Craig Curley placed fifth in the recent U.S. 25K Championships in Grand Rapids, Mich.

When Craig Curley runs, he feels the ferocity of a wild horse burning inside of him.

That’s not a hollow cliché conjured up to reflect his dramatic development as a marathon runner, but instead the living embodiment of his Navajo heritage.

The 24-year-old native of tiny Kinlichee, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation, used those motivations to fuel him all the way to the starting line of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston. Despite not having the credentials of any other runner in the field and having never run a full marathon, Curley has never been one to shy away from hard work or back away from a challenge.

Growing up as the youngest of five, he would wake at 5:30 every morning to do his chores on the family farm. There were often as many as 140 sheep to tend to, plus he had to feed the horses, chickens, cats and dogs. Curley was driving a tractor by the age of 10.

“We had solar panels for electricity and a wood stove for heat, but any water we needed for the house we had to haul in,” Curley says. “I think that’s where I get my toughness,” Curley says. “I realized early on that I had to rely on myself and develop myself physically and psychologically. If I couldn’t do something on my own, I knew I had to figure out a way to get it done.”

In the culture of the Navajo Nation, elders and your extended family — cousins, aunts and uncles — are very important, which is why Curley would often spend part of his mornings helping out his grandfather with his animals.

“He 88 years old and still riding a horse,” Curley says. “He taught me how to work really hard. I remember that when you went to shake hands with him, his hands were calloused. When I run, I want to work so hard that my feet are like that. I want to live up to his standard.”

When he started running as a freshman at St. Michael’s High School — a college-preparatory school rooted in Catholic values yet sensitive to Navajo heritage —Curley didn’t own a pair of racing flats until a teammate gave him a pair he’d outgrown. His hard work, spartan lifestyle and raw talent helped him win the Arizona state 1A championship in cross-country, the first championship ever for a boy from his school.

Major college coaches didn’t come calling, so he enrolled at Pima Community College, where Greg Wenneborg, was in his second year as head coach.

“I could tell he was talented right away,” Wenneborg remembers. “He was always leading the way in our workouts, but I spent a lot of time just trying to hold him back and teach him patience.”

Partially because of a lingering pre-race injury, Curley finished next-to-last in the U.S. Olympic Trials in a disappointing 2:39, but he learned a lot and earned street cred by not quitting.

“I learned to control my emotions, and I learned that it’s scary when you’re injured,” he says. “I think I became a man that day.”

Curley, who now typically runs 100 miles per week, has learned plenty under Wenneborg. When the coach sat him down prior to last October’s Columbus Marathon, Curley’s second attempt at 26.2 miles, they didn’t talk time and or pace, just about how to temper his competitiveness with patience.

Even though Curley’s seed-time relegated him to a starting spot behind the elite runners, he followed his coach’s advice and wound up winning in 2:19:03. He’s since added several other top-10 finishes in national-level races, including a fifth-place finish at the U.S. 25K championships (1:16:14) on May 11 in Grand Rapids, Mich. He’s planning to run the U.S. half-marathon championships on June 22 at the Garry Bjorklund Half-Marathon in Duluth, Minn., and then will run his next marathon on Oct. 6 at the U.S. marathon championships held in conjunction with the Twin Cities Marathon.

“Sometimes I find my mind filled with concerns about the kids like me back home,” he admits. “That makes it tough to relax, but at the same time caring that much pushes me during every training run. On the lands of the Navajo Nation there are wild horses and that’s how I see myself in today’s society — running free trying to make a life for myself while also being able to return home.”