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Sharing Camaraderie And Navajo Culture At The Canyon de Chelly Ultra

A glimpse inside a special running race on the Navajo Nation territory in Arizona.

Navajo elder Allen Martin addresses runners the night before the Canyon de Chilly Ultra Marathon near Chinle, Ariz. "We give these runners a bit of our culture, a bit of ourselves," he says. "Then they take that small piece out into the world and share it with others and it spreads." Photo: Nick Barraza
Navajo elder Allen Martin addresses runners the night before the Canyon de Chilly Ultra Marathon near Chinle, Ariz. “We give these runners a bit of our culture, a bit of ourselves,” he says. “Then they take that small piece out into the world and share it with others and it spreads.” Photo: Nick Barraza

Ya’a’teh shi’ke doo’ shi’dine’

Translation: Welcome, my relatives, my people, and my friends; everything is good between us and everything around.

That was how race director Shaun Martin welcomed 133 runners during the opening ceremony to the 2014 Canyon de Chelly Ultra in his native language of Navajo on Oct. 11 near Chinle, Ariz. [Note: “Chelly” is pronounced ‘shea’ in English.]

Martin, 34, the athletic director at Chinle High School and head cross-country coach at Dine College, initiated the 55K event in 2013 for a purpose far greater than finish times and shiny medals. The purpose of the Canyon de Chelly Ultra, he said, is to create a sense of family and share Navajo culture through long-distance running. The race is held on the ancestral home of the Navajo in the middle of the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation territory that covers parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

“The No. 1 reason why I started this was to share the culture and the land that I live everyday, because I love my culture and my land so much,” Martin said. “It would be selfish of me to be the only one to experience it.”

PHOTOS: 2014 Canyon de Chelly Ultra Marathon

After the inaugural 2013 event, word spread quickly of the profound purpose this race embodied. The ultrarunning community responded vigorously to Shaun’s mission, resulting in the 2014 event selling out in 57 minutes the morning race entries became available online through UltraSignup.com last winter.

In the Navajo culture, running is about pushing yourself physically and mentally to find out more about what lives inside you, Martin said. Running is prayer, a form of moving meditation, and an avenue to give back to the earth that gives us so much. It is a way to celebrate life. This deep connection with journey and purpose is perhaps the most pivotal reason why so many runners align themselves with the greater message of this event.

“Ultrarunners want to run somewhere with meaning. They are looking to find something somewhere, spiritually, mentally, or physically. The thing they are looking for is themselves, their inner soul,” said 62-year-old Allen Martin, Shaun’s father and Navajo Elder. “We give these runners a bit of our culture, a bit of ourselves. Then they take that small piece out into the world and share it with others and it spreads. This race is about family.”

Family is precisely what runners felt as they sat in camaraderie around a blazing camp fire listening to stories Shaun Martin told of running with wild horses as tears welled up in his eyes.

“I think it’s beautiful—people’s interest in Navajo culture and our philosophy with distance running. They are compelled to come here and experience our culture and support our message,” he said about the runners who had answered his call and made the journey to participate in the event.

“The sense of community here is beautiful,” he added with a smile. “I hope events like this can catch on globally and people can do good things in their own communities, revitalizing cultures around the world.”

First-place finisher Matias Saari (4:10:00) made the journey all the way from his home in Anchorage, Alaska. When asked what inspired him to come all the way down to Arizona to participate in this event, Saari said, it was about “combining the cultural experience with supporting and empowering kids on the reservation to run, mixed with a pre-race prayer and traditional Navajo blessing. You don’t see this at most ultras. I knew I had to come.” [Click here for results of the 2014 Canyon de Chelly.]

This is the one day throughout the entire year non-Navajo people are allowed in the canyon without a guide. Held in a sacred place in the Navajo culture, the Canyon de Chelly Ultra allows runners to step foot onto sacred parts of the land most people will never see. Saari’s partner, Christie Haupert, who was the first female finisher (5:26:00), was also deeply moved by the pre-race ceremony and the event.

“I got really emotional. It was so inspiring,” she said. “I’ve never been to a race where I felt the event was so much more than just a run. For anyone to come and run Canyon de Chelly would be opening yourself up to this whole other experience of running.”

Colorado runner Joe Grant, who was just four weeks off of his finish at the 205-mile Tour de Geants in Italy, also made it to the Navajo reservation. “What Sean is doing is amazing. Inspiring the youth to get out there and run is simply amazing,” Grant said after finishing fourth overall.

After all the costs of the race are covered, Martin gives all of the remaining money to the elementary, middle, and high school running teams in Chinle. He also sponsors native runners across the reservation, covering race entry fees, textbooks, and travel costs allowing Navajo runners to run races outside the Navajo reservation. That comes in contrast to the backdrop of many modern-day problems facing the Navajo people, including high unemployment, drug abuse and numerous health problems.

Also worth noting, Shaun and his family create hand-crafted turquoise necklaces for every finisher, while traditional Navajo blankets, moccasins, and jewelry given to the top finishers. (Martin and his runners were featured in the documentary called “Racing the Rez” in 2012.)

The Canyon de Chelly Ultra Marathon celebrates life and the beauty of distance running in an unforgettable way that leaves runners with enough stories and motivation to feed generations to come. This event not only helps revitalize the Navajo culture, but also grows it by welcoming each and every runner as part of the Navajo family.

As Shaun Martin breathed out a sigh of grandiose gratitude the day after the race he summed everything up by saying, “Everyone at this race is my relative and my family because we are all here for the same purpose.”

Registration for the 2015 Canyon de Chelly Ultra Marathon opens on Feb. 1, 2015.