September 15, 2013

Paatuwaqatsi – Water is Life Ultra Race Report

Running in itself is a liberating, fulfilling activity. But anyone who spends significant time doing it also discovers there is a spiritual dimension to it that cannot be denied.

There are people in this world who have understood this fact for millenia and who've developed such a great respect for running that they built their culture and identity around it.

I have had the privilege of meeting and running with the Raramuri of the Mexican Copper Canyons, and they have opened my eyes to the existence of what I call The Running People, a worldwide tribe that knows no boundaries, skin color or social status. This tribe speaks only one language; the simple movement of footsteps and the sound of breathing, shared in a same moment.

I met more members of this tribe yesterday; the Hopi People of Arizona.

I could write about the trail, the conditions that day or the difficulty of the course. That would be totally besides the point. The Hopi themselves will tell you; “This is not a race. This is a run.” So instead, let me share with you the extraordinary moment we shared together.

Our run didn't start in the morning, like all others do. We started all together by sharing a meal at dusk, the night before, while an elder played his drum, sang and told us stories to bid us welcome. We met fellow runners and tribe members and humbly spent some time in the company of each other.

We took off at the break of dawn to the sound of traditional chants, after chewing some “bear bark”, spitting it in our hands and anointing our bodies with it for strength. We looped around the communal campsite on desert flats, just long enough to awaken our bodies and find our own rhythm.

As soon as the terrain started to change and we began the ascent to the first desert mesa, I started hearing them. Men, women, youngsters and elders perched higher on the steep boulders, were calling us at the top of their voice. Every time, as I would get closer to one of them, I would find added strength, resolve and inspiration and offer thanks in return.

In the middle of one of the first steep climbs, I saw a woman on the trail. “Esquale”, she said, while pouring some water in the palm of her hand. As I smiled, nodded and passed her, she splashed my shoulder with the water and gently rubbed it. This was a tender gesture, I thought, and I stayed in that moment for a while, feeling very welcome.

The sacred settlement of Walpi

The climb took me all the way up to Walpi, a sacred Hopi settlement that dates back to the year 900 and that sits at the very top of Second Mesa. The view from there of the surrounding valleys and lowlands is simply breathtaking. I took a moment to look around and appreciate, to breathe the crisp air and to draw inspiration for the miles to come.

As the trail kept unraveling and I ventured further into the open, the heat started to rise. After the climb down from Walpi and a brief detour in the village lower, runners climb back up part of the mesa and head down for the open fields that lead to the top again. All along the way, people gather on the trail and call the runners, offer blessings and thank them for honoring the Land. The echoes of their voice resonate on the mesa rock walls and stay with you a long way. You are never alone.

“Thank you for supporting us, thank you for blessing the Earth.”

Every step of the way, I felt surrounded with love and appreciation. All day long, from first light until the last runner came in, the Hopis stayed out there, calling from the high boulders. My day wasn't going so well toward the end, and my right knee was hurting, keeping me from running. I was suffering. While finishing one of the last climbs, a familiar face suddenly appeared, but I was startled. The woman started apologizing and I told her not to, I was simply in my head and not expecting to come across anyone. “Do you remember me?”, she asked. I did. She was the same woman who had rubbed my shoulder with water, early in the morning.

“This morning”, she said, “I anointed you and told you to be brave”. I nodded. She grabbed both of my hands and she said “Now I will anoint you again, to celebrate your victory and to thank you for blessing our Land with your footsteps”. I took my hat off and bowed. As she had done in the morning, she filled her palms with water and washed my head and neck. It was both an honoring and an emotional moment; I put my hands together in front of my heart, and nothing else was said.

I finished the last miles reflecting on this amazing experience and on the Hopis' humbling attitude. I felt extremely privileged to share their sacred trails and to be so welcomed among them. As I took the last turn to face the finish line, I stopped one step before crossing it, and bowed again. My work was done. Like many before me, I had traveled here to make a connection and to offer the simple act of running to brothers and sisters who genuinely appreciate it. But I also felt I had traveled here to reunite with more members of something greater than the sum of us all, the one tribe I feel I truly belong with.

I had traveled here to celebrate The Running People.

is run every year to bless the Land and bring water to the Hopi community of Polacca, Arizona.

Photos credit: Patrick Sweeney


  1. Sounds like a very special happening. Can't wait to read your next story !

  2. Flint, you have such a way of sharing. This one brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for letting us be a part of your adventures.