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Navajo Ultra Marathoner Shares Spiritual Side Of Running In New Film

A new documentary screens todayin Flagstaff, showcasing the spiritual and enlightening side of running. The film, “3100: Run and Become” highlights peace through athletics. And that’s where ultra-marathoner Shaun Martin comes in. He’s a Navajo runner on a divine journey to honor his father’s historical trauma. He spoke with KNAU’s Aaron Granillo on the line from Chinle.

Aaron Granillo: Can you tell us what happened to your father that inspired you to start running

Shaun Martin: Well, to begin with, my father was taken to boarding school as a pretty young age. And, it was actually just outside of Flagstaff in Leupp. He wasn't allowed to speak Navajo or do anything that resembled the culture. So he hated school, and he began to run away. He ran all the way back to the Gap, which is north of Cameron. He was only ten years old, and he covered about 78 miles as a ten-year-old just to get away from school. Over the course of the next year-and-a-half he did it four or five more times until he was kicked out of boarding school and sent away on a placement program. But, it was those traumatic experiences from the boarding school days that kind of sparked my interest in the healing process, and just to kind of erase those old footsteps and put some new ones down that's in a more positive aspect.

Your part of the film follows you as you run 110 miles from the site of your father's government school to your family's ancestral homeland. How were you changed by the time you arrive at your destination, your ancestral homeland?

So, this was a remarkable experience because of the enormous connection to my family's history and to our tribal people's past. It was enormously transformative because I was able to put myself into that mindset of a ten-year-old child running away from boarding school for being punished only for being Navajo. And, being able to share that experience in the film, my hope is that other native peoples -- the world over -- who have experienced that sort of trauma can see this and know that there's a way to deal with it in a healthy way.

I want to play a clip from the film, in which you explain why you run. So here you are, you're speaking to a group of runners competing at the Canyon De Chelly Ultra Marathon:

You run because it's a form of prayer. You can go to any hogan during a ceremony and listen to a medicine man pray. But, you can pray too through your feet. Through your breath because running is a prayer.

So, what do you mean by that? What does it feel like to pray through your feet?

So, in Navajo culture we believe that the earth is our Mother and the sky is our Father. And, so when we run, we are speaking to Mother Earth with our voice as we talk, but also with the act of running. We're speaking to her through our feet as we step or dance on the earth on her letting her know that we're out running, we're celebrating, we're learning, we're praying. So when you're out running, there's a veil that is kind of thinned between the physical world and the spiritual world. And some people call it a runner’s high. We can connect and feel the energies from all these people or spiritual beings around us, and make those connections.