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Diversity Interviews Trail Running

SACRED SPACES: LEARNING THE LAND OF THE NAVAJO

EMBRACING THE LAND WE RECREATE ON WHILE PROTECTING OUR ELDERS AND THEIR STORIES

By Tiona Eversole

I begin to walk up the rough road on the edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains through the darkness. A few faint lights from the nearby town Alamosa, Colorado, are visible below in the vast San Luis Valley. I look down at my watch — the time is 3:23 a.m. I’m not typically this early of a riser, but I want to reach the summit of Sisnaajiní, or Blanca Peak, by sunrise. With a few friends by my side, I quicken the pace as the minutes move toward dawn.

Sacred Spaces: Dibé Nitsaa or Hesperus Peak 13er in the La Plata Mountains of Southwest Colorado near Sharkstooth trailhead
Summer views from the summit of Dibé Nitsaa, or Hesperus Peak. The author plans to return to this summit in a few weeks as long as the snow holds off. Photo by Matt Yeoman

THE FOUR SACRED MOUNTAINS

Sisnaajiní, also known as the Dawn or White Shell Mountain, is one of the four sacred mountains of the Diné, or Navajo people. This impressive, 14,345-foot mountain signifies the eastern boundary of Diné Bikéyah, the traditional homelands of the Navajo.

I have chosen to begin my journey across Diné Bikeyah with Sisnaajiní because of the reverence my people hold for the dawn, signifying the beginning of a new day. It was the first mountain created by the Diyin Dine’é, or Holy People. The Diyin Dine’é stir in the early hours of the dawn, which is why our hogans — traditional houses — are built with the door facing east. It is why I always try to start my morning runs heading east. 

I reach the summit of Sisnaajiní, and facing towards the sunrise, offer a prayer to the Diyin Dine’é with corn pollen from my medicine pouch. I am in a sacred space, so I tread lightly and do not overstay my welcome. The wind carries the chill of late September. We take each gust as a word of caution, and begin our retreat to the basin below.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I will travel across Diné Bikeyah to summit the three other sacred mountains, which include Tsoodził (Mount Taylor) to the south, Dook’oosłííd (San Francisco Peaks) to the west, and Dibé Nitsaa (Hesperus Peak) to the north. 

Tsoodził, also known as Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain, is next. This is the mountain that watched over me as I lived out my adolescent years in the tiny New Mexico town of Bluewater Village. Despite growing up a short distance away, I have never stood on the top of Tsoodził.

Next is Dook’oosłííd, or Abalone Shell Mountain, an area that I am unfamiliar with. I’ve traveled through Flagstaff, Arizona, but have not spent much time in these prominent peaks easily seen from town. I plan to summit Dook’oosłííd close to the same time as Tsoodził, as the snows of the coming winter will soon arrive (one storm already has this year), which could put my mission in jeopardy.

The fourth and final summit of Dibé Nitsaa, or Big Sheep Mountain, is the summit I’m most concerned about. In my current home of Durango, Colorado, Dibé Nitsaa is, debatably, the tallest peak in the La Plata Mountains at 13,232 feet (some argue that nearby Lavender Peak is slightly taller). This mountain is also known as the Jet Stone Mountain for the dark, heavy rain clouds that reside among the peak. This late in the season, snowfall has the potential to make this ascent tricky. Only time will tell.

Sacred Spaces: Summit of Dibé Nitsaa or Hesperus Peak 13er in the La Plata Mountains of Southwest Colorado
Looking at Dibé Nitsaa from the trail. Photo by Tiona Eversole

TYING THE LAND TO CREATION STORIES

Many of our creation stories are tied to the four sacred mountains and the land within their boundaries as well. The mountains are home to the Diyin Diné’e, and demand the most respect when one visits these spaces. Tread lightly through these breathtaking landscapes, respecting the plants and animals that call this place home while also practicing leave no trace ethics. 

Prominent landmarks such as Tsé Bit’a’í (Shiprock in northern New Mexico) and Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii (Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border) tell their own unique stories of monsters and warriors, with the rock monoliths serving as reminders of the slain monsters that once walked the earth. 

Other places such as Tséyiʼ (Canyon de Chelly in Arizona) are the settings for stories that include key deities such as Spider Woman, who is known as a protector and advisor to the Diné, and gave them the gift of weaving. Her home is Spider Rock in Tséyiʼ.

These stories tell of who we are, of where we came from and how to live our lives in hózhó, in beauty and harmony. This is why we are meant to stay within the boundaries of the four sacred mountains. Everything we need is right here: water, food, herbs for medicinal purposes and ceremony, shelter and our people.

Sacred Spaces: The Mittens of Monument Valley Tribal Park on the Arizona/Utah border at sunrise
The first glimpse of sunrise at Monument Valley. Photo by Tiona Eversole

PROTECTING OUR ELDERS

The Diné are a people of oral tradition, with many of the creation stories passed down from one generation to the next. Our songs reverberate through our traditional ceremonies, and are tied to the creation stories that help to remind us of our existence in this world. The stories of our ancestors live in the voices of our elders. However, our elders need our help.

While the land within the four sacred mountains is beautiful, abundant and diverse, the living conditions for Diné living on the reservation are similar to those of a third world country — and it’s happening right in our backyard. Many families do not have access to running water, healthy food options and immediate medical care.

My journey to the top of the four sacred mountains across my homelands is not only for myself and to deepen my understanding of the land — it is also a means to raise money for Navajo elders ahead of the winter. Pre-COVID, Our elders were already struggling to make ends meet. Now, COVID-19 has added another threat to their overall health and well-being, and has wrecked the entire Navajo Nation. I have teamed up with nonprofit, Adopt a Native Elder, to help bring supplies to elders in need.

LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

The Diné stories of these lands are nizhóní, beautiful. So are the elders that keep these stories tucked away in their hearts, waiting to share them with those who will listen. These tales and folklore are deeply embedded not only in their memories and traditional upbringing, but in the rivers, canyons and night skies of the Southwest as well.

Many areas of Diné Bikeyah are now considered public lands. Public lands are defined as “land owned by a government.” I urge you to gain a new understanding of what public lands are, and to learn about the history and creation of public lands. Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty. Many of these public lands we know today came into existence through wars, displacement of tribes from their homelands and broken promises. These lands weren’t “saved” by the government; they were stolen.

On this National Public Lands Day, I encourage you to reevaluate your perception of the lands that you recreate on. Who lived here before the government stepped in? What stories are tied to common landmarks and popular destinations you visit in the Southwest? The Diné were not the only ones who inhabited this area. Many other tribes such as the Ute, Pueblo, Hopi and Zuni all roamed these lands, and have their own stories to tell.

Listen, and you will find that these lands are rich with culture and history.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Ya’ah’teh’ shi’ keh’ do shi’ Dine’. Chishi’ nishli. Bilighaana bashichchiin. Tl’aaschi’i’ da shi’ cheii’. Bilighanna da shi’ naali’.

Hello my relatives and my people. I am Apache born for Anglo. My maternal grandmother clan is Red-Cheeked People. My paternal grandmother clan is Anglo.

Ti lives in Durango, Colorado, and spends her time romping around the Southwest. She is an avid runner, mountain biker, rafter, hiker and snowboarder. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @run.wander.ride.

Categories
Diversity Trail Running

REPRESENTATION IN RUNNING

AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

This blog is about racial and ethnic representation in running. We feature input from those who have participated in sport at every level, on every surface and are non-white.

From the everyday runner to collegiate to elite and Olympic trial qualifiers, from road to trail. Each take and experience is unique and most importantly, both valid and essential.

Why do people care about representation in running so much? We’re all just here to run and improve, so why does what everyone looks like have to be so important?

We all have the chance to lace up our running shoes and hit the road or trail for a run. Right?

In theory, everyone can just throw on running shoes and walk out the door for some easy miles. In theory, what people look like doesn’t matter and we all have equal opportunity when it comes to sport.

In theory, representation in sport shouldn’t be such an issue.

Victoria Junius - Running as a black woman

VICTORIA JUNIOUS

Victoria Junious recounts her journey as an African American runner. She shares her experiences as the only Black runner on her cross country team.

“I distinctly remember my coach proudly announcing in our post-race briefing that my teammate was the ‘first non-African runner to cross the line’. My teammates all clapped at this feat. He got fifth place, but that didn’t matter. In this moment, he was first. When I asked my teammates why they cheered, they said that it was ‘pretty much like winning.’ They said it was a ‘compliment to the African runners.’

They did not see a problem with it. I let it go. In the weeks following, I found that it happened after every race in which a white person did not win outright. My coach would give the standings, then add on the standings as if every African runner did not finish. Micro-aggression does not feel like a strong enough word to describe it.

I was the only black girl on my team for the first two years of my college cross country career. I felt every bit of that “only-ness.”

I was only person our coach thought could teach her how to dance or know the hip-hop or r&b songs she flipped past in on the van radio. The only person with “interesting” hair. The person expected to translate “what the sprinter girls meant by…”

Even when I stood on the starting line and looked past our team box, I saw very few non-white people. This was true from the athletes to the coaches, to the support staff.

It was frustrating and alienating, especially when the few black people who made it to top of our field were invalidated by my coach. Over and over, I questioned my place. What was my value to my team, and my standing in the sport as a whole?

I had a sense of longing that at the time that I could not put my finger on. Now I know that I longed for belonging. I wanted to train with someone who shared in my experience. I needed someone to tell me that when I heard something offensive, I did not have to let it go. I did not want to be the only one anymore. I wanted to be represented.”

REPRESENTATION IN RUNNING: WHAT IS IT?

People most often participate in activities where similar backgrounds and interests are shared. Without much thought to that space, we can move into it easily. It’s an automatic safe, and familiar space when it’s with people we can identify with.

Being able to find your identity with those who look like you can be essential to one’s participation and longevity in a sport.

Let’s breakdown the identity in the running world, using demographic data from 26.2.org.

  • 78% are college-educated.
  • 73% report a household income of $75k+, 56% reporting a household income of $100k+.
  • The half marathon has the largest year over year increase and is thus, the most popular distance to race.
  • Road-runner participation increases every year

Fun fact, in 2020, over 450 women participated in the marathon Olympic Trials.

When looking at the NYTimes article on the marathon Olympic Trials, there are many things that stand out. Firstly, let’s acknowledge the fact we have are over 450 females to celebrate for breaking barriers down in the sport.

There are many more reports showing higher participation from females as opposed to men in the sport. Female representation is there, so what other kinds of representation are we talking about?

We’re talking race.

Non-white, colored bodies that have vastly different experiences from the white people who come to participate. Take a look at the very bottom of this The New York Times article, you’ll see what I mean.

What follows are some candid comments from the BIPOC running community sharing their journeys and experiences. If we as a running community are going to raise representation in running, we must first understand the experiences of all of those in our sport.

We each come with our own stories. Together we can learn, change and continue to share our running passion with all races, genders, ages and paces.

Candace Gonzalez - Running as a Latina

CANDACE GONZALES

“One of my favorite runners is Des Linden. She’s hardworking, dedicated, keeps showing up, and has a great sense of humor. In 2018 I watched her cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon. She was the first American woman in 33 years to win the race. However, for me it was more than that. For me, it was watching a Latina cross that finish line and accomplish an amazing feat. 

As a Latina runner who has been trail running for two years, I have noticed the lack of diversity in the sport. Unlike road running, where we see more BIPOC participate, we do not see that as much in trail running. In fact, when I run trails on my own, it is rare for me to see another BIPOC on the trail.”

Have you ever entered a space and just felt, weird but unsure of why that is? Or maybe you’ve been to a social group where you just haven’t fit in for one reason or another. Not because people are malicious, but just because. Enter Black, Indigenous, and people of color and the wide experiences of coming into running spaces knowing the misplaced feeling will be there and actively preparing for it.

Laura Cortez - Ultra running and the Latino Community

LAURA CORTEZ

“To me, representation means respect. It means I can go to a race that is serving Mexican food and not have to worry about getting looks for eating it. It means I don’t have to listen to people mock the Spanish language or accents.

Representation means seeing my identity on the starting line at every level, not just elite or beginner. In this way, I not only have something to aspire to, but to also it promotes accessibility of the sport at all levels.

Representation gives me a mental break; I don’t have to be perfect every race. Representation in running can provide a mental break that so many other people feel.”

REPRESENTATION IN RUNNING AT EVERY LEVEL

This is what we talk about when we talk about representation.

At a high level, having that automatic safe space comprised of people you can share your identity and experiences with, is the foundation of two thing. It advances participation in sport but also keeps athletes involved. Not only that, but representation at all levels gives people the grace to start wherever they are. It removes the pressure to be the best right out the gate.

On an elite level, representation gives people someone to look up to. Someone who likely shares similar backgrounds and struggles and is relatable beyond just an athletic level.

As Black, Indigenous, people of color and just non-white runners, when we find that space, it becomes manageable and accessible.

At JackRabbit, we know we take up space in a predominately homogenous environment. We aspire to support those who are less seen, and to help promote a space where change can happen.

Rajpaul Pannu - what it means to run

RAJPAUL PANNU

As a first-generation BIPOC growing up, you’re not nurtured to realize what your self-actualization is. Rather, what it takes to be ‘successful’ in the eyes of society. As a result, the outdoors are not prioritized despite the many health benefits that come along with it.

Funding for shoes, running camps, etc. make it difficult for an equitable playing field. Being the mantle for this change starts on the ground level; to take it upon yourself as a BIPOC outdoor enthusiast and bridge the gap. This can be done by simply showing up.

  • Showing up to road, mountain and trail races.
  • Showing up to the podium to claim your prize.
  • Showing up for a group/trail run and encouraging dialogue/hard conversations.

Mother nature is inviting and all you have to do is show up.”

Candace Gonzales further shares her journey into trail running.

“Even when I first started trail running, I felt a bit out of place due to the lack of diversity and representation of LatinX trail runners.  However, recently I started running with a local group called Trailtinos. A group formed to promote and connect BIPOC on the trail.

This group has been very special to me. Every time I run with this group, I feel represented. I am running with people who share similar experiences and a similar cultural background. More than that, I do not feel so alone, or out of place knowing there are others out there on the trail with me.

I’ll never run as fast as Des Linden, nor anyone in Trailtinos. But, knowing these runners exist makes me want to continue to work hard and show up to all my road and trail runs.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Cortez, is a dog mom, intersectional environmentalist and runner living in Denver, Colorado. You can listen to an interview with Laura on ‘The Long Run’, a podcast about what keeps runners running long, running strong and staying motivated.