The day was perfect. We moved through cool high desert air, the sun peaking out behind the canyon walls turning everything bright red, the gentle breeze blowing through the leaves as ancient spirits guiding our way. We were traversing sacred land like the Navajo ancestors had done many generations ago…on foot, under our own power, feeling the connection with Mother Earth and Father Sky. This was a one of a kind opportunity, to run in Canyon de Chelly.
I want to say a huge thank you to Shaun Martin and his family for putting on a fantastic event, and for allowing me and other runners to join in this incredible journey. What an experience. Was it easy? No. Did it hurt? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely.
Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de Shay) is in the heart of Navajo country, in the north eastern corner of Arizona, strategically placed in the middle of nowhere. I drove 300 miles from my dad’s house to join friends, natives, and runners from around the world to celebrate the history of the Najavo people and the tradition of running as humans.
I arrived a few minutes after Maria Walton and Nick Barraza who had already scoped out a campsite for us. We unpacked gear while Guadajuko (Maria’s dog) and Sol (Nick’s dog) ran in circles sniffing everything and romping around playing. As soon as we were set up we walked over to the amphitheater for the pre-race meeting and introductions.
Shaun Martin introduced himself and his family and gave us the history of the Canyon de Chelly Ultra. Shaun was running through the canyons one afternoon when he came upon a herd of wild horses. As he approached they started running ahead of him. There was a young colt and the herd slowed to the pace of the stumbling colt. Then, as Shaun approached, the herd opened and allowed him into the middle. He ran with the herd all the way to the canyon mouth where the horses abruptly stopped. As Shaun ran out of the canyon he looked back to see the stallion staring at him, inviting us all into the canyon to run with the Navajo ancestors and celebrate their traditions.
The proceeds from the race support the local running culture through youth programs, the cross country team, travel expenses, gear, and anything that the kids need. Shaun is helping keep the Navajo running culture alive, and by participating in the ultra, we were helping with his efforts.
Canyon de Chelly Ultra
Race morning I woke early with the chill of the high desert air begging me to stay in my sleeping bag. I donned my running clothes and layered everything else over them. We made breakfast, tea, and packed camp to drive to the starting line.
The start/finish area was buzzing. Runners were circled around the fire to stay warm. Shaun’s father-in-law offered a traditional Navajo prayer, facing east as the sun rose over the horizon, asking Father Sky and Mother Earth for their blessings. Shaun’s father then blessed the group by sprinkling cedar on the fire and using eagle feathers to fan the smoke over the runners’ bodies. We each took a moment to let the cedar bless us and our journey.
The mass of runners migrated from the warm fire to the cool sand in the river wash. Shaun explained that the Navajo tradition is to yell out to the canyon in advance of their presence to be welcomed in. So, to start the race, we all yelled. No starting gun, no horn, just 150 runners yelling and heading into the canyon. We were also encouraged to yell anytime we felt like it during the run, and spectators and volunteers would be doing the same. It was an amazing experience to be running through the sacred canyon with yells from runners and friends reverberating off the walls all around us.
The race elevation profile was relatively flat (relatively), but what can’t be shown on the elevation profile were the miles of soft sand that we had to run through. I had been running along the beach in Santa Barbara, but obviously not enough. Within the first mile my legs were tired and heavy. This was going to be hard.
I ran with James Moore for the first part of the race. The last time I saw James we were both sitting in the rain in Ohio, totally destroyed (at least I was), having both just finished our first 100 mile race. In that race James took of fast and I tried to keep up, running close to 10 minute miles with 90 miles to go. Canyon de Chelly was similar, James pushing ahead, me trying to keep up until I let him speed away.
I ran through the winding canyons as the walls grew taller. The sun continued to rise, illuminating the canyon floor and bringing everything to life. The breeze whispered through the trees as ancient spirits of the natives watched me run through their sacred land. The first aid station was busy as it was the only public access to the canyon floor. Entrance to the canyon is only permitted with a Navajo guide and running in this special place was an incredible honor.
The trail wound around pastures, fences, and buildings. Canyon de Chelly National Monument is unique in that it is a national monument that is owned by the Navajo Nation and 40 Navajo families still live within the park boundaries. Canyon de Chelly is one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes in North America, dating back some 5,000 years.
Once past the first aid station we ran deeper into the Canyon and started crossing streams. The first few sections were easy to rock hop across and end up with dry feet on the other side. Eventually the streams were wider and it turned into splish-splash heavy, wet shoes.
We passed ancient cliff dwellings, native petroglyphs, and wild horses roaming the land. Rounding a corner Spider Rock came into view, a sandstone spire that towers 750 feet above the canyon floor. Spider Rock is the home of “Spider Woman”, a deity with supernatural powers who taught the Navajo how to weave and saved them from monsters in the ancient times. From Spider Rock we turned south and climbed out of the canyon to the half way turn around point.
The climb was not easy. It was rocky and technical. I stopped to catch my breath a few times and even had to sit down as my toes started to cramp. Soon Nick’s dog Sol came into view. She was standing at a corner looking at me. “Hey Sol!” I called out and she took off running up the trail, but only far enough to still see me where she stopped and waited again. This continued several more times as Sol ran me to the top to see Nick, Shaun, and the volunteers at the aid station. I ate a bunch of food, drank a whole Coca-Cola, and headed back down the trail with a Snickers bar in my pocket.
The descent was just as hard as the climb! The trail was so rocky that I could never really let loose. My legs were already shot and sore from slipping through the sand on the way out and navigating the loose rocks on the climb took a lot of focus. I saw all of my friends on the way down too, passing and giving them a big cheer and yell each time.
Eventually the trail flattened out near the canyon floor. I was zoning out for a minute when a rock jumped up out of nowhere and I kicked it. I do this pretty often, but most of the time I catch myself. Not this time. I teetered forward, tried to get my other leg under me, but I fell fast like a broken weeble wobble. I was going face first, but somehow turned to the side and slammed down on my shoulder. I had just passed another runner and a lady was following me, they both stopped dead in their tracks as the dust cleared. A little embarrassed I laughed and said “I’m good, I think I’ll just lay here for a bit!” Once I was up and they were sure I wasn’t hurt I let the other runner pass and said “I think I’ll let you lead now.” Disaster averted.
Coming out of the canyon we passed all the same creek crossings and the soft sand river wash. The day was warm but the canyon offered ample shade. I pushed on to the middle aid station and then to the final aid station before the finish. I knew I was on a pretty good pace for myself. I downed a ginger ale at the final stop, ate some peanut butter sandwiches, and took off for the 5 mile run home (home is sometimes used rhetorically, but I actually mean home…my car was parked at the finish line, and I live in my car).
I neared the mouth of the canyon and the walls shrunk and the wash widened. The canyon floor turned into soft sand and I searched for hard packed dirt to no avail. I tried to focus on my feet, running lightly, just barely touching the ground before pulling back up to hit the next section of soft, sandy terrain. As we left the canyon we also lost the shade and the sun scorched down on us. Tourists were flowing through the canyon floor in Navajo jeeps and SUV’s and I tried to follow by running in the fresh packed tracks from the 4×4 tires.
I finally rounded a corner to see the finish line ahead. It wasn’t much of a sprint to the end. It was more of an all out focus to try to keep my stride looking cool for pictures, and to not fall down in the soft sand. I crossed the finish line of the 34 mile race in 5 hours and 52 minutes in 26th place, probably my fastest 50K-ish distance run ever! Shaun was there to greet me and put a handmade turquoise necklace around my neck as my finisher’s award. I hugged him and thanked him again for the incredible opportunity he gave all of us in the race.
The day continued and the rest of my friends made their way to the finish line. We sat in the sand, refueled on homemade food and sodas, and cheered for the runners completing the course. The last runner finished just after 6:00 PM and the remaining people huddled around the still burning campfire for a traditional Navajo prayer and blessing from Shaun’s dad. He sprinkled more cedar on the fire and blessed the final runner as we all wafted cedar smoke over our bodies. It was the closing celebration of the Navajo tradition, the beauty of Canyon de Chelly, and the sanctity of running.
It was the close of another great weekend. Many of us parted ways; several of us drove back to Flagstaff to Nick’s place for showers and to have a dirtbag campout in his living room. The next day I drove with Pat Sweeney back to California, back to Santa Barbara, and back to work on Monday. I had another incredible week living and working remote in Arizona and I’m thankful for my family, my running friends, and Shaun Martin for offering such an amazing experience.
Really enjoyed the article. Have been to Canyon de chellly. You can see why I have done 30 canyon backpacks. I love the canyons. Keep running and keep on writing.
Chris I too ran the Ultra 55k in Canyon de Chelly in 2014 and many times I have read your article “Running with the Spirits of the Navajo Canyon de Chelly Ultra. I have been wanting to write a small book about the Navajo and their running traditions along with Shaun Martin and his great effort to promote the Ultra. I spent two years living in a 75 year old Hogan near Window Rock way back in the mid 1960s and love the Dine Culture and would like to pay it back by writing a small book and would love to use your GREAT Informative article could I have your permission? Thanks You
That sound great John! Feel free to use anything you want and if you need more information contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.