In late September, nearly 150 ultrarunners converged on Grants, New Mexico, on the eve of the first annual Mount Taylor 50K trail race. The course promised a scenic, challenging circumnavigation of the 11,300-foot peak, which is laced with jeep roads and singletrack, including a just-finished section of the Continental Divide Trail. Mount Taylor is a stratovolcano that blew its top some 1.5 to three million years ago, and on a typical, clear day, you can see its hulking profile from more than 80 miles away, the lone mountain wavering on the horizon, rising out of a high, hazy volcanic field.
For the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma people, Mount Taylor (or Tsoodził, “turquoise mountain”) is a sacred peak, part of their ancient mythology and the southern boundary of their traditional homeland. So it was only fitting that proceeds from the inaugural 50K Trail Race would go to support young Native American athletes in the region through a non-profit called Nídeiltihí Native Elite Runners (NNER), and that one of the most talented Navajo distance runners of his generation would be racing.
Shaun Martin was the guest of honor at the pre-race briefing in a nondescript conference room at the Red Lion Inn, just off the interstate in Grants. Tall and lanky with shoulder-length black hair and angular cheekbones, he got up to address the runners, an outdoorsy lot in shorts and fleece jackets, grey-haired and young, wearing socks under their sports sandals, hunched seriously over plates of spaghetti marinara straight off the buffet. “It’s a sacred honor to be here, running on Mount Taylor,” he began, and a hundred forks hung in midair.
Martin was raised in a traditional Navajo family and began running when he was just a toddler. He earned a full running scholarship to Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff, where he was only one of a few Native American athletes nationwide to compete in NCAA Division I athletics. Now 31, he lives with his wife and two young children in Chinle, Arizona, in the heart of the Navajo Nation, where he teaches high school and coaches running. For him, the line between the two has always been blurred. Early in his tenure, he developed a distance running program for all school kids in Chinle, from grades two through 12, using the ancient practice of endurance running to teach commitment and self-discipline to children of the reservation.
Under his leadership, the Chinle cross-country and track teams have won 13 state titles and 14 runners have been individual state champs, while 44 of his students have gone to college on academic or athletic scholarships. In 2011 Martin won the Arizona Rural Teachers of the Year Award, and last month he was named National Rural Teacher of the Year. He’s also an accomplished ultrarunner in his own right, who’s won nearly every race he’s entered, including the Red Mountain 50K and the Goblin Valley 50K. If anyone has competitive distance running in his blood, it’s Martin. Which made what came next, in front of a room full of hungry—in both senses of the word—runners, somewhat surprising.
“For the Navajo people, the point of running is not to be faster than anyone,” he continued. “We were raised to get up every morning as the sun is rising and run east to meet the birth of a new day.” He went on to explain that in Navajo tradition, running is a celebration of life, a way to honor a new day. It’s also a prayer. “You are out there moving, breathing in all positive things.”
And running is a teacher. “As we run we experience hardship. In moments of doubt and pain—and we’ll all have some of those tomorrow,” he said, as the room erupted in nervous laughter, “what you do will define who you are. It’s your character shining through at its truest. Running teaches us to balance the negative and positive and to live in beauty and balance. This is how I grew up learning to run and how I will teach my children to run.”
Still, racing is anything but straightforward for young Navajo runners. “The concept of standing above others can be at odds with the Native way,” he explained. “And this can be hard on them, especially at the collegiate level. Elders want them to come home, not go out into the world.” That’s why groups like Nídeiltihí Native Elite Runners are so important. Based in Flagstaff, the volunteer-driven NNER supports aspiring world-class runners from nearly two dozen tribes and pueblos in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. In addition to providing financial support to Olympic hopefuls, developing youth running programs in Native communities, and offering coaching seminars, NNER also awards scholarships to top Native American all-star cross-country runners to attend summer running camp. “The group is helping promising Native American runners take the next step,” said Martin. And by running with him on Mount Taylor the next day, all of us in the room were helping, too.
The night was getting old and people were beginning to eye their digital sports watches/GPSs/altimeters with concern. Race director Ken Gordon had all but commanded a 4 a.m. wakeup in order to be on the mountain in time for the 6:30 start. “I’m camping up at the start tonight,” said Martin, “so I’d better get up there now while there’s still light.”
The next morning, it was still nighttime on Mount Taylor, and cold, barely 40 degrees. At the start, dozens of runners in flimsy wind jackets and goosebumpy legs stuffed last-minute supplies into their drop bags and huddled in a long line for porta-potties—misery defined. An almost-full moon was setting as Gordon counted down from 10 and yelled “Go!” into the eerie twilight and 146 runners set off for the finish line, 31 miles away.
Out in front, naturally, was Shaun Martin. Within a hundred yards, the course veered off the semi-civilized surface of a rolling jeep road and began to climb a steep gulley through thick stands of aspens. The lead pack of a dozen runners scrambled through the still-dark trees, switchbacking onto a jeep road, while Martin quickly disappeared out in front. Then the trees thinned, and we were climbing up an open, grassy slope to a high ridge, the day getting brighter by the minute, as though someone was turning up the lights. Suddenly, there we were: on the thin edge between night and day, with the sun just lifting itself above the horizon to the east, 80 miles away over Santa Fe, streaking the sky pink and the mountain orange. We were running east into the rising sun, just as Shaun and Ken had said we would, greeting the dawn of a new day.
It was only the start of a long race. As I ran, I tried to feel the sacred earth beneath my feet, feeding my legs and lungs and heart. For a long, surreal stretch between miles 10 and 16, I was there in that balance between wanting and accepting, and I could sense the spirits surrounding me, people I’d known and loved and had never known and still knew and loved. I was running for everyone and everything alive and gone and not yet alive: the stout Douglas firs with strong arms that stood watch along the trail and my three-legged dog, Gus, at home, my father and my great grandmother and my great-great-granddaughters I would never meet and could only dream about. I was riding the cusp between pleasure and pain, simple joy in running and the primal drive to win, past and future, here and now, start and finish.
By the time I did finish, an hour and five minutes after Shaun Martin won the race, I had passed in and out of that sacred place more times than I could count. I got down to the business of trail running, forcing gel down my throat every half an hour like it was my job. I marveled at the trail shooting straight up through high, grassy meadows. I settled into my body and the day, plodded up the long climbs, tore down the descents. And I wanted to be done, to reach the end, to put my creaky, rock-pummeled hips out of their misery and sit down in the dirt and finally, really, look around. The aspens were at their golden peak, blazing against blue sky, and I ran hard across the line, knowing that this wasn’t the end, just the beginning. It will take me many more long runs and races to learn how to run fast without losing that balance, to run hard for something bigger than victory, and to feel in my bones what Shaun Martin and his Navajo ancestors have always known about distance running: It will teach us everything we need to know.
One step at a time.