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The Canyon Runner

Shaun Martin, a Navajo teacher and running coach, created the Canyon de Chelly Ultramarathon to help share the beauty and history of this sacred site

The Canyon de Chelly 55K always takes place at sunrise in the mouth of this deep sandstone canyon on the outskirts of Chinle, Arizona. Following a prayer and blessing by a Navajo elder, the small group of runners start the race in the traditional Navajo fashion: by yelling at the rising sun as they dash to the east and into the canyon. With race director Shaun Martin’s encouragement, they whoop and holler—“announcing to the creator that we’re out running” says Martin—as they set off on the grueling 34-mile course.

For Martin, the race is the culmination of his love of running and his desire to share the Navajo culture with others. Growing up outside Page, Arizona, Martin started running not long after he could walk. His dad would often wake him and his older brothers before sunrise and shoo them out of the house. He’s been running ever since.

After a successful cross-country career in high school and college, he moved to Chinle, where his wife, Melissa, grew up. He began teaching and coaching at Chinle High School, and he and Melissa, who is also a teacher and a coach, led their runners to multiple state titles and helped many earn running scholarships.

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During his free time, Martin, who is now the athletic director at Chinle High and still a competitive runner, would go on long training runs. During one such outing he had a profound experience with a pack of wild horses. “I felt like I needed to share what I was experiencing,” says Martin. “I thought to myself: What better way to do so than bring a race here and use the profits to support the local running community.” And thus the Canyon de Chelly Ultramarathon was born.

It’s a race—and a place—unlike any other. For starters, it’s held almost entirely within Canyon de Chelly National Monument. With spectacular sheer red cliffs that rise up to 1,000 feet, it’s natural beauty is only rivaled by its remarkable human history, with hundreds of well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs and pictographs. The park is located entirely on Navajo tribal lands, and many families still live and farm within the canyon. There are many overlooks and one short hiking trail open to the public, but the canyon interior, which is very significant to the Navajo people, can be explored only in the company of a Navajo guide, whether on foot, on horseback, or by Jeep. Except, that is, on the day of the race, when runners’ bibs serve as their backcountry permits, allowing them a rare opportunity to explore the sacred site.

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The other thing that makes the race (which is capped at 150 runners) so special is that it’s a family affair. Martin’s father and stepfather, both Navajo medicine men, lead the blessings and prayers. All the awards—necklaces, bracelets, belt buckles, rugs, and the like—are handmade by local Navajo artists, including Martin and his wife and traditional foods are served at the finish line. “It’s all about sharing our land, our language, our food, and our history with the runners,” says Martin. “If a person comes to this race, they walk away with more than just a finisher’s necklace. My hope is that they leave Arizona with a deep sense of connection to our culture and this place.”