«Welcome, my People, my friends, ma family.»
|Race director Shaun Martin|
Shaun Martin doesn't speak like everyone. Tall, calm with vivid, fiery eyes, you couldn't miss him in a crowd of hundreds. He stood proudly in front of the runners, and went on to recite his name and his family background, in Navajo language.
«What I just did is state my name, my clan and my origins. I started by saying Ya'at' eeh. Translated to English, it is a salutation which basically means that you and I, we're good».
I felt immediately at ease. I'd traveled to Navajo Country with my friend La Mariposa and we'd arrived in Chinle, Arizona, just as the sun set over the distant horizon. The sky is large, here, the land is vast and the air is crisp. Sitting in an outside amphitheater, surrounded by runners and listening to Shaun, I was right at home.
|A sacred place of magnificent beauty|
After an evening of connecting with participants and organizers, where my imagination took flight with canyon legends and my heart filled with a deep sense of kinship, we went to sleep for a couple hours among the distant howls of the coyotes and the neighing of the wild horses. The next day, before first light, we made our way into the dark to a warm bonfire where a traditional breakfast of blue corn mash was awaiting us.
There, in the biting cold late-night breeze, gathered in a circle around the fire, we participated in a prayer to the new day and received an intimate blessing of cedar smoke, from a shaman who spoke to all in a mix of Navajo and English.
We left the warmth of the fire and took a couple steps to the starting line. Shaun stood at the front. «While you travel inside the Canyon, you are welcome to follow Navajo tradition and holler out to your heart's content. The more, the better. Your howls will echo along the rock walls and be heard from a great distance. Canyon residents and visitors to the rim are going to witness a very rare, awesome display of running today.»
Without any need to say more, both Shaun and the crowd united in a huge, wild, primal howl and the runners burst out in the early light. The moment was unique, magical, electric. A long line of awe-struck runners formed as we slowly left the low sand wash and entered the Canyon. Every step took us further in, swallowing us whole in unspeakable beauty.
As the rock walls rose around us, so did the very first sun rays. They painted the sky a deep blue, without a single cloud to cut through. The Canyon floor remained dark and mysterious for long moments before the light was high enough to spill from the rim, splashing vivid swaths of red, orange, yellow and white on the sheer cliffs and revealing ancient drawings and petroglyphs of prancing horses, wild deers and other traditional symbols scattered from low-hanging ledges up to unimaginable heights.
To the sound of wild howls and excited shouts, we kept venturing further inside this low valley at the bottom of the high plains. Canyon de Shelly twists and turns, and takes you in different directions as you go. By doing so, it offered me dozens of mesmerizing sunrises that morning. Each one unique. Each one imprinted in my soul forever. This is a place of undescribable beauty, to which no word can truly pay tribute.
|800-foot tall Spider Lady|
Bat Trail marked my meeting point with sister runner Wendy, a cheerful Boulderite who was more than excited to tackle the great climb to the rim. Strong and nimble, she made fast work of the steep rocky trail while sharing stories of happy travels and inspiring moments. We ran as one, reaching the top in what seemed to be mere minutes.
We were welcomed at the summit by smiling aid station staffers who made sure we took a moment to turn around and breathe in the astonishing wide view of the Canyon we had just traveled. In the late morning sun, the whole valley was glorious with green patches cutting through a sea of sand, walled in by swirling, multi-colored cliffs. It was unbelievable.
I found myself in meditative solitude again, but slowed to a walk while I was trying to revive my body and refresh my legs. My spirit, unaffected, was soaring high and wide. The last miles of my journey proved the most taxing and difficult, as my feet seemed to sink in the loose sand without the ability to push off. Progress was slow, but my resolve was strong. I kept moving forward, taking advantage of many marvelous sights and noticing details that had escaped my attention earlier.
|Navajo runner Will Yazzie|
I came out richer than I went in, humbled by a run among the Ancient Spirits and overwhelmed with the encounter of yet another clan in the world wide tribe of The Running People.
Coming to the final line with finishers and spectators screaming my name and cheering, I stopped and faced a beaming, proud Shaun Martin who offered the heartfelt hug of a brother and attached a traditional Navajo turquoise necklace around my neck.
Peace, joy, kinship and connection were victorious that day. And among the moments of elation and amazement, at the height of everything, a running experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
You were right, Shaun Martin. You and I, we're good.
Photo credits: Benedict Dugger, Maria Walton, Chip Tilden