The “Why”

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When Shaun Martin talks about running, he first addresses the “why.” “We run first to celebrate life,” he says, “to celebrate all the things the great ancestors have blessed us with.” A Navajo trail runner, living in a tribal community in Chinle, Arizona, Martin is continuing a tradition of moving on foot that has existed for hundreds of years.

Martin is thin, has dark hair pulled into a multi-section ponytail and speaks with a soft voice that suggests comfort and acceptance of himself. He taught and coached cross country at the school on his reservation, bringing his team from mediocrity to state titles in a only few years, before becoming the school’s athletic director.

“For me, as an educator,” he says, “I always start with the ‘why.’ Why do we run, why do you need to learn this math concept, whatever the case may be.”

The “why” is what he feels is missing from much running media. He is happy to be featured in a new film that explores that concept—3,100: Run and Become. From Navajo to monks to San Bushmen hunters in Africa, the film explores the ways indigenous runners across the world integrate the miles they run into their culture and identity.

Martin sees in the film, “The diversity of runners worldwide and all the magnificent cultural beliefs in running. […] We all have those same feelings, the same connections to the natural things in the world and those spiritual things that we all feel when we’re running. Even if we’re not consciously seeking that, we find it in one way, shape or form.”

He feels that anyone watching the film could find a connection to the people featured, regardless of their own cultural background.

The film’s producers have made a special excerpt of 3100: Run and Become, exclusive for the Trail Runner audience. Watch it here. The film opens this weekend in the Pacific Northwest. For more information on the film and screenings, visit

Running—the First Technology

Martin is featured in the film talking about the Navajo and other Southwestern tribes’ running cultures. Before horses were introduced by European settlers, a relay of flexing tendons and quick feet would carry things hundreds of miles across land, including the sprawling Southwest. The entire U.S., including the Southwest was overlaid with a spiderwebbing network of messengers—native runners from different tribes who would run through what is now Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico, carrying messages and trade. Runners stationed 24-7 at messaging routes needed not only to be ready run 20 or 30 miles at a moment’s notice, but to recognize and converse in other languages, like Apache, Hopi or Ute.

Today, you can see evidence of this in Navajo art. “We incorporate a lot of shell,” Martin says. “That’s just archeological evidence that there were trading routes all the way to the Gulf Coast and the Pacific Coast.” A quick check on Google Maps reveals that the quickest route from Martin’s home in Chinle to any sort of coast is over 500 miles long.

Running was woven into other parts of Navajo life as well: hunting, coming of age, greeting a new day. Navajo were persistence hunters, who ran down deer until the deer were so exhausted they would simply lie down before them, a tradition that remained until 20 or 30 years ago.

Women Warriors

When Navajo girls and boys come of age, their “puberty ceremonies” integrate running as well. The boys’ lasts a day and a night, and they come out running, as a man.

Navajo is a matriarchal culture and the girl’s ceremony is longer and more trying—four days. The girl runs twice each day, once at the beginning and once at the end. “Each run must become successively longer and longer and longer,” Martin explains. “What that represents is her life way, her life path. We want her to live a long healthy life, and to do that she has to show the deities and the holy people, the creator, that she’s willing to put that effort forward to go further with every run, with every step.”

Every Navajo, old or young, male or female, would rise with the sun and run. “The distance doesn’t matter,” says Martin. “The time, the route … All that matters is we face east while we’re running. Somebody who might not be in very good shape may just go out and walk.” This is why, traditionally, Navajo homes, called Hogans, were built facing east so the family could rise and run toward the sun.

The “Why”

Martin’s “why” comes in three parts. He runs to celebrate life, to pray and to learn. “We believe everything is a person, everything is a being—meaning humans, but also the plant people, the animal people, water people, wind people, mountain people … right down to the smallest insect and the dirt you walk on. […] When we’re out running, the spiritual connection, the prayer side of that running, is connecting to those beings and speaking to them with our feet and our breath,” he says. “We view [running] as a mentor, as a teacher. Running itself is a person that can teach us to overcome obstacles in life and become better humans.”

Once he gets a few miles into the canyon, Martin says he clears his throat and lets out a loud whoop, to let the holy people know he is up and alive and greeting the day with red dust on his feet.

For more information on the film, visit

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