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HIGH COUNTRY RUNNING

High Country Running: Flagstaff’s largest running club

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Coming of Age Ceremonial Run Mural

Shonto Begay’s mural, “Coming of Age Ceremonial Run,” at Puente deHózhó Elementary School inspires members of the Puente Running Club.

On just about any day, you can find a Flagstaff running group to join. Monday is the Brew Pub Run Club, Team Run Flagstaff is Tuesday, Will Run for Beer Club is Wednesday, Thursday is both the Bagel Run and Flagstaff Trail Divas, Saturday you can join Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association and the Flagstaff Front Runners and Walkers round out the week on Sunday.

However, most of you will be surprised to learn that the largest single gathering takes place on Monday afternoons. It’s the Puente de Hózhó Elementary School Running Club, organized by teacher Lindsey Hillyard.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to be an invited guest speaker, along with Olympian Rachel Schneider and Team Run Flagstaff coach Leah Rosenfeld.

Hillyard started the club in 2014 with friend and colleague Pam White Hanson. The two Puente de Hózhó teachers hoped an after-school running club would provide opportunities for students to build friendships outside the classroom with running as a shared cultural experience. The goal was to build a community of runners.

On Mondays at 2:30 p.m. sharp, students, teachers and parents circle around Hillyard on the grassy infield of the school’s dirt track, clapping and rhythmically repeating, “Puente Running Club, Puente Running Club!” After a few minutes, the chant reaches its crescendo, and it will reverberate through my head for the remainder of the day.

The workout consists of 45 minutes of stretching, running laps and learning. Parents who are not running hold clipboards, dutifully tracking each child’s laps. Remarkably, there are no incentives; the prize is the gathering itself.

On this day, Hillyard leads a discussion about the Navajo word “hózhó.” From student responses, we learn that it has to do with beauty, peacefulness and balance in nature. When Hillyard asks them for examples of Hózhó related to their running, answers include “picking up trash,” “staying on the trail and not cutting corners,” and “not pulling grass.”

The theme of hózhó meshes perfectly with Shonto Begay’s beautiful 2008 mural that graces the school’s entrance, titled “Coming of Age Ceremonial Run.”

When I ask several students what they enjoy most about their club, 6-year-old Carla responds, “I get to run through the forest!” Her sidekick Perla adds, “It is a lot of fun and we say nice things to each other.”

Eight-year-old Ellisya says, “I get to stay after school,” and her classmate Roselena adds, “Running gives me energy and makes me stronger.” Fifth-grader pals Max and Levi both tell me they enjoy it because they can get outside and talk with friends.

“The club has created a school spirit of community around running, and the kids have learned to encourage and support each other,” parent and volunteer Sarah Shamah tells me.

Hillyard, the club’s charismatic leader, says, “I feel so lucky to get to do this. It's a gift to run with these kids.” Based on enthusiasm for the program among students and parents alike, it’s clear the feeling is mutual.

Neil Weintraub is the co-founder of Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association, which offers free group runs every Saturday. Visit natra.org and click on “next run.”

Send your running news to coordinating editor Julie Hammonds (runner@juliehammonds.com) to be featured in this column.

 

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