For most of his life, Bobby Clemons has been running.
He ran from his troubles. He ran away from home. He ran halfway across the country — more than once — to start a new life. He served in Vietnam. He abused drugs. He authored a rap sheet so complicated it’s hard to remember when he was behind bars and when he wasn’t.
He could have spent the rest of his life in prison. Or he might be dead. But ask Clemons and he will tell you: God — and running — saved his life.
When he left prison for the last time in 1990, Clemons picked up a new kind of running, one that led him to start lines and finish lines all over the country, one powered by the muscles in his legs.
On March 28, his 67th birthday, he’ll watch as hundreds of runners stretch their legs and adjust their race bibs before they take off on a 5K run that he, as an ordained minister at St. James Missionary Baptist Church, created.
A reason to run
Clemons and his brother were raised by a single mother in the Booker T. Washington housing project in East Austin.
“I was a hoodlum,” he says.
Looking back, Clemons says the trouble started after a man who ran a neighborhood store began abusing him when he was in elementary school. Clemons rebelled. He fought, he drank, he sneaked away from home and started hanging with a rough crowd. He smoked pot, then turned to harder drugs. He got kicked out of one school after another, moved to California to live with his dad, got his girlfriend there pregnant and ran into trouble with the law.
When family members kept Clemons from the mother of his first child, he returned to Texas, where the infractions grew more serious. “I didn’t trust people anymore,” Clemons says. “I took a blood oath then that no one would hurt me.”
When he was eventually busted for burglary and theft, he was given the choice — four years in prison or military service.
He signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps and was sent to Camp Pendleton in Southern California, where he met and married another woman. She gave birth to his second daughter after Clemons received orders to head to Vietnam in 1967.
Overseas, Clemons befriended another enlistee in his unit named Kenneth. Together they headed into a world even darker than the one they’d left behind.
A few months in, the unit was attacked, and Clemons was hit by shrapnel. Kenneth was injured and later died; Clemons says something inside him died at the same time. On two other occasions, Clemons was injured when the unit was hit. He earned three Purple Hearts.
He was finally sent back to the United States in late 1968, but when he arrived, “people frowned and looked at you bad” when they found out where he’d been. He was discharged from the Marines in May 1970.
Back home in California, his life continued its downward spiral. His drug use exploded. He was dealing and using heroin and robbing and pandering to get money to fund his habit. “It was a way to cope with life and cover my past,” Clemons says. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was messed up.”
He left his then-wife and headed back to Texas, where he went on a crime spree. He was charged with attempted burglary and got probation in 1970, but two years later was busted again and went to prison for two years. When he got out he fell right back into his old habits. Then, in 1976, the big one: Clemons earned a 60-year sentence for aggravated robbery in Austin — he and two accomplices were involved in a shooting when they tried to sell stolen jewelry — and started doing time.
He shared a cell with a man convicted of capital murder. He saw inmates stabbed, set on fire and beaten. “It was rough. If you didn’t walk right, they’d tear your head right off,” he says.
Prisons were overcrowded, and Clemons was released on parole in 1983. He went to Houston, where he married yet again and ran a washateria and small store. But he fell back into drugs and crime. He was in and out of prisons and jails in Texas and California until November 1989, when he was busted for another parole violation and something inside him finally snapped.
“I prayed in the back seat (of the police car) — ‘Lord, if you take my life, I’ll give it to you,’” he says.
In the holding cell, he found a beat up Bible behind the commode. “I picked it up and started reading. I haven’t put it down since. The Lord saved me that night.”
Clemons was sent to prison in Texas. That last year behind bars, he did something besides study the Bible. He started running on a short track in the prison yard. A guard noticed and suggested that he might make a good distance runner. Clemons prayed, asking God to one day let him run a marathon. He’d been through hell — how bad could 26.2 miles on his feet be?
He was released for the final time in late 1990. He connected with a coach from Austin running store RunTex. Two months later, he went to Houston and lined up at the start line of his first marathon.
It wasn’t easy, and he hit a wall at Mile 22. “All systems said, ‘Stop,’” Clemons says. “I said, ‘Lord, I’ve been a failure all my life — don’t let me be a failure at this.’”
Clemons finished the race in 4 hours and 2 minutes. Then he started ticking off marathons, several a year. He ran one in San Antonio in 3 hours 15 minutes, and the next year dropped his time to 3:06. He qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon four times — in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997.
Today he has more than 50 marathon medals to his name, and he’s training for the Marine Corps Marathon in October. He hopes to run fast enough to qualify, once more, for Boston.
When he’s there, he also plans to find the name of his old Army buddy pal Kenneth on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
Finding his freedom
After he got out of prison, Clemons started running another type of marathon, too — one that let to his ordination as a minister in 1994.
He joined a nursing home ministry and preached to people with Alzheimer’s disease. He joined a prison ministry, too, working with inmates at the Travis County unit of the Texas State Jail, where he still preaches once a month.
On a rainy morning two weeks ago, Clemons, dressed in a purple button-down shirt and gray dress slacks, stood at the front of a spartan room and shared part of his past with 44 men wearing white prison uniforms.
“You can make yourself free through your faith in God,” he told them, and they shouted back their approval. They quoted Bible passages with him, and cheered when he finished preaching.
“It’s always good to go back home and share with the brothers,” Clemons said later.
Twenty years ago, Clemons joined the staff at St. James Missionary Baptist Church, where one of his goals is to encourage others to lead a healthy lifestyle.
“God wants us to take care of our temple, and exercise is one of the main ingredients to staying strong in this life,” Clemons says. “If you have a strong body and mind, you can overcome.”
Eight years ago, he founded the St. James Missions 5K and 1K. But the homegrown, relatively unknown race — on a hilly course through a part of Austin most runners never see — has drawn only minimal support and few of the city’s running elite.
“It’s one of those organically grown things happening in a place you don’t expect to see it, in a community that’s foreign to most runners,” says John Conley, director of the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon, who serves on the board of the St. James race. “We run trails, we run downtown and we run in Cedar Park, but nobody runs the east side. That race really deserves a bigger audience and more respect in the Austin running community.”
Clemons, Conley says, could still be in jail, or even dead. Instead, he’s an inspiration to his community. He calls the race Clemons’ labor of love.
“Bobby doesn’t have to do a race,” Conley says. “He can do his wellness ministry in a lot of ways, but because he’s a runner and he loves what running and God have done for him, this is the way he pays honor to that.”
When he’s not preaching or handling last-minute race details, Clemons trains three times a week with the Austin running group TeamMac.
Clemons has met and forgiven the man he says molested him as a child. The man has since died.
He has four daughters and has been married to his current wife, Kathy, for 10 years. He says he’s no longer tempted by drugs or crime.
“I don’t struggle because I’m more sound in the word of God,” he says. “Temptation is real, but I know how to escape.”
In January, Clemons crossed one of the biggest finish lines of his life. Friends and family gathered at St. James to celebrate his formal release from parole by the State of Texas.
“I’ve been the property of Texas for 40 years,” he says. “But now I don’t have to go to the parole board every time I want to leave the state. I can even vote if I want to. I’m free.”
Embracing the present
Some people hang awards on the walls of their office. Clemons would rather be reminded of his past, and how far he’s run to get here.
A poster that says “You can’t alter your past, but you can take your past to the altar” hangs behind his desk. A frame containing his jail booking photos and news clippings detailing crimes that landed him in prison fills the wall in front of it.
After all that running from something, Clemons finally got what he wanted. He’s running for something — his health, his congregation and the example he sets to those who have been where he’s been.