How Mike Rouse Used Running to Reverse Course After Prison
Life-changing opportunities can often be found in the unlikeliest of places, and for 68-year-old Mike Rouse, that place was a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma.
Born and raised in Abilene, Rouse graduated from Cooper High School and Hardin-Simmons University, where he played on the golf team. After earning his degree, Rouse joined his father’s home building business.
As a young man, Rouse was active in the community and was enjoying a successful career, but said that after his divorce in 1982, he “lost his way.”
“I decided to go crazy. I went against everything I had grown up with,” said Rouse, who described his father, Reuben, as “very conservative, a straight arrow and honest.”
Rouse said he stopped attending church and spent his days on the golf course. It was also during this time that he was introduced to cocaine, for which he was arrested in June of 1984.
Rouse said the 14 months he served in prison were a period of intense self reflection that proved to be a jumping- off point for the rest of his life.
“I was only 33 years old in 1986 and since I had nothing but time to think, I really started looking at things and said to myself, ‘this isn’t how I want to spend my life, I have spent 33 years trying to do the right thing and I don’t want one bad decision to define me,’” he said.
Before going to prison, he described having a flat tire as “the biggest inconvenience I had.” But in prison, there were no luxuries that used to entertain him. Rouse decided to take up running, which proved to be more than simply a way to stay fit and pass the hours.
“There’s no golf or tennis in prison, so instead I went for a run around the prison yard and fell in love with it,” said Rouse, who ran an hour almost every day. He said the muscle soreness almost every new runner experiences served a positive purpose and he embraced it.
When he was released from prison Rouse never gave up on running and soon realized he had quite a talent for the sport, particularly endurance races.
To date, Rouse has completed over 200 marathons, 78 runs of 50 miles or more as well as numerous 100-plus-mile runs. In the early 2000’s he started competing in triathlons and is a three-time Ironman and a three-time world champion in the Ultra Man. Described as “an athletic odyssey of personal rediscovery,” the Ultra Man consists of a 6.2 mile open-ocean swim off the Big Island of Hawaii, a 261.4 mile bike ride and a 52.4 mile ultra-marathon.
In addition to competing in races, Rouse also runs his age in miles and said his 66th mile run was especially significant.
“On my 66th birthday, I thought about the first half of my life and how it had been all about me and what I could take from other people. That mindset landed me in one place – prison,” he said. “I knew I wanted the rest of my life to be different, which is why I’ve devoted myself to giving back.”
Upon his release from prison, Rouse said he considered himself something of an outsider, even though he had the unconditional support of his family and his church.
“I still thought of myself as an ex con, a felon,” said Rouse, who describes the feeling as “mentally deflating.”
Rouse left Abilene for Dallas, where he stayed on a friend’s couch, borrowed a car from his sister and got a job in a running store.
A visit to Park Cities Baptist Church proved to be a turning point in his life and would set the stage for his role as philanthropist. “I chose Park Cities because it was big and I just wanted to find a place where I could get lost in the crowd,” he said.
Getting “lost” was not to be, because about a month after his first visit he met a man who would help him more than he could have imagined.
“One Sunday, a guy I didn’t know walks up to me, shakes my hand and introduces himself and then tells me that ‘God said for me to come and talk to you because I have a feeling you have a story,’” Rouse said.
So Rouse shared the story, after which the stranger asked, “What do you want to do with that?”
Rouse didn’t have to think twice before answering.
“I told him I want to give back,” he said.
“When I got out of prison, I went home to my family and to my church,” he said. “Most guys don’t have the support network that I had. How’s the typical guy going to make it with no family, no money and no job – a lot of them have no hope.”
It was out of this desire to provide hope that Rouse and his friend founded Exodus Ministry.
Begun in 1987, the organization serves as what Rouse describes as an “after-care facility for people coming out of prison.”
In the podcast, American Snippets, Rouse said Exodus is “a place that houses families impacted by incarceration and provides them with the resources to overcome those challenges together.”
“We decided to call it Exodus because the word is equated with freedom and that’s what we’re doing. We’re literally teaching these people how to be free.”
Rouse said Exodus has grown since its inception and while he no longer has an administrative role, he said he still stops in every now and then.
Rouse’s generosity is not limited to helping people assimilate into society after prison; he also has combined his love of running with his desire to honor the Navy SEALs.
As he says in American Snippets, Rouse began running with several Navy SEALs and it was during these runs that he met a man named J.T., who “became like family.” It was through this friendship that Rouse said he “developed a whole new level of respect and appreciation for what our military does.”
This appreciation became even more pronounced when Rouse was informed that a man named Marcus, whom he met through J.T., was missing and presumed dead. In 2011, Rouse’s loss became all the more acute when his friend J.T. was among 31 men killed in the line of duty.
While the race is on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rouse has still found a way to honor the fallen soldiers by running 31 miles a day for 31 straight days.
Not one to rest on his accomplishments, Rouse also started the Kurdish Relief Association as a result of a Kurdish friend he met in Dallas in 1991.
“I learned that there are around 2,000 Iraqi Kurds living in Dallas who had been rescued from prison camps and brought to America,” said Rouse, who added that although they were grateful for their freedom, they were woefully unprepared for their new lives.
“Most of them had been sheep herders by trade, spoke no English and therefore had no way to make a living in the United States,” he said, adding that they were provided an unfurnished apartment complex and had no clothes other than what they had on their backs.
Seeing similarities with the released prisoners he met, Rouse enlisted help from the Junior League of Dallas to furnish the apartments.
Out of this experience he founded the Kurdish Relief Association which led to his involvement in establishing schools in Northern Iraq. In 1992, while traveling in the area, Rouse was caught sneaking across the Turkish border and spent 10 days in a Turkish prison.
As he said in American Snippets, “the Turks hate the Kurds and it took 10 days for the US Embassy to spring (me) from prison.”
He has no intention of slowing down and credits his success to his positive attitude and ability to recognize opportunities, even if some of them were from the vantage point of a federal prison.
“I guess I’m blessed with a positive attitude,” he said. “God has put things in front of me, and I’ve had to make the most of the experiences, good and bad. Going to prison those years ago saved my life and helped me learn to make the most of every situation.
Rouse said he lives by the navy SEAL creed that stresses perseverance, discipline, honor as well as “loyalty to Country and Team.”
“I adopted the creed when I met J.T.,” he said. “I’ll never be out of the fight – it’s just not in my DNA to quit.”
By Molly Hill