Saturday, October 19, 2013

Roots Running: A Meditation on the Canyon de Chelly Ultramarathon

This was the first year of the first ultra to be run on the Navajo reservation in the sacred canyon, Canyon de Chelly.  Though it was technically a race and had prizes for the overall and age group speedsters this run was more about running for running's sake or as race Director and elite Navajo runner Shaun Martin put it, "This race is about running in the Navajo tradition, running as a prayer."  It was an awesome experience.

In case you haven’t noticed I am not Native American and while I do have an ethnic identity, it is, for the most part, something I rarely consider; it just isn’t a salient part of my life in any regular way.

In fact, when the GeekGrl and I first moved to New Mexico our youngest son, having grown up in rural white South Dakota, came home from school one day and asked “Where do our people come from” and the GeekGrl laughed and said “Our PEOPLE…the suburbs."
However, I do relate strongly to the culture of running and the people who call themselves runners.   The thing about running is that it’s such a foundational human activity it is able to span race, time and cultural context uniting apparently disparate people into one community.  This is actually what the ethic of the modern Olympics proposes, that sport spans all differences and unites humans in the fundamental pursuit of excellence.
Running has given me a great deal and the longer I have participated in it the more complex and varied my cultural identity as a runner has become.  I started out as a very mainstream, hyper gear-conscious triathlete who fully embraced every advantage of modern technology and always raced close to home with the sole goal of going fast, placing well and winning awards.  But over time I have drifted further and further to the idea of running as a kind of quest for understanding and connecting, understanding myself for sure but also understanding and connecting with people at a more fundamental level.

There are no pretenses in running and no masks for those who run long distances to hide behind.  I have run the gritty working class streets of Cincinnati, the upscale waterfronts of Chicago and San Francisco, the genteel horse country of Kentucky, the remote hollows of Alabama, the beautifully desolate hill country and canyon lands of Texas, the high mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, the lonely deserts of Arizona and Nevada, the rugged terrain of California’s Sierra Nevadas, the damp forests of Oregon and Washington and so much more.  I have even run the hallowed grounds of the Boston Marathon and they have all revealed to me some aspect of myself and provided me with some deeper connection to my fellow human.

When I was interviewed about having done the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning I said “Doing the Slam was about reaching back into history and joining with those runners who came before me and with them, attempt to do something so audacious.”  Doing Canyon de Chelly was very much the same kind of reaching back, the same kind of seeking kinship with the past while tying that past to the present. However, Canyon de Chelly involved reaching WAAYYY back in history, back to a time lost in the mists of time when running wasn’t just a sport but human kind’s fastest mode of transportation and something that was not only practical but also spiritual.

Running as a way of connecting to the distant past and running as a form of spiritual quest is not something that’s entirely new to me.  Back when I was an undergraduate in college, actually before I became a runner, I did an independent study with a locally well-known poet, V.B. Price.  I called the independent study “In through the Outdoors.”  In some ways, apart from the title, it mirrored the concept of the famous Led Zeppelin Album, “In through the Out Door” in that I was trying to regain something lost.  Specifically, I had just completed six fairly disappointing years as a low ranking enlisted man in the Marine Corps and my goal was to try and reconnect with who I had been and who I wanted to be as opposed to who I felt I had become and who others demanded I be.

To that end I   Sometimes the outings were mellow and contemplative and sometimes they were relentlessly aggressive and exhausting.  However, each of the outings resulted in new insights that were chronicled in a series of poems I wrote and discussed with V.B.
spent a few hours a week hiking and jogging in the Sandia mountains east of Albuquerque.
When I did become a runner my natural curiosity lead me to reading about the ancient practice of persistence hunting whereby a group of tribesmen strategically run down prey until it is too exhausted to escape them any longer.  While humans are naturally blessed with the ability to run phenomenally long distances at moderate paces, our four legged brothers and sisters have speed but only over short distances.  While we were able to jog along and repeatedly startle the animal into bolting for a few hundred yards, the animal could only bolt so many times before it was done.  As long as we could keep sight of the same animal it would eventually become too exhausted to run away and we would move in for the kill.

Theoretically, at least in the pursuit of large animals, a group of hunters would divvy up with the smaller, speedier tribesmen actually running the animal to exhaustion and the larger, slower tribesmen following behind wielding clubs or stone axes to deliver the killing blow.  I have often been out on a run and imagined myself as one of those large, slow, stone ax wielding hunters.

Indeed, there have been many trail races where I found myself in a small line of men running down a single track trail though the canyons, mountains, deserts or forests and I suddenly find that in my mind’s eye I can see and experience my own distant past as a persistence hunter.  I am transformed from an urban dweller with an office job and a mortgage into a man with nothing more than his few clothes, his fellows, the beauty of nature and the running.  In these moments everything is right with the world, everything is as it should be and I am at peace.  I think running trails allows us to move through the world at a human pace rather than a technology driven pace,  it allows us to move through a natural environment rather than a built environment and that, I believe, is what results in the sense of peace and calm that arises from trail running.  For me the equanimity
won on the trails translates directly into resilience back in the modern world.
While the experience of traveling back in time as an ancient runner in a natural environment brings me great peace it does not have any particular story that is connected to me in any real way, it’s only a fantasy.  However, William Yazzie, race director Shaun Martin’s father-in-law and spiritual mentor does have a story that ties together running through time, creating continuity between my most ancient of ancestors and my own life today.
During the race briefing the night before we began our journey into Canyon de Chelly he recounted part of the Navajo creation myth for us runners.

What Mr. Yazzie had to say not only held cultural significance for him as a Navajo, it also held significance for us as runners and for me personally.  Mr. Yazzie told us, “At the beginning of time back in the old days monsters plagued the Navajo people.  These monsters roamed the earth causing trouble and misery for the people.  Changing Woman (a.k.a. mother earth) gave birth to twins. These twins wanted to rid the world of the monsters and by doing so make the people safe.  Through running long distances with the holy people, the twins became powerful war gods who defeated the monsters.  Today there are still evil monsters that are plaguing the people, monsters like alcoholism, drugs, and diabetes.  You runners are like the twins training and running long distances, defeating today’s evil monsters and by doing so you inspire the people; when they watch you running they have hope that maybe they can
also defeat the evil monsters of today."
When I thought about this I knew there was no more accurate way to describe my own journey of running, a journey of defeating the evil monsters in my life, monsters like obesity, self-doubt, anger, fear and hubris.  These were things that I had spent a lot of time hiding from, things that constantly plagued me and that caused me great pain.  Through running I have at least tamed them if not completely defeated them and I dare say that I have inspired at least a couple other people to pick up running shoes and defeat their own monsters.  And so, with that recounting of the Navajo creation myth and my reaffirmation that I was indeed going to run a spiritual race it was off to bed.
Race morning dawned clear and cold.  An intimate community of around 85 runners and a few volunteers gathered around a small bonfire and stood silently at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, all facing east, all contemplating the journey ahead, all listening as William Yazzie welcomed the day’s new dawn in the traditional Navajo way, with prayer.  As Mr. Yazzie finished singing his prayers to the new day a Navajo spiritual leader introduced himself and let us know he was going to prey for our health, our safety and our journey in the Navajo way.

He held aloft a bundle of Eagle feathers in one hand and in the other scooped some cedar shavings from a leather pouch around his neck and tossed them onto the hot coals.  As the smoke began to rise he began to chant his prayer and then instructed us to cleanse ourselves in the smoke of the cedar.  He then laughed, tossed some more cedar on the coals and said, “Maybe we should make sure and do a good job of cleansing.”
Despite Shaun’s joking the night before at the race briefing about “Rez time” he had us all lined up and ready to go right at 7:00 as advertised.  He gave us our final instructions and told us “When I say go be sure to yell out in the Navajo way, yell out to introduce yourselves to the Canyon and to announce your selves to the gods” and with that he yelled, “On your mark, get set, go!” and in unison all us runners let out loud yips and yells and surged forward, running into the east, into the dawn of a new day in the traditional Navajo way. The rest, as they say, is history.
While I can’t adequately convey my experience of running Canyon de Chelly in words, I can, in the White Suburban Guy way, tell you that the course was mostly flat sandy roads, some sand was pretty deep but most was not and all was blessedly compacted by recent rains, there were a total of around 70 stream crossings, also courtesy of the recent rains, all about ankle to mid-shin deep and maybe five to 15 feet wide, I spent the majority of my day running alone and I finished in 6:44:23.
I made no attempt to run fast but I did embrace running as a form of prayer and in that largely solitary experience, found my brothers and sisters on the trail.  I also did my best to try and document my journey through many, many
pictures that I hope will convey some small sense of the stark grandeur of the Sacred Canyon.
That is my story about running in the Navajo tradition, running as a prayer, and now I’ll end with a traditional Navajo prayer that has been slightly modified for runners.

The Navajo Beauty Way Ceremony

In beauty may I run

All day long may I run

Through the returning seasons may I run

Beautifully I will possess again

Beautifully birds

Beautifully joyful birds

On the trail marked with pollen may I run

With grasshoppers about my feet may I run

With dew about my feet may I run

With beauty may I run

With beauty before me may I run

With beauty behind me may I run

With beauty above me may I run

With beauty all around me may I run

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I run

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I run

It is finished in beauty

It is finished in beauty

Ahe’hee Shaun Martin!

Ahe’hee William Yazzie!

Ahe’hee Din’e!

H’ago’onee’ my friends, until we meet again.

And of course, my favorite sight of the day, my beloved wife.  Ahe’hee my love.


  1. nice report... the pictures make me long for the desert. The couple in your 4th picture are friends of mine.

    and your Suburbs comment was pretty funny.

    thanks for the report

  2. This whole post made me feel so at peace. What a beautiful place to run, and what a wonderful experience. So glad you took so many pictures so we could enjoy them too. Running regularly humbles me and yet, conversely, gives me more self-acceptance and confidence that who I am is plenty.