This Trail Marathon Is Deep Inside Antelope Canyon

Harold Bennally wanted to run the Boston Marathon in moccasins. So he planned a fundraiser on the Navajo Nation to get there.

Light
Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

Last spring, Harold Bennally, a 37-year-old Diné ultrarunner, crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon wearing a pair of high-topped red leather moccasins—likely the first time anyone had run the famous race in traditional Diné footwear. To raise funds to send him to the event, Bennally organized the Canyon X Half Marathon: a race through a remote portion of Antelope Canyon in LeChee, Arizona, far from the tourist-heavy lower section

The inaugural event, in 2018, was a success, with 98 runners traveling from across the Southwest to participate. Bennally and other organizers, including the Red Earth Running Company, which sponsors Native running events and athletes, brought it back for a second time last fall. On a brisk day in November, 168 runners gathered to run a 13-mile course that climbed 1,800 feet across sandstone canyons and remote washes.

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

The first morning light catches the ridges of Canyon X, located in the northwest corner of the Navajo Nation.

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

Bennally, who lives in Phoenix but has a home in LeChee, prepares a fire to keep runners warm during the cold morning. The previous year, runners competed in more than three inches of snow.

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

At 8:30, the race begins. The cool temperatures help stabilize the sandy course.

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

The Canyon X Half Marathon involves winding descents into slot canyons, where runners encounter walls of sandstone that taper down to shoulder-width crevices. 

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

Marlena Sixx, a Diné from Flagstaff, Arizona, is stopped short by an ankle injury in the first slot canyon. “I cried, not because of the pain but from not being able to finish this amazing course,” she says. 

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

After using a rope to maneuver through deep sand on a sharp incline, Dylan Sinclair, 35, tops out on one of the more challenging segments. 

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

Richard Harris, 28, of the Meskwaki Nation and the Sac and Fox Tribe of Mississippi in Iowa, has been running competitively since fifth grade. “We’re out here running individually, but if there weren’t 200 athletes running this morning, then we wouldn’t have the event,” he says. “You gotta take care of each other.”

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

Every runner who participates in the Canyon X Half Marathon is given a silver bracelet. Bennally uses two types of turquoise, called Sleeping Beauty and Kingman, to adorn them.

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

Marian Mike, 37, from Page, Arizona, wears traditional clothing in an effort to bring awareness to missing and murdered indigenous women. She finds strength in the landscape. “As I ran, I had to talk to the air, I had to talk to the sand, I had to talk to the canyon, I had to talk to all these elements that we hold sacred in our lives as Diné people to get through what I needed to get through,” she says.

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

Tanner Dugi, 15, from LeChee, finishes as the top runner under 19 years old.

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

Bennally has been running competitively since high school. It’s in his blood. “My grandfather didn’t have a vehicle. Most of the time he was running, carrying his bag,” Bennally says. “He’d run to the store and get food for several different families, because he was one of the only good fast runners.”

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

Nowadays, he runs in moccasins. He wore this pair at the 2019 Boston Marathon, which he ran in honor of his father, who passed away just before Bennally’s first Boston Marathon, in 2015. 

Photo: Tomás Karmelo Amaya

Registration for the 2020 Canyon X Half Marathon, happening November 7, opens March 1. Bennally and Red Earth Running Company keep the registration numbers low—just 200 people will be allowed to compete—to protect the fragile landscape.