As my nine week summer vagabond around the country came to an end I had the option to drive back to Santa Barbara on Saturday and spend Sunday at the beach, or stay in the Arizona high desert for a tough 50K on Saturday, drive home on Sunday, and head back to the office on Monday. The previous week’s Javelina Jangover 50K kicked my butt and left me limping most of the week, so the obvious decision was to skip the race and let my body heal…yeah right! I stayed in Arizona and drug my body through another 31 magnificent miles on the Northern Arizona Hopi Reservation.
The Paatuwaqatsi Run in Polacca, Arizona is a public event held on the Hopi’s First Mesa to celebrate the sanctity of water. Participants choose from a 4 mile run, 10 mile loop, or 30 mile ultra-run, none of them actually a “race” as we were all running together to commemorate the life giving powers of water.
I signed up for the 50K and Friday afternoon Maria Walton and Guadajuko (the ghost dog of the Copper Canyons) met me in Presoctt to caravan to Polacca. We arrived shortly after 6:00 PM for the pre-run meeting and a delicious spaghetti dinner. I spent time with runner friends from the Phoenix area as well as some Born to Run friends. After the dinner everyone drove a few miles to an open desert field and set up camp for the night. Before falling asleep I looked up, in awe at the millions of stars shining against the pitch black desert night sky. Now this was really living.
In the morning everyone started moving around camp and putting together their running gear. I filled my pack, laced up my shoes, and joined everyone at the starting line. The previous week’s 50K had been a killer, so my goal was simple…just finish.
Paatuwaqatsi Run Race Report
The final directions were given, “ultra runners, leave the starting line, take a left, follow the markings…” and then GO! The group of runners kicked up dust as we took off through the sand and promptly turned right. Immediately we heard a car following close behind with the horn blasting, someone yelled “Go the other way!” The entire mass of runners did an about face and stumbled across the trail with the faster paced runners suddenly at the rear of the pack. Maria laughed and called out, “That was a Hopi Horn Blessing!” and we all settled into a group pace together.
I quickly found myself behind Michael Miller from Scottsdale, AZ. The previous week he had passed me in the first 2 miles and went on to get 7th place at the Javelina Jangover 50K. I was a little concerned to be so close to him in this run but felt comfortable with my performance. Benedict Dugger fell in beside me and we talked about the Grand Canyon, Born to Run, and life in general as we ran through sand, along small ridges, and across desert washes. Soon we circled back near the start line and headed straight for the tall rugged mesas that I knew we would climb.
We crossed the road and I followed Michael and Benedict as we started our ascent. The mesas were by no means mountains, but they were also not easy. There was no inclined ramp leading to the top (at least not on the event course) and it wasn’t a perfectly manicured staircase. It was raw trail that climbed the rocky walls of the mesa, eventually spitting us out on the flat top.
We ran along the first mesa in between simple stone homes built onto the side of cliffs with local residents chanting for us. The village had a stunning view of the vast Northern Arizona landscape being illuminated by the morning sun. We weaved through homes, turned sharply, received a water blessing from a Hopi woman, and then immediately dropped off the side of the cliff and back to the desert floor. We climbed up and over mesas several more times throughout the day, all quad burning ascents that offered spectacular panoramic views.
The trail traversed Hopi lands and we were treated to some beautiful vistas. Mesas stretching out into the horizon, rock walls lining the trail, and raw desert landscapes. Eventually Benedict took a pit stop for some intense indigestion and Michael sped off ahead of me. I was left alone…It was beautiful, peaceful, and painful. I was still sore from the previous week’s embarrassing 50K race and knew I needed music to get me through this one. I considered pulling my headphones out of my pack, until I remembered that I left my phone in the car. That was no problem, the day flew by as I listened to the sounds of the sacred lands and kept my thoughts focused on the incredible experience.
Throughout the day we heard the bellowing chants in Hopi from the locals, their baritone voices reverberating around us and off mesa walls across the valleys. It was mystical, like nothing I’d ever heard before. Each time we reached an aid station or water stop the local volunteers were incredibly helpful, supportive, and upbeat…some of the best volunteers I have ever met in an event. I entered each aid station smiling and left smiling even bigger. They were truly there to celebrate running, to honor water, and to share this journey with all of us.
Eventually we crested the last mesa. The course led a few miles across it, dropped down and then ran around the base and back to the finish line. I had my eyes on “Old Man” Michael Miller all day. Each time I saw him he was running uphill…which meant I had to run uphill too. He kept me pushing hard by staying just out of reach. On the top of the last mesa he pulled off to the side and let me pass. We ran together for awhile until I started down the mesa walls and let loose. We were 5 hours into the run and I was feeling good, about a million times better than the previous week’s 50K.
I followed a local runner, working hard to keep up with him on the climbs until he pulled over as well and I passed. I kept pushing along the trail, enjoying the air, the sand, the sun, and the spirits around me. My only real down moment came less than a mile from the finish.
I rounded a corner, knew that I was getting close, but saw the trail lead up and away from where I wanted to go. Then I started to freak out. Had I made a wrong turn? Did I miss the trail somewhere? Am I going to have to run around this whole mesa again? I turned around to ask the local runner or Michael, but they were nowhere to be seen. I waited a few minutes. Then decided I was forging ahead no matter what. I made a climb, the trail took a sharp turn, and the finish line was in sight.
I cruised in at 5 hours and 42 minutes as Don Meyer cheered “Elite runner coming through!” (He said that about everyone coming in, and he was right, anyone that completed the event is an elite runner!) I crossed the finish line and a young Hopi girl gave me Gatorade while an older Hopi woman gave me another water blessing. I spent the rest of the time eating a home cooked meal and watching other runners finish their run.
Michael Miller came in a few minutes behind me, followed by the local runner. I hugged the local runner and thanked him for sharing the day with me. Maria Walton also had a great run and at the end of the day we all went home with awards. I had finished 13th male and 15th overall. Both Michael and I received hand crafted Hopi water jugs. Maria finished 5th female and went home with a hand painted Hopi bowl.
It wasn’t a race, it wasn’t about the hype, the runners, the swag, or the finish, it was about the celebration of life, of water, and of running. At the finish line one speaker said “One day we will all leave this earth, but our footprints will stay” and it made me think about the kind of footprints I’m leaving in my life.
Later that afternoon Ghost Dog, Maria, and I headed back to Prescott to have dinner with my family. The next morning I packed everything that I own into my Honda Element and made the drive back to Santa Barbara, my nine week summer vagabond wrapped up, but still very real in the memories we made. I had an amazing summer with family and friends and the Water is Life event was the perfect way to bring it to a close.
Now its time to settle back into Santa Barbara, stay put for awhile, and live a normal life…yeah right. Stay tuned…
Official website for the Water Is Life run: Paatuwaqatsi Run