A sliver moon dangled overhead. Cedar and pinyon logs had burned to embers in the desert chill, blue corn mush had been spooned out, and a Navajo medicine man had waved an eagle feather fan and offered blessings to the dawn.
About 150 runners began to slog through miles of sand toward the darkened mouth of the canyon. Here and there, and then as one, they raised their arms and loosened howls at the turquoise dawn.
Crows, startled, careened across a cloudless sky.
The Canyon de Chelly Ultra, a 34-mile-long trail race, had commenced, women and men running in beauty. I had driven hours across the mountains to see it.
The ultramarathon extends deep into Canyon de Chelly, the sacred heart of Navajo. Runners will pass the rock formations known as Sleeping Duck and Speaking Rock and the towering red sandstone obelisk that is home to Spider Woman, who Navajos believe wove the map of the universe.
Runners will clamber up a treacherous path, using hands no less than feet, to the canyon rim before turning and running back. They will lope through red river washes and beneath natural arbors of birch and Russian Olive, willow and cottonwoods turned autumnal gold. They will see wild horses and black bear and, if they are lucky, a bobcat or an eagle. Mountain lions will watch them.
Ultramarathons are stitched of a different fabric than many long runs, and that is true of this race more than most. It draws brilliant distance runners with faraway eyes, fleet-footed apparitions that disappear quickly into the early morning shadows.
It attracts many more, too: A Navajo school bus mechanic and a gentle-eyed midwife who works at nearby Chinle (who, come to think of it, was an apparition herself, as she finished second among the women); a 56-year-old commercial pilot from Idaho who spotted this canyon as she flew 30,000 feet overhead and a middle-aged policeman from Chicago who talks about how much this beauty has moved him. There was a veterinarian from Marin County and the editor of The Gunnison Country Times in Colorado (“Our motto is ‘All the News We Know About’ ”).
A pony-tailed college senior, Delta Higdon, who is a Navajo, had been a high school track star in nearby Chinle. She had sprained her ankle, and it was sore enough that the prospect of walking, much less running, 34 miles worried her.
Her mother, Gladys, prepared a remedy, with corn pollen and many herbs. On the morning of the race, Higdon took off her jacket and sprinted off in the predawn.
“Life is too short,” she told me, taking off. “I want to do what Navajos love, and that is to run.”
As it happened, I knew Shaun Martin, a Navajo and the athletic director at nearby Chinle High. He is a formidable ultramarathon runner and the creator of this race.
Running is woven into Navajo culture. Their running tradition goes back more than 1,000 years, to the time when they wended their way south from the Northwest Territories to the high desert and buttes of the Four Corners. When a girl undergoes a puberty ceremony, the kinaalda, she sleeps on the dirt floor of a traditional Hogan, which represents a mother’s womb. When the rays of the sun strike the east-facing door, the girl must take a long run.
Martin gathered the runners in the campground the evening before the ultramarathon. He recounted the origin story of this race.
It was born of despair. Martin, 5-foot-11, lean and angular, is from the western edge of the Navajo nation. He married a woman from Chinle – a four-hour drive to the east – and settled here and coached the high school track team into a power. Poverty casts a long shadow, as do the ravages of booze and dope; Martin was one of four close childhood friends and the only one to have pulled free of that terrible gravity.
He watched carefully over his Navajo teenagers, their nutrition, their academics, their emotional state, as they won races and grabbed coveted college scholarships.
Jealousy and politics at the school laid him low; his team was starved of funds and he resigned. The team disintegrated. An athletic director mocked him: “All you can do is coach.” So Martin stepped into the classroom as a physical education teacher and became the first native to win National Rural Teacher of the Year.
That first year it took two days to sign up 150 runners for the first Canyon de Chelly ultramarathon. Now runners wait at the assigned minute each year and hit the refresh button on the race’s website in hopes of getting in. The race draws runners from across the nation, and Australia, France and England.
By midmorning the sandstone canyon walls turned a translucent pink and red, as if lit from within. The sky was razor blue. Our guide, Don Staley, passed boyhood summers here, herding his grandparents’ sheep. He nodded at seemingly sheer walls and pointed out the half-hidden paths by which he led the sheep down into the canyon.
He met his wife nearby, although he had to make sure she did not belong to the same clans as his father and his mother, as it is forbidden to date and marry so closely. “It’s a Navajo pickup line,” he said. ‘Hey, what’s your clan?’ ”
We passed runners, some rocking out, others settled into a jog. Higdon, the Navajo college student, and a few other runners encountered a black bear walking up the sand path at them. They stepped into the woods and the bear passed.
There is beauty and terrible history hidden in these canyon walls. In Canyon del Muerto, which fingers off from de Chelly, Spanish soldiers slaughtered 115 Navajo in 1805; in the main canyon, Kit Carson and his soldiers and Ute allies cleared out the Navajo in 1864. “We feel their spirits dancing at night,” Staley said.
Earlier we watched a black-and-white rez dog – those mutts of many genetic fruits found everywhere in Navajo – follow Christian Gering, a lean, longhaired, world-class runner from the St. Felipe Pueblo, as he flew up the canyon. Gering grinned. “He was my pace dog,” he said. At the halfway point, atop the canyon rim, the dog disappeared.
The swiftest runners averaged a bit more than eight minutes per mile. The three miles of sand at the beginning and the end present the toughest challenge; it has not rained for weeks, and feet slide as sneakers fill with sand. The effort required is roughly equivalent to running up a 3,000-foot mountain.
Martin took to the microphone and introduced the runners as they reached the finish line. He placed turquoise necklaces around their necks and directed them to his mother, who had prepared vats of mutton and vegetable stew and fry bread. His father, Allen Martin, tall and commanding, is the medicine man and once a formidable runner.
Megan Dell, a 45-year-old emergency room doctor in Albuquerque, pulled in just under seven hours. She had cut an hour off her previous best. She has twin toddler boys and pushed them ahead of her on training runs. “Sixty pounds of twins built up my legs,” she said.
Higdon approached the finish. As she ran up to the canyon rim, her weakened foot cramped and she crawled to the turnaround point. At Mile 24, her calves and quads and hamstrings locked up.
She slowed to a walk. “I took four deep breaths to remind myself of our many blessings here on Mother Earth.”
She stopped 50 yards short of the line, bent over, cramping again. Martin had been her high school coach. They made eye contact and smiled and she reached the line. He slipped a turquoise necklace around her neck.
As the race’s 11-hour mark approached, the boys and girls from the high school track team prepared to run down through the canyon looking for stragglers. In the afternoon haze, an older runner emerged from the canyon mouth, slogging through the sand. To that runner’s left, keeping pace, was the same rez dog that set off with the fastest runner.
This last runner received his necklace, and the dog got an organic biscuit. They had, Martin told them, “finished in beauty.”