A former crack addict who used to sleep in abandoned houses, Monica Craft isn't your typical runner. In fact, she walked a lot more than she jogged when she stepped onto the track at Schenley Oval Sportsplex at Schenley Park in Oakland last week for a mid-morning workout.
Clad in a corduroy jacket and cotton sweats, with her short strawberry-blond hair pulled back into a tight bun, the now-sober New Kensington native had a goal of 12 quick-paced laps for a total of 3 miles -- something of a grind, considering she's not a big one for exercise, but still 2½ miles short of what the 56-year-old will have to pull from her reserves in a few days.
On Sunday she will run the first leg of a Pittsburgh Marathon women's relay team for L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry, a North Side-based nonprofit dedicated to ministering to the homeless. She won't be fast. But even if she is one of the last competitors to reach her exchange at Ridge Avenue and Merchant Street, she'll consider her race a victory.
Take a quick tour of the Pittsburgh Marathon course
Mara Spisso, charity coordinator, offers a runner's perspective of the 26.2-mile course for this year's Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon. (Video by Steve Mellon; 4/28/2014)
"It doesn't matter about winning," she said, noting that her recovery has included learning to live life on God's terms. "It's about doing."
James Edmunds, who'll run the second leg of the relay for the ministry's men's team, is a tad more competitive. A sprinter in high school who excelled in the 100-yard dash and 440-yard relay, he hopes to break eight minutes a mile as he runs through the West End to the Smithfield Street Bridge.
Not used to long distances, the 44-year-old said, "I've had to learn to slow that sprint down and pace myself" during training, which on a warm, sunny afternoon in late April included two hilly loops totalling 5 miles around Riverview Park. Joining him on the run was the ministry's 30-year-old co-founder, Charles Chapman, and program director Joshua McKinley. Despite being years older, Mr. Edmunds left both of them in the dust.
Originally from Youngstown, Ohio, where his family still lives, he became homeless after losing his job at a candy factory last year. Most nights he was able to find refuge in a shelter, but not always: With just 75 emergency beds available for men in the Pittsburgh area (and another 100 or so for women), he occasionally had to sleep outside on a ramp beside a building -- an experience he called "crazy."
"But you have to do what you have to do to make it through," he said, shaking his head.
After bouncing around from here to there, he ended up at Pleasant Valley Men's Shelter in Manchester, where he connected with the L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry missionaries who hold Bible studies and other activities there. Putting his faith (and future) in God, he entered the ministry's intense, six-month Project L.I.F.E. discipleship program for the homeless. Agreeing to take part in the marathon relay, he said, is a way to give back to the community.
In addition to raising money, through crowdrise.com, for the ministry as part of the marathon's 2014 Run for a Reason charity program -- their goal is $12,000 -- he hopes to serve as an example to those who still are living on the streets.
Just as Jesus loves them, "I want to let them know we love them, that there are people who care," he said. "I think we can make a great impact on those who are suffering."
That, and to live in the moment. "I'm doing it for the excitement," he said with a grin. "I want to hear the crowd."
This is no small thing, because when you're homeless, noted Mr. Chapman, you're typically ashamed of it and don't want to broadcast it to the world. That isolates you at a time when what you really need is to feel you're part of something.
"So much of our ministry is just about paying attention," he said. "In everything we do, we truly value and view the homeless as our friends."
"It's good to be part of something," agreed Samone Oliveros, director of women's outreach and Ms. Craft's unofficial coach. "Not just God's kingdom, but the big things people in the city do together."
While those who know and understand L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry's experiential approach consider the relay a no-brainer, a more common response is one of confusion, Mr. Chapman said.
"We don't run the marathon with the homeless because it's good press or because we feel bad about their situation," he continued. "We run the marathon because it's fun and we love to do fun things with any and all of our friends."
Raised in Baltimore, Mr. Chapman has been working with the homeless since the seventh grade, where on a mission trip to Washington, D.C., he dished up meals in a soup kitchen. For a while in his teens he wanted to be an engineer. But after another mission trip to Jamaica at age 16, he felt a calling to serve those who get overlooked in society.
A few months after enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied social work on a full scholarship, he visited his first homeless shelter and realized his life's mission. "People don't see [the homeless] as people," he said, "just as a situation or problem."
Finding beds and jobs for the estimated 2,200 men and women who live on the streets or in shelters in the Pittsburgh area is important work. But the cycle of homelessness doesn't stop just because there's a roof over their heads and food on the table, Mr. Chapman said. In fact, he noted, sometimes housing makes things worse, because then the person is totally isolated.
What's really needed to help people rise out of homelessness, he said, are relationships.
Being part of the mission's marathon relay team provides those connections.
Ms. Craft and others on the team have been meeting every Tuesday with Ms. Oliveros for a walking club at Union Place Building at Allegheny Center Alliance Church. They talk the entire time they're on the track. The men also have been training together when they can.
There are other benefits. Research has shown that even moderate aerobic activity can improve symptoms of depression and increase the likelihood of an addict staying sober. Also important, preparing for a race can help those who may have not made the best choices in life establish goals and achieve a sense of accomplishment.
As Ms. Craft noted during her workout, "I'm trying to be strong and a responsible person. I'm doing something different in life. I want to find my purpose."
"People think the homeless are dirty, smelly drug addicts or derelicts," said Mr. McKinley, the ministry's 37-year-old director of discipleship. He's running the last leg of the relay. "But they may just be people who have lost their way."
L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry cobbled together two relay teams last year, bought everyone shoes and set about fundraising. But it was so last-minute, no one officially trained. Staff weren't even sure everyone would show up on race day. (To better their odds, they asked racers to sleep over and lined up volunteer back-up runners.) But sure enough, everyone was there at 5:30 a.m. that morning, ready to go. They managed to raise some $8,000 for the ministry.
One runner was so excited to get her medal, Mr. Chapman said, that she mailed it to her mom for Mother's Day. "It was like, 'Look! I did it. I finished something.' "
Ms. Craft expects she'll feel that excitement, too, on Sunday.
"I've been through harder pain than this."
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.