Katie McGee blistered the Observatory Mesa course to record the fastest women's 10K in five years, and Chris Gomez held off a challenge from Anthony Masayesva to repeat as men's champion at the Sacred Mountain Prayer Run on Saturday.
Some 400 runners, including many from the Navajo and Hopi reservations, took part in the 10K, 5K or 2K fun run at the 34th annual event, sponsored by Native Americans for Community Action. Participants were exhorted by eventual fourth-place 10K finisher Caroline Sekaquaptewa at the start line to run happy; run with prayer in your heart.
That feeling of gratitude pervaded the race, as runners streamed up the mesa from Thorpe Park.
"I love this race and this community and how they appreciate life," said McGee, whose time of 41:18 was more than 3 1/2 minutes ahead of runner-up Stephanie Hunt and the fastest women's time since Kristina Vegh clocked a 39:27 in 2012.
McGee, who coaches for McMillan Racing and teaches online English for Hibbing Community College in her native Minnesota, invoked President Trump's pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement when affirming the mindset of the Sacred Mountain run.
"We rely on our Native American people to protect the earth because we're not doing it," she said.
A collegiate runner at Montana State, McGee remembers being smitten with Flagstaff when they would compete here.
"We came down here and I thought, 'This place is paradise,'" she said, vowing to return here someday.
She did, to get her master's at Northern Arizona.
After competing for the racing team of Greg McMillan, who placed fourth Saturday, she eventually got her chance to return more permanently in 2015 when she became one of his coaches.
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In the men's race, the notorious pace-pusher Gomez gave way to Masayesva for the first half of the race. Masayesva's hamstring slowed him on the downhill second half of the race and he faded to eighth. But he earned the champion's respect.
"This is one of my favorite courses of the series because of the tough uphill start," Gomez said. "I think it takes a lot of mental and physical grit to get through this course because there is no place to let up or relax. It was fun having someone to chase for a few miles there, and I respect and appreciate the effort Anthony put in those first few miles."
Masayesva, a Navajo-Hopi runner who competed for state champion Tuba City and national junior college champion Central Arizona College, received recognition during the awards ceremony with his brother Brian, who passed him to finish sixth. The importance of twins in native culture was acknowledged as a "blessing."
Anthony, who was the 5K winner last year, pointed out that the Hero Twins in Navajo culture destroyed the monsters in the Navajo creation story.
"The uphill really causes you to push yourself," he said. "And I like the cultural aspect to it. There were lots of native people and seeing distant relatives, clan-wise. At the end of the day, (the event) is about a bigger purpose than ourselves."
Anthony plans to run the Big Brother Big Sister Half Marathon, and some of that course is the same as the Sacred Mountain run.
"Hopefully, I'll take some of this experience and apply it there," he said.
The twins have run and lived together their whole lives, but this fall, Brian will attend Bacone (Okla.) College, while Anthony will go to NAU. The two joked about life as twins.
"Life's a competition," Brian said. "Everything's a competition."
Marj Haas, in the 70-and-older division, was the final 10K finisher. In this race, the final finisher is praised as the person who was able to have the longest prayer.