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Skid Row marathon runners head to Africa for international competition

Just as the sun rises and Skid Row's homeless emerge from their tents, the Midnight Runners meet in the lobby of a local shelter for their 6 a.m. run. The group consists mostly of recovering drug and alcohol addicts, as well as homeless and those who up until recently had been homeless. 

The crew has been running together for more than a year, and three of its most dedicated runners have worked their way up from basic exercise to intense marathon training. 

“I do everything to the extreme, you know," said 48-year-old Ben Shirley. "If I’m going to drink, I’m going to drink four bottles of vodka a day. If I’m going to do drugs I’m going to do more drugs than anybody. If I’m going to run and going to go get in shape again, I’m running marathons."

The running club is based out of 6th Street's Midnight Mission, which houses homeless men while they try to get sober. Shirley, along with Ryan Navales and David Askew, went through the mission's recovery program. Over the last year he competed in various local running races — including the L.A. Marathon.

Next week, they'll be on a plane to Ghana, Africa, to compete in an international competition.

Shirley just bought a new pair of running shoes for the event and was breaking them in on (what is for him) a mild, six-mile run. They're Adidas with neon green laces. He's "an "Adidas guy," Shirley said. 

"Life is pretty cool right now. I had duct tape on my shoes when I walked into the mission," he said.

And when he walked out after more than two years, he began a rigorous schedule of school, work and running. Now, he doesn't always get to train with the Midnight Runners, so he often sets out to train on his own. Sometimes as late as 10 p.m. when his day finally wraps up.

Others in the running group are no longer living at the mission, but continue to meet there for group runs two to three times a week.

Ryan Navales lives in Koreatown and works in the public affairs office at the Midnight Mission.  He said that it was L.A. Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell who created the club and set Ghana as a goal. 

"We just started running with the judge, is what happened. And then over time that developed into a personal friendship and a personal relationship with him," said Navales. "Now we're on the same side of the bench, so to speak." 

He said that having a judge as a confidant — instead of facing one in the courtroom — was a welcome change. 

Along with the camaraderie the Midnight Runners supplies its members,  it has had some very tangible physical benefits. When Shirley arrived at the Midnight Mission in 2011, he weighed about 300 pounds. Now, he's running multiple times a week and ready to go to Ghana to race. 

Shirley moved out of the Midnight Mission about a month ago, and he now faces a whole different kind of battle. His sometimes 20-hour days include commuting on public transit between school, work and his new home in Culver City. His new place is so far from Skid Row that  he often has to miss group runs and make them up on his own, whenever he can fit them in. Sometimes at 10 p.m. 

Shirley, Navales and Askew will head to Ghana next week. Their trips were paid for mostly by private donors and a fundraising run hosted by the Mission. Although the marathon will be the centerpiece of the trip, Shirley said whole the experience is what he's most excited about.

"It's part of a spiritual journey, that's what that is," said Shirley. "I want to check out the food, I want to check out the cultures, I want to meet other people from around the world that are going to the race. I want to soak it all up."