Running Through the Heart of Navajo

The adult horses let Martin enter their circle. For a while he and the pack ran as one, his shoulders rubbing against sweaty flanks. At the canyon mouth the horses pulled up as if to toe an invisible line.

He turned and looked at them. “They were lined up shoulder to shoulder, their nostrils flaring, their ears pointed at me.”

Martin’s voice caught as he recalled this. He wiped his eyes. “I thought, ‘What is the significance of this moment?’ These horses were like my young runners; my favorites were nicknamed ‘the four horsemen.’ ”

He resolved to bring his reality to a wider world.

This was not quickly done. Outsiders are allowed to enter Canyon de Chelly only with a Navajo guide. He consulted with archaeologists and park rangers and with the Navajo families who still harvest corn and melons and cherries and apples in this canyon.

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.

To run is to become immersed in Navajo cosmology. “We run east to the first light,” Martin told the runners before they took off. “We yell to clear our passageways and to let the creator hear our prayers.”


A rez dog that, runners said, completed the race last month. He was rewarded with lots of treats and mutton stew afterward.

Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

All day long shouts echo up that canyon.

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 8 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.

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