Toward the Rising Sun
Shaun Martin keeps running tradition alive in the Navajo Nation
Photo by Chris Hunter
The Arizona wind swirls dust around us and the trail-side bushes quiver with sleepy snakes just waking up for spring. Trailing our Navajo guide and friend, Shaun Martin, Jeremy Duncan, Chris Hunter and I descend a steep, sandy singletrack into Canyon de Chelly, part of the Canyon de Chelly National Monument just outside of Chinle.
Shaun stands six feet tall, with the wiry-strong build of an endurance runner. His steps appear effortless. Hardly missing stride, he kicks small rocks out of his path and occasionally retraces his steps to cover snake tracks with one even swoosh of his right foot; leaving snake tracks untouched is a bad omen in Navajo culture. Shaun stops occasionally, gazing into the canyon's depths as though seeing the towering rock walls for the first time. He explains the history of this ancient path, of the Navajo people who fled down these same trails 146 years ago when the United States Army raided their homes and forced them on The Long Walk. He points to the canyon's cliffs and caves, places Navajos hid to escape the attack.
"The army tried to drive them out," says Shaun. "But many outsmarted them. They hunted at night. They moved quietly."
Shaun's shaggy hair is held back with a worn-out Harley Davidson bandana—the same one he was wearing when I first met him two years ago. He has run in it for eight years, the original vibrant orange faded to dull brown. He is handsome, with olive skin and square features. At 29, his face reveals the shallow lines around his eyes and mouth of someone who has spent his life on these trails, trails few outside the Navajo tribe have ever seen and will likely never run. No one is allowed in this canyon without a guide, and we are fortunate that Shaun has agreed to share these trails, sacred to the Navajo people.
Shaun runs these and other unmarked trails around his home in Chinle nearly every day as preparation for one of the trail ultramarathons he enters—and likely wins—each year. But his passion and commitment to running goes beyond competing in trail races, beyond the numerous state titles the high-school cross-country team he coaches has won in the past few years. It goes beyond a successful Division I college running career. It goes deep into Navajo culture, into ancient tradition. For Navajos, running is a teacher, a form of prayer and a celebration of life.
In an age where indigenous cultures are diminishing into a homogeneous mix of modern society, Shaun works tirelessly to keep Navajo running traditions alive. He is the program director for Wings of America, a Native American youth-development program that uses running to help better the lives of American Indian and Alaskan Native youth.
"Everything I have in this world, I got from running," says Shaun. "By coaching Chinle kids to be distance runners, I am can help them realize their dreams, their potential, give them opportunities they may have never had."
Chinle High School Principle Doug Claschee says, "We have 1200 kids in this school and I sometimes see a lack of respect for our culture, but Shaun not only coaches his team, he transforms them into exceptional people," he says. "Shaun is a role model and that has brought our school together."
Here on the rez, life is hard. Evidence of poverty and hardship is everywhere. Driving though Chinle, we pass starving stray dogs, livestock dead on the side of the road, homes that are little more than four crumbling walls with a wind-tattered tarp for a roof. Few teens have a chance for success, inhibited by gangs, suicide, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and high unemployment rates.
Even eating healthy meals here is a challenge and many Navajo youth are obese. "Everything on the rez is pre-packaged and processed," says Shaun. After being trucked around the state, produce on the grocery store shelves is usually rotting within a couple of days. "We drive two to three hours every other week to Flagstaff just so we can buy healthy food."
With few paved streets—aside from the main artery of Interstate 191, which slices through Navajo Nation—most running here is off road along historic Navajo trails. In fact, even during track season, says Shaun, "We do most of our runs on the trails. We hardly ever step foot on the track, because traditionally, we didn't run around an oval."
Each morning, Navajos run east toward the rising sun, a tradition passed down from the oldest generations, says Shaun. Running at dawn represents new birth. Though few Navajos still have permanent homes in them, traditionally, families lived in a "female hogan," a circular living structure made of wood and packed mud, (male hogans are built with a vestibule and used only for ceremonies), and the door, which always faces east, was left open during the morning run to bless their home for the new day.
Spirits and deities are out in the morning, celebrating the birth of a new day, and so to be out running at this time, says Shaun, "shows Mother Earth and Father Sky what kind of a person you are, that shows you are working to be a stronger person, so when you reach times of struggle, they will be there to help you."
Beyond prayer, running is a teacher. "It teaches you to endure, to deal with pain and struggle," he says. "It is a celebration of life and a healing process." In fact, running is central to both female and male coming-of-age ceremonies. The Puberty Ceremony (girls) and the Voice Changing Ceremony (boys) involve running farther each day of the ceremony as a way to grow and develop as a young adult.
"I think about these teachings a lot when I'm running," says Shaun. "And I have taught my high school team you don't run to win a race—you run to improve yourself."
Using these building blocks, Shaun has created one of the most successful high-school distance-running programs in the country. He started coaching the boys' team in 2004 and the girls' in 2006. He took a group of young men, who could hardly run three miles—let alone race that distance—and, in 2010, turned them into state champions. Even outside of their high school's division, the Chinle High School boys' cross-country team was ranked higher than any other school in the state. The girls were runners up for the state title in their division.
Says Rolanda Jumbo, 17, a junior who, this year, has been ranked fourth in the country in the mile and second in the two-mile says, "Shaun is my hero. He not only made me a good athlete; he made me a better individual. Running is my most precious possession and Shaun made me believe anything is possible."
In 2010, Shaun was named the National Federation of High School Sports Cross Country Western Coach of the Year. But to Shaun, the award itself held little meaning compared to the joy he experienced watching his team succeed and grow.
Word of his accomplishment trickled down through his current and past team members, who planned a surprise banquet in his honor at the high school cafeteria. "Every one of them got up on stage, and explained how running had affected their lives and made them better people," says Shaun, who comes to tears recounting the event. "To me, state titles and state champions are great, but the kids' appreciation of a deeper significance meant much more."
Shaun, Jeremy, Chris and I retrace our steps out of the canyon, ascending some 1400 vertical feet in little more than a mile, to stand on the rim. Shaun appears relaxed, reflective. Then he lets out a cry, he says, to let the spirit people know he is active and striving for a balanced life. His voice echoes through the rocky corridor, as though giving the landscape thanks.
After the run, we sit in Shaun's living room with his family, spooning mouthfuls of mutton stew and fry-bread, a Navajo staple. Shaun's dad, Allen Martin, recounts stories of his own school-boy "ultras"—when he and his friends would run away from boarding school just so they could be outside. "Navajos strive to be one with nature, with the heavens, the ground, the plants and living creatures, to respect them," he says. "Back in school, I wanted to be out in that environment and was pulled by the natural forces. So we ran."
Once, he and his friends ran 100 miles in three days, mostly at night, from just east of Flagstaff, Arizona, to his grandparents' homestead in The Gap. He digs deep into those memories, a distant look settling in across his face as he remembers the desert landscape they traversed, the empty hogans where they found day-time shelter and rest before running through the next night.
We all laugh about his runs, how he was running ultras when Western States was still a horse race. And then Shaun's face grows serious. "I want to run that route someday, Dad," he says. "I want to follow in your footsteps." His father nods proudly.
"When I think of the milestones in our lives, they have always involved running," says Melissa, Shaun's wife and mother of their two young children. "When Shaun comes back from a race or run, he's always a better person, a better father. He does all his problem solving out there."
Shaun cannot remember when he and his brothers started running traditionally— each morning toward the rising sun—but says they must have been close to his son Maverick's age of two and a half. In elementary school Shaun was introduced to competitive running by his coach Mark Lomeland, who mentored Martin all the way through high school. It was Lomeland who inspired Shaun to become a coach.
After high school, Shaun attended Northern Arizona University on a full running scholarship. But Division I athletics felt different. "In college, everything was based on winning or losing. There was no other objective but to become faster," he says. "We [my team] got good at that. But when college was over, I was burned out."
Then, after almost a year of little running, Shaun remembers heading out the door and just running, and running and running. "I didn't have a watch," he says. "I didn't have any idea how far out I was. I must have run at least 15 miles one way. I came back three and a half hours later feeling great. I realized that I just had to fall in love with running again." Shaun started running farther each day and fell into ultrarunning by default.
In fall of 2008, his brother Theo, a 2000 Olympic Marathon Trails Qualifier with a 2:16, accompanied him on a 40-mile traverse of the Paria River Canyon, a stunning slot canyon on the Arizona-Utah border. While Theo hit the wall at mile 30, Shaun remembers settling into a steady stride. "By the time we finished, Theo was wrapped up in a blanket, puking, and I just wanted to run more."
Trail ultramarathons opened up a whole new world of possibilities. "I didn't want to train," he says. "I just wanted to run. I still just want to run, so I started doing these 20- or 30-mile trail runs to explore the canyons around here. I decided I should test myself and entered the Red Mountain 50K." Shaun not only ran the 2008 inaugural race in Ivins, Utah, he crushed the field, finishing 10 minutes ahead of second place and setting a blistering course record of 3:20, a record no one has come close to.
The next morning, at dawn, Shaun drives us a few miles outside of town for a morning run, with expansive views of the Chinle valley. En route, he plays traditional Navajo prayer songs on his iPod. "This is what I listen to before my morning runs," he says. The songs are peaceful, rhythmic, symmetric, even drones of prayer, each repeated four times—once to the north, the south, the east and the west. It almost sounds like steps, a beat and prayer you could run to. Shaun pulls off the highway and slows the truck to a crawl. He cranes out the window searching for the trail, a snaking slice of singletrack that winds up onto a rocky ridge and dips into a sage flat on the other side.
We begin our ascent, Shaun effortlessly gliding up the steep embankment as I falter and slip on the sandy earth. Every now and then we lose the trail, but he traverses the field easily and we pick it up again. His steps are small, precise, his body leaning slightly forward. We stop and gaze into the valley, as Shaun points out landmarks. "Like the sacred Navajo symbol of a circle, a person must be whole, balanced," he says. "There is a positive and a negative to everything. When negative events happen, you have to find the positive in them so you can keep moving forward. A lot of people focus on the physical side of running. After that, they focus on the mental. But Navajos, we focus on the spiritual." We turn toward the valley and stride along in silence.
This article originally appeared in our August 2011 issue.