As a Navajo elder spoke the prayer and blessing in low tones, the 26 runners stood listening respectfully, some shuffling in the predawn cold, some fiddling with gear and most wondering what adventures the day would bring.
Then, to the resounding beat of the traditional hand drum, we were off, running toward the first light. Marveling at the colors of the new day, we jogged to the top of a hill and were greeted by the same drummer, who had miraculously reappeared and now stood playing his drum and singing.
We ran back down, and then trotted for the rest of the day across incredibly beautiful Navajo lands under the ever-watchful eye of Naatsis’áán, or Navajo Mountain. This was the Naatsis’áán 50K Trail Ultra, organized by NavajoYES. On this day, Oct. 27, 2018, there was also a 10K. A kids “marathon” had already concluded. (Local youth log their miles leading up to the event weekend, then run their final mile the day before.) The bling (finishers’ medal) that kids and adults alike receive is enormous, heavy and beautiful. And there are handmade pottery awards for overall winners, as well as for the top two in each age group.
This is typical of a NavajoYES race. The word that comes to mind when I think of NavajoYES is “inclusive.” The local Navajo community is always invited to participate in the races and in the pre- and post-race meals and entertainment that are often held. Kids and adults alike are very involved in organizing and volunteering.
The master organizer, however, is Tom Riggenbach, who seems to be everywhere every time and doesn’t seem to need sleep. He sometimes has to organize more than 500 runners over three days of events (in the case of the 2018 Monument Valley Marathon), and he always does so with a smile, a corny joke and a hug for the runners as they cross the finish line. Speaking of runners crossing the line, there are never cutoff times, making NavajoYES races inclusive for every type of runner.
Riggenbach is also the (voluntary) executive director of the NavajoYES organization, whose mission is to "provide community wellness, promote lifelong fitness and encourage youth empowerment across the Navajo Nation."
This organization began leading outdoor adventures for youth in 1988. It has expanded to include trails initiatives, the Diné bike project, education and outreach, as well as the Navajo Parks Race Series (12 races for 2019). This race series showcases the beauty of Diné Bikéyah (the Navajo Nation) and promotes health, wellness and empowerment for individuals and the community.
When my family and I moved to Flagstaff nearly two years ago, I was very keen to educate myself about Navajo culture. To do this while pursuing my passion of trail running combines the best of both worlds. I have learned so much and made many friends because of NavajoYES. Ahéhee'!