, beginning a mentorship and friendship that motivated Kenyon throughout her marathon mileage buildup. Kenyon started with a couple of miles a day. Preparing for this year’s Boston, she averaged 50 miles per week, including one long run of more than 15 miles.

“She believed in me before I believed in me,’’ says Kenyon of her sponsor.

Now, Kenyon is confident enough not only to tell her story candidly to audiences small and large, but also to find humor in it. When doctors ask if she is allergic to anything, she’ll list Sudafed and narcotics. Pressed for what happens if she takes narcotics, she says, “I break out in handcuffs and shackles, courtrooms and lawyers.’’

For her next act, Kenyon wants to compete in an Ironman triathlon before she turns 50. No joke. Says Kenyon, “I know I can achieve more.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at

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