Canyon De Chelly 55k a race and place like no other

Our Canyon de Chelly adventure began Thursday morning. I received an email from race director that there had been cancelations and we got in if we wanted to come. The opportunity to spend time with the Navajo and be welcomed on their land and introduced to their culture was irresistible. Everything seemed to work out just right and we headed out that evening. As we entered the Navajo reservation, memories of my young childhood flooded in. The years we lived in Arizona, and specifically, the few years we lived in Ft Duchesne Utah on the Nothern Ute Indian reservation came to life. Memories of bitter cold winters (our neighbir's dog froze to death), mutant sized mosquitos in summer, pow wows, and our house which sat in a big ring of homes with a central pavillion. My dad was area director for the Bureau Of Indian Affairs stationed there. I am Cherokee, but with light skin and hair, I definitely did not fit in, not to mention dad's job didnt earn me any bonus points. I distinctly remember one day peddling my tricycle as fast as I could, fleeing a group of older girls that were chasing me. They were teasing me and telling me they were going to kidnap me and I would never see my parents again. I had friends too though, Tana Sixkiller, loyal and loveable. We explored and played endlessly. Her dad a very large Indian man and very kind, always made me feel welcome. I always wondered how they got their last name but was afraid to ask. Getting out of the car in Chinle, AZ, all of those feelings, the scents, the sounds, ignited something in me. I felt like I was 5 years old again.
We arrived at Canyon de Chelly Friday eve, just in time for the pre race gathering. The meeting was held at the campsite pavillion. We got out of the van and stretched our legs, achy from being crampe! for so long. We had about 30 min before the meeting would start. I spotted a trail and felt compelled to check it out, and even sneek in a little run. I took off in the evening sun. I felt everything, my senses were alive. The smells, the cool air, setting sun, shrubs, grass, it was overwhelming and familiar. I came back and we sat down to listen. The race director, Shaun Martin introduced himself saying "Ya' at' eeh". The Navajo greeting, which meens "good". "It is good, It is good we are here, together". He introduced himself in Navajo, identifying his lineage in his traditional way. He talked about the canyon, his people, and their running traditions. He showed us the gifts that were hand made by his family and himself for the runners. Every runner would receive a turquoise necklace he personally made. He introduced his father-in-law who talked to us more about the Navajo ways. His humor was infectious. We were blessed to be there and experience Shaun's family. We went back to our hotel and stuffed ourselves and went to bed, road weary, but very happy.
Saturday morning came early and I got the evil eye from Todd for getting up earlier than necessary....uhh..WAY earlier. We made our way to the start and gathered by the bon fire. I drank coffee and was treated to blue corn mush...yummy, and a great pre run fuel. As the sun started to rise we faced the East, and Shaun's father-In-law prayed and sang. Shaun's father then also prayed a blessing and thanks. he placed cedar on hot coals and we were blessed with the smoke. We moved to the start line. No firing of a gun, he would let out a yell..letting us and the canyon know we are coming, and it is good. Before the race, he told us that it was good to yell as we ran. It cleanses the soul, gets the junk out, so to speak, and allows cleansing air in. it cleanses the soul and shows gratitude to mother earth and father sun/sky. He told us the canyon mouth would welcome us in and fold in around us. He told us to notice how the earth moves up and down and the sky meets and they interlock, like fingers, joining and holding us.
We took off into the mouth of the canyon. I was introduced to sand running...hehehe. The canyon floor was very sandy. They had received much rain, so there was a fair amount of mud and shallow stream crossings as well. I didnt have as much spunk as I'd hoped, and my legs were heavy from the start. I didn't really care though. We all let out yells from time to time. I looked up and saw pueblo apartments to my left in the canyon wall. I looked up to the right at the canyon ledge way above me. I saw people cheering us from high above. "Ahhyeeee!" I yelled. and they returned the greeting. it felt great to let out yells from time to time when I'd start to feel tired. With fresh clean air returned it would lighten me and give me a boost. I felt grateful and like the canyon was acknowledging me in return. I felt that by yelling, I was showing her respect, and in return I felt her smile.
Im not fully recovered from my IT issues that plagued me at Leadville. I was slowly recovering, actively, and able to run easy shorter distances and even a 25k race, which went very well with no pain. However, after pacing 20 miles at Arkansas Traveller, I noticed a little setback. it was mild and would have responded appropriately to what I was doing, but the sudden change in schedule, 15 hrs folded up in the car, and a 34 mile race was alot to ask, and I knew would likely set me back a bit. I was disappointed to start feeling some sharp shooting pains in that R hip and a little hamstring twinges. By 10 miles that lateral knee pain said "hello, remember me?" I was stIll moving well at this point. The canyon was amazing! I will post many many picures. it was around 32-35 degrees. The air crsip. The sun suddenly came over the canyon wall and was shocking at first. The walls were bright orange. I imagined the Navajo fleeing through these canyons, escaping US troop invasion and massacres, traveling by night. I was reading Blood and Thunder, a book by Hampton Sides. It is an account the invasion of the Western territories and the decades long battle between the US and Navajos.
I follow the scent of falling rain
And head for the place where it is darkest
I follow the lightning
And draw near to the place where it strikes
- Navajo Chant
The canyon walls had enveloped us and I remembered what Shaun’s dad told us, he said, “Watch the earth and the canyons, moving up and down, and the sky meeting it, joining together like interlocking fingers, carrying you through”. The wind rustled through the cottonwoods. At about 16 miles we hit the only climb of the course. It’s a 1200 foot vertical climb over 1 mile to the top of the canyon. This gave my knee a much needed break. Now the work would be with hands and feet! Scrambling, climbing, heart pounding, breathing hard straight up sandy boulders and rock shelfs that loomed at some points over a 500-1000ft drop to the canyon floor. Above, we could hear Shaun and the aid station volunteers at the top cheering us on, likely amused at watching us all scramble and climb. The canyon seemed amused and pleased by the company as well. such a lighthearted adventure. She had seen so much sorrow and bloodshed over the years.
we made it to the top and were greated by volunteers, mostly Navajo middle schoolers Shaun taught and coached, eager to help fill our packs. They offered refreshments and encouragement. Now came the fun part...decending. I chuckled...and took a deep nervous breath. The sandy boulders, shelves, loose rock and very narrow trail. I thought.."be like a mountain goat". I looked and felt much more like a 3 toed sloth. The knee woke back up and sent occasional sharp shooting jabs when id land just right. I remained cautious and slow. I was grateful to get back to flatter ground. My running slowed significantly, my knee humming pretty good. Around mile 20 I started to whine a little, I walked a little, but that actually hurt more...the IT band would stiffen. I became very focused on my pain and fatigue, ignoring everthing else, wondering what was wrong, starting to wonder if I might quit. I finally realized I was bonking...I needed calories and water. Duh. Funny how I never recognize it as its happening. I took in what I needed annd by mile 24 I felt more energy and less whiney. I felt a cool breeze, the canyon whispered, "It's alright, come on now..I'll take care of you". I gave her more effort and she smiled and I yelled, "Ahhhhyeeee!"
At mile 26 aid station I drank a cola and topped off the water in my pack. I knew stopping and trying to start again would be excruciating so I was hoping to get all I needed and cruize through the next aid station without coming to a complete stop. Starting again was very painful, I limped my way into an eventual run. Once I got going the knee would settle back down into a low hum, punctuated every once in a while with a sharp twinge. The cola perked me up more and I got outside myself again and tried to take in everything the canyon was showing me. I wanted to respect her by noticing everything. I also knew this would help me run better. I got passed by 3 girls.."awe snap"...oh well. I got to the next aid station I was intending on passing up, but I really wanted some cola, so I stopped. getting out of there was again a limpy painful start working itself back into a run. "ahhhhhyeeee!" I filled my lungs with fresh air and drew energy. I knew my time was almost over so I tried to savor everything..except the mud...I wasnt much savorung the mud and deep sand ;)
The finish was in sight. I came through and Shaun thanked me and put his hand beaded necklace around my neck. I thanked him and gingerly worked my way over to the mutton stew and fry bread that awaited. Before long Todd came through and we shared our stories and booboos over fry bread. We cheered other runners in. We watched an amazing couple, wife 65, husband 75, finish their race. I hope someday that is us. We watched the youngest, 22 get her award from her mentor and former track coach Shaun. After the awards ceremony, as we got ready to leave a young navajo boy's mother or grandmother approached me and asked if she could get a picure of her son with me. She said, "Someday he wants to be a runner like you guys". I was honored and humbled. And so our adventure ended and we said goodbye to Chinle, and Canyon de Chelly.

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Comment by Karen Blackert on October 15, 2013 at 12:33pm

Wow. You are a fantastic writer, Lori! Sorry to hear about your IT band troubles (I've been there, too) but glad you had the chance to run such an amazing race. I haven't looked at any of your pictures yet, but from your post, I can already imagine them!

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