A 5K run. A 3-mile dash at dawn. Easy for a man of 34, right? Maybe, unless it’s the 48th annual Louis Tewanima Footrace, 5K and a 10K events held every Labor Day weekend since 1972 in the village of Shungopavi that sits like the frosting on a cupcake atop a mesa on Arizona’s Hopi Reservation.
“Bring your running shoes and die,” my cousin Joe emailed my son Matt and me before our visit during Labor Day weekend. Joe lives on the rez with his Hopi wife, Janice. Joe added, “The 10K footrace finishes up on the old trail from the bottom of the mesa to the top. The end is like a run up the steps of the Empire State Building.”
Matt, 34, who works in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, hadn’t jogged in a couple of years, but as we sipped wine on Joe and Janice’s patio the evening before the race, he decided on a whim to run the 5K.
As the sun yawned at 6 a.m. the next morning, Matt was pinning on his number. He was nervous. With good reason.
The 5K and 10K routes were not manicured, tree-shaded paved bike/hike paths. They were desert trails littered with rocks, pebbles and a prickly pear or two. Runners would twist down Shungopavi’s rocky mesa, catch their breath on lowland paths and finally ascend a steep thread-thin trail and dodge boulders back up to the top.
At 6:30 a.m., the gun went off. Matt started running. He found himself sprinting with a rez dog, one of dozens of strays who roam the rez. Fearful of bringing up the rear, Matt pushed himself. He found that running with 100 competitors pumped up his stride.
“Once we left the village and descended the mesa, I felt like a mere freckle on that vast empty land,” he said. His lungs were taking a beating at 6,000 feet. He had to watch for rocks and perilous imperfections as he ran, but that slowed him down a bit and allowed him to catch his breath.
The race is held in memory of Lewis Tewanima, Janice’s uncle. In 1906, at age 18, Tewanima was sent to a government boarding school in Carlisle, Pa., where he was banned from speaking Hopi or practicing his native traditions. One of his classmates was Jim Thorpe. Tewanima started running.
In the 1908 Olympics, Tewanima finished ninth in the marathon. In 1909, he led the Boston Marathon for 18 miles. In the 1912 Olympics, he won the silver medal in the 10,000-meter race. Then Tewanima retired. He returned to the rez to herd sheep and grow crops. He died at age 81 when he fell off a 70-foot cliff.
Down below, Matt kept running. His final hurdle was that grueling jog back up the mesa. Perched on a rock, Joe and I watched. We saw sweat-slick men and women gasping for breath. Some could barely walk as they stumbled up to the village, but the Hopi cheered them on. “Askwali,” the women said. “Kokoy! Kokoy!” the men said. I suspect those Hopi words meant Keep going. We’re proud of you.
That climb was “a staircase of rocks,” Matt said, but “so many people were cheering us on that I feared I’d let them down if I slowed down.” At last, battling utter exhaustion, he crossed the finish line.
Matt did that 5K (three-mile) race in 44 minutes. “What a place to run my first 5K,” he grinned as he sipped Gatorade afterward. Back at Joe’s, Janice dished up a hearty post-race feast of scrambled eggs, bacon, nut bread and orange juice.
Joe told Matt, “Get in shape and come back and do the 10K next year.”
“What about you?” Matt asked. Joe said, “I’ve lined up 10 oxygen tanks to be placed at each kilometer. The last one is portable. I’ll carry it on my back for the last part of the run up to the top of the mesa.”
I don’t think that’s what Louis Tewanima had in mind.