DRAPER — After a lifetime of running away from things, Kurtis Hunsaker believes he's finally found a reason to run toward life’s toughest challenges.
The 26-year-old Price native ran 16 laps around a dirt track at the Utah State Prison’s Promontory facility Thursday morning in an effort to make substantial and lasting change in his life.
Which is why after he crossed the finish line to cheers from officers and inmates alike, he collected a few high fives and a quick cup of water and then ran back out onto the dirt path he helped groom all day Wednesday, after a week of rain threatened Thursday’s race. He fell into step with the man who lives in the cell next to him, Lonial Milline, 36, Salt Lake City.
Hunsaker encouraged his friend, who admitted he hadn’t trained for the first 5K of his life, and then helped push several other inmates as they pushed through the final few laps of their 5Ks.
His final show of support was for two of the therapists who ran the race to show their solidarity with the 46 inmates, who are part of the prison’s substance abuse program, Con-Quest.
Hunsaker smiled shyly when asked about all the extra laps he ran after winning the race with a personal best of 22:05.
“I’ve hurt enough people in my life,” said Hunsaker, who was sent to prison for theft and burglary two years ago. “I just want a positive change.”
While there are about 400 male inmates participating in the Con-Quest program, only about four dozen of those choose to participate in a program called Addicts II Athletes, which uses exercise and athletics to help participants overcome addiction. Desmond Lomax, a clinical psychologist with the Department of Corrections, went to graduate school with Addicts II Athletes founder Blu Robinson and pushed to have the program included as an option for Con-Quest participants. Their hope is that the inmates will get involved in positive activities and relationships that will carry over to the Addicts II Athletes support groups already meeting and functioning on the outside.
It is especially appealing to a guy like Hunsaker, who admits struggling with traditional substance abuse programs.
“This gives us a chance to help ourselves,” he said. “We’re relying on our ourselves and people who have the same problem, not therapists or a higher power. It’s just a bunch of dudes trying to help each other.”
Hunsaker said that real change is never easy.
But it’s especially difficult when mired in a criminal mentality.
“Contrary to popular belief, nobody in here really wants to change,” he said, sweat rolling off of his forehead. “It’s hard to realize that we all have serious character flaws.”
In fact, he admits his first year in Con-Quest benefited him very little.
“I faked it through the first time,” he said. “I figured I’d get through and go back to doing what I always had. It was a therapist who helped me see that if I don’t change, I’m just going to end up back here again.” Patrick Kryger, 38, was sent to prison for drug offenses, and he said Hunsaker’s drive and support pushed him to third place Thursday.
“I haven’t done nothing like this in my life,” he said. “Not since I was a kid.”
Kryger started using drugs and alcohol at 15, and it’s cost him a relationship with his only son. He’s hoping that if he can finally change his life, he can have a relationship with the little boy, who just turned 9.
“If I don’t change this time, I will never see him again,” he said. “I really like this, and I think it’s going to help. It’s an opportunity to do something to help me stay out of prison.”
Milline, who has four children, prefers the weight-lifting aspect of the program to the running, but said it’s the camaraderie that means the most.
“I like how everybody tries to help each other out,” he said. “I hadn’t trained for this and it was rough. If I didn’t finish this I would have felt like I was letting (Hunsaker) down. Some people in the 5K have skills and they help the other ones who don’t. I don’t think we’re really thinking of it as a race.”
When asked if he thinks the program will help him make lasting change, he said he’s unsure.
“I am praying that it will,” he said. “I definitely want to look into it. I feel better about things (when exercising regularly). I feel energized and just a lot better about things. I’d like to get my kids into something like this.”
Lomax said the race is a welcome change for inmates and staff alike.
“It’s a little piece of normal,” he said before handing out certificates to each finisher. “It’s a wonderful thing.”