High Country Running: A race steeped in tradition

High Country Running: A race steeped in tradition

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The 30th annual Native Americans for Community Action (NACA) Sacred Mountain Prayer Runs were memorable not just because it was another large Run Flagstaff Summer Series event; it was most notable for its roots deep in the ancient tradition of running, and NACA's long-standing ties to serving the communities that surround us.

The run reminded me of how much race events have changed, yet in how many ways this one is still the same, and how lucky we are to still have such strong ties to our racing history.

I first participated in 1987. Back in the day it was usually the earliest race of the year, held at Fort Tuthill on the first Saturday in May. My old NACA race bibs show one thing in common; it was always, so very frigin cold. In the 1980s, winter seemed to enjoy its last laugh on that weekend. Most of those years, 60 to 70 runners competed -- fewer in bad weather -- and the race was managed by a handful of volunteers. The race at Fort Tuthill had its own unyielding hill; the one we all used to moan about with the false summit.

The first year it was moved to Thorpe Park, in 1993, the course started out in the opposite direction with runners heading up the road to the Observatory. Shortly thereafter, the Flagstaff Urban Trail had been completed on the mesa and it was a natural to move to the route it now takes.

This year, with its free 2K fun run, there were nearly 500 participants, dozens of volunteers and chip timing. Even with the newest technology, the race is started the same way as it was back in the 80s, Steve Darden says a prayer and blows his traditional flute that sends runners up the monstrous hill onto Observatory Mesa.

Typically, race day database entry is pretty simple for our races; runners come from mostly the big cities surrounding Phoenix, Prescott and of course, Flagstaff. However, on race day, my Southwestern geography knowledge was put to the ultimate test; Native American entrants raced from across far reaches of the Rez; Kayenta, Kaibito, Window Rock, Tuba City, Gallup, Church Rock, Ship Rock, Chinle, Tsaile, Greasewood Springs, Ganado, Concho, Hotevilla, Polacca, Cameron, Rock Point, Indian Wells, Blue Gap, Pinon, Crownpoint, Many Farms, Kykotsmovi and Houck.

Co-race directors Rose Toehe and Dorothy Digishie always find some new angle that precedes and trumps their fabulous awards ceremony. This year, in a complete surprise, Rose told the story of the race's origins; about how it was never meant to be a big event, just a way of honoring running and our sacred Mountain landscape.

Before the awards ceremony which predictably had Chris Gomez and Sara Wagner taking the tops spots, NACA honored those runners who had finished NACA the most times. It was a fitting tribute to see Rose bestow beautiful blankets upon Flagstaff racing legends Nat White and Ray Lobato. Both ran the first NACA race 30 years ago, and both race all out as though they were 30 years younger (and of course Mr. Lobato ran shirt free). Now that's what I call tradition.

Neil Weintraub voluntarily organizes the Run Flagstaff Summer Series and is director of Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association. Neil participated in the Sacred Mountain Prayer Run from 1987 to 1993 and then again from 2002 to 2005. He can't remember why he took the decade-long hiatus, but a good guess has something to do with his distaste for running up Observatory Mesa Hill.

A note from the editor:

I'm happy to announce that runner, writer and editor Myles Schrag has accepted the post of coordinating editor for High Country Running. This is a volunteer post, and Myles will count on lots of help from contributing writers and input from runners throughout the high country. We'll pass the torch officially next week when Myles will introduce himself in print. But if you'd like to contact him before then, he's at MylesS@hkusa.com.

-- Randy Wilson

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