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Running to heal: Embracing a Navajo tradition

“In Navajo philosophy, we run to celebrate life,” says race director Shaun Martin into the pre-dawn darkness. Deep in Arizona’s red rock country, this is the start of the Canyon de Chelly Ultra.

The race is the only Navajo-owned ultramarathon, taking runners through 34 miles (55 kilometers) of sacred land among towering formations of red sandstone. 


“As children, we’re taught to wake up and run, to run to the east, where the holy creator is awake and out at the birth of a new day.” Shaun explains.


“As we grow, we learn the tools that running provides us, and we use those tools to become more successful in whatever our endeavors may be.”


Balance (above) is the short film about the essence of America’s public lands and their ability to unite us in their capacity for healing. It tells the story of Liz Townley, a ranger with the Forest Service who entered the profession because of her love of public lands like these and everything in them, everything they give us, and their central role in the soul of small towns.



But Liz’s job became a source of stress as people argued over those lands with increasing divisiveness. She cared so much about the landscape and the people involved that she worked insane hours. She stopped having the time to even go out into those places she worked so hard to steward.


Around the same time, her family suffered a traumatic loss, the loss of her nephew in an accident. She was struck down with the grief, floored by it.


A mother of two, she came to realize that she wanted to show her children that there’s a way to cope with the challenges of life, and that character is built into how you show up in the tough times. 


So she started running, through those landscapes that she loved so much, embracing the healing power running offers according to Navajo lore.



“We don’t just celebrate the positive and the good blessings. We celebrate the negative things that have affected our lives because they’re the things that make us adapt, make us stronger, make us learn and grow.” Sean Martin says. “We run through struggle and pain and learn to use those, to become a better person.”


“Running is medicine. It can heal. It’s a hard part of running to explain unless you’ve experienced it yourself.”


Running reminded Liz that our forests and hills and streams, these places that we argue so much over, are actually the places we share as sources of beauty and peace and healing. For Liz, it was in the details, the small stuff where the beauty lies: in the morning light that filters through the leaves. And also in the big things: the massive mountains that capture and hold our gaze.


Her journey through running culminated in the Canyon de Chelly Ultra, as the sun rose to chase away the darkness on that sacred landscape.



Want more? Listen to “Ya’a’tey”, the Canyon de Chelly episode of the outLANDish podcast from Your Forests Your Future to hear Liz tell her story of the breaking point and her healing process, and to hear the Navajo philosophy on running as healing from Canyon de Chelly Ultra organizer Shaun Martin.


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