I knew going in that Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “shay”) was a special race, however, I had no idea the impact that the land, and especially, the Navajo people, would have on me.
Roughly five hours northeast of Phoenix AZ you will find the second largest canyon in the United States. Canyon de Chelly is one of 410 National Parks in the US and the only one that isn’t owned by the government. It is also the only national park that can trace human habitation for the last 5,000 years!
The morning before the race, Bonnie and I drove along the road that snakes along the rim of the canyon, stopping at every overlook to peer into the canyon and be amazed at the sheer beauty of it all.
Later that evening at a small campground, we gathered with another 155 runners to listen to Sean Martin (RD) speak passionately about the history of the race and the significance of running in the Navajo culture. Seeing Sean get choked up talking about how this race, in a short two years (2015 was the third running), has improved the lives of so many Navajo runners at the local schools was inspiring and moved everyone in attendance. All of the race profits go to buying shoes, track suits, and gear, as well as to sending runners across the country to compete in national meets. I was so excited to hear that my race entry fees were going to help young Navajo runners. Sean turned the crowd over to a real Navajo medicine man who sang us some songs including his very funny version of B-I-N-G-O in Navajo. His prayer at the end is what stuck with me the next day during the race…
With your feet on the ground you are an extension of our Mother earth. The air that you breathe out is our Father sky. With beauty within you and all around you, our Mother and Father carry you step by step, stride by stride, becoming stronger, overcoming the challenges and obstacles in life. Walk in beauty, run in beauty.”
Next up was a park ranger who explained that race day is the only day of the year when non-Navajo people are allowed into the canyon without a guide – our bibs were our permits granting us access into the canyon. Now I have been to a few pre-race meetings, and they are usually boring and uninspiring, but after leaving the campground on Friday night, I was pumped up, feeling thankful, excited, and ready to run this race.
The next morning, we arrived at the start to find a fire burning. This fire represented the “life of the race” and would burn until the last runner crossed the line. All of the runners gathered around the fire, then faced east to welcome the sun while Sean’s father chanted a Navajo prayer. Once the sun had risen, it was time to run, and we started the race with everyone yelling out loudly. I was told that this is the Navajo way and whenever I felt moved to do so during the race, I should yell out loudly in joy. I planned on doing this often throughout the day.
The first four miles were sand, and as I approached the first aid station, the sand gave way to a nice hard packed double track dirt road. Nice, flat and easy to run fast, I did my best to hold back and just run comfortably. Of the six creek crossings on the way out, only two were so deep that you had no choice but to just jump right in.
Still feeling good, I found myself running under the two 800 foot towers named Spider Rock by the Navajo.
I remembered both Sean and his father speaking last night about how this has been a sacred place for hundreds of years. Following the canyon to the right, I was excited because the road finally gave way to single track, and I started to make the 1200 foot climb to the canyon’s rim. The recent rain had washed away a lot of the dirt, exposing more rocks and boulders, and making an already technical climb even harder. Despite the technical trail, I found it pretty easy to run, so I did. The last 1/4 mile was more of a scramble involving the use of both of my hands. At the top I saw Sean relaxing on a rock and he commented that I looked good. I responded that I felt good, and I let out a loud yell aimed at the heavens!
At the mile 17 aid station, I counted 28 people ahead of me and decided it was reasonable to pick it up and try to crack the top 20. As I made my way down the scramble, I passed two runners. About halfway down, I met Bonnie coming up the trail for a quick kiss and a high-five. Over the next 12 or so miles, I slowly picked off the runners, and then found myself in the sandy section again. I found it much softer than it had been in the morning, and with no shade. The sun was hot, my ice was gone, and I could feel my energy level crash here, forcing me to a walk. I racked my brain. What to do? I went over my last stop and realized that I had not taken a gel. Quickly, I pulled two gels out and forced them down, followed by water. Finally I made the turn out of the canyon and saw the finish line. Unfortunately, there was still a lot of sand between me and the finish. I didn’t fight the sand, I just ran easy. Feeling fantastic, I crossed the line in 22nd place overall and 17th male in 6:03:42!