Running is a true Indian sport. —Shaun Martin
CHINLE, Ariz. — When Allen Martin was a little boy, he ran from people who didn’t understand or value his Navajo culture.
Five decades later, he stood alongside his son and grandson in front of a ceremonial fire blessing a group of runners who traveled from all over the world to participate in an ultra race that is more a celebration of Navajo culture than a competition.
The Canyon de Chelly Ultra was born out of the passion Martin’s son has for the transformative power of running, especially among Navajo youths. Shaun Martin experienced this himself as a young man, and then he continued to witness it as a coach at Chinle High School, where he remains a teacher.
Friday night, he told the story of how the 3-year-old race was born as part of a pre-race meeting that included an education of Navajo history and beliefs, especially those who made their home in Canyon de Chelly’s sacred valleys and cliffs.
Martin told the crowd of about 160 runners and their families about an experience he had while running, a couple of years after he’d quit coaching at Chinle High School. During that run, he came around a corner and startled a group of wild horses.
The horses bolted from Martin, but they traveled the same direction he ran. Energized by their strength and beauty, he sprinted after them, pushing himself to try and keep up with them. There was a young horse, just a few months old, and when this little one started to slow with fatigue, the entire herd slowed, surrounding the yearling as they all continued running.
That allowed Martin to catch the herd, and as he approached the back of the pack, the mares protecting the young horse, parted and let Martin into the center of the still moving mass.
As he ran alongside the colt, in the center of the herd, he said he listened to the young horse’s labored breath, felt the drum of the sand under his feet and was energized by an experience that moved him to his core.
As he reflected on what happened, he decided he needed to find a way to do more for the Navajo youths, many of whom face lives fraught with hardships that most teenagers can’t even imagine.
“I just came up with this idea,” Martin said the night before the Canyon de Chelly 55K in Chile, Arizona. “I need to share this. I need to create an event that celebrates our culture, the canyon, and our kids. And so the race was born.”
So many aspects of this event make it uniquely beautiful — from the reasons it was born to who benefits from it to the remote and breathtaking course to what the actual race offers.
The race’s purpose is to support Navajo youths who want to pursue running. With the proceeds from the race, Martin has purchased new uniforms for the junior high and high school cross-country and track athletes.
“We’ve bought shoes for countless runners,” he said. They’ve paid for training gear for youth and high school runners, sent athletes to regional and national prep meets, and paid for college tuition and books for one runner.
“We’ve done a lot with this race,” Martin said, choking back emotion. “It continues to give. ... This is all because of you here running in that canyon tomorrow.” To put what it means for the Navajo people to have an event that celebrates their culture as much as it celebrates athletic excellence, Martin told his father’s story.
At the age of 9, Allen Martin was loaded into a military Jeep and transported to a boarding school about 100 miles from his village near the north rim of the Grand Canyon. After his clothes were burned, his head shaved and he was disciplined with an electrified cattle prod, he ran away. It took him three days, but he eventually made his way home.
He was picked up a few days later and taken back to school. And while he still hated the classroom, he now knew he could escape. He ran away five more times in the next two years, and by sixth grade, the school had tired of trying to keep him on campus.
He was sent to a foster family in Milford, Utah, where the family embraced him and his culture. They tried to understand and learn from him, and in turn, he learned the value of education from them and graduated from high school.
After marrying the town doctor’s daughter, Allen Martin returned to the Navajo reservation in Arizona to raise his own family in the land of his ancestors.
Martin said his father ran for his life as a young man, and in a way, Shaun Martin did the same when he was offered a chance to compete with Wings of America. Now he hopes the money raised from the Canyon de Chelly 55K will do the same for young Navajo runners for years to come.
“Running is a true Indian sport,” Martin said.
Like many communities, the Navajo nation faces some serious health issues, especially among their young people. He singled out obesity, diabetes and substance abuse.
“This can change that,” he said of running.
It is a sport that offers three things to those willing to give the effort required.
Run to celebrate life.
From the moment you arrive in Canyon de Chelly National Park, you feel that. As runners made their way up the canyon, those watching from overlooks whooped and hollered, oftentimes in Navajo, as a way of celebrating the gift of life.
“When we are running,” he said, “we are celebrating.”
Run because it’s a form of prayer.
The yells are also part of the prayer. A runner’s body becomes the center of a prayer that goes up from the earth and comes down from the creator.
Every step is a prayer.
Every breath is gratitude.
Every struggle a gift.
Run because it’s a teacher.
One doesn’t have to run very far or very often to understand this truth. Running offers challenges and hardships, and then it offers the way through them. It offers lessons in how to persevere, how to put things in perspective, and how to find beauty and balance when difficulties cloud our vision.
He reminded runners that this race is the only time non-Navajos are allowed in the canyon without a guide. He asked us to respect the thousands of years of life the canyon had sustained and protected.
He reminded us that no matter what we experienced physically, Saturday’s 34-mile trek was a gift that he hoped we’d take a few minutes to cherish.
“When you are within the rock, take a moment to take it all in,” he said, “Take a moment to put your hand on the sand; take a moment to put your hand on the canyon wall; take a moment to listen to the birds; take in everything we have to offer.”
And so I tried.
When I ran with people, we celebrated. When I ran alone, I prayed. I considered every breath a prayer of gratitude, and asked that every step be considered my offering to the collection of feet the canyon has welcomed.
I said the names of those who needed extra love and support. I thanked the trees for the shade, the wind for its coolness and the towering walls for their silence.
I have never felt such gratitude, even as I trudged the last few miles through hot sand to the finish line. An old injury nagged and my sand-filled shoes were heavy. But I didn’t want the run to end. Exiting the canyon was bittersweet. I wanted to sit in the shade and enjoy the homemade stew and fry bread with my sister, who’d already finished. But I didn’t want to leave the protective walls of the canyon that had held me in their arms for nearly nine hours.
As I crossed the finish line, Shaun stood there holding a turquoise necklace made by his mother-in-law. He put it around my neck, just as he did with every runner who crossed the finish line that day.
I staggered to my sister and we made our way to Shaun’s mom, who gave us bowls of mutton stew, made by their family the day before. We sat in the shade of one man’s truck and watched finishers cross the line, including the oldest, a woman from Colorado, with whom my sister and I had shared several miles mid-race. The Navajo honor their young and their old, and so they wrapped the oldest finishers handmade blankets as the crowd applauded.
Near the shade where my sister and I ate, the fire that was lit before the sunrise still burned. That fire is where the runners gathered and where Allen Martin blessed us.
It is where his father-in-law, William Yazzie, prayed to welcome the sunrise. And it is where we embarked on an experience that, like the sport of running, leaves you richer for the encounter.
“Fire,” Martin told us, “is very significant to our people. The fire is life.”
The fire stayed lit until the final runner crossed the finish line and accepted his handmade gift from Shaun. And then the fire was extinguished because the life of the race had officially ended.
But the real beauty of what Shaun Martin and his community have created is not just another race confined to a specific day and time.
It’s a celebration of Navajo culture in a way that is transformative. You cannot struggle against the canyon’s sands and stay as you once were. You cannot travel into Sacred Canyon without feeling the joy and pain of the many journeys the rocks have witnessed.
You cannot climb the treacherous rocks of Bat Trail without learning something about your own fortitude.
You cannot stand at the top of the canyon without feeling the awe of spirit — human, natural, animal and creative.
You cannot hear the whisper of the canyon wind and remain the same.
So I take with me the moments I had to myself and the moments I shared with others. And I take with me the part of the fire that is mine so it will bring my life warmth and inspiration for as long as I run my race.
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