cinco de mayo
If I had any apprehension, it was just enough to respect the distance.
I usually dread the logistics, but not this time. The race started at the Arizona border and we had to reach it by bus, since Navajo 13, the first 20 miles of the route, would be closed for traffic. The buses departed from Shiprock at 6 am, and we stayed at the nearest available lodging, 30 miles west in Farmington. No use in fumbling for the bus staging area in the darkness before dawn, so the night before, after we checked into our hotel, we got right back into the car and drove to Shiprock to scout out the layout. Shiprock at dusk, with the squalor of its shacks, pawn shops, and junk yards, and the majestic, uneven crest of the volcanic cone that dominates the entire landscape, blended the dismal with the mystical.
The morning bus ride itself followed the full course, and as any drive along the route it made me a bit queasy. We were driving and driving, we were driving until the sky lit up and the soil turned reddish approaching Arizona, and it seemed incomprehensible to me that I would cover all that distance. Bracing itself on the upward road, even the bus was panting. Or was it the wind roaring? The good part was I would run back downhill.
A small race. 80+ marathoners, and about as many relay teams. Someone from Missouri, someone from Florida, a couple of Indians from Canada, a runner from Grand Britain. Most of us were in shorts, and frigid wind bit into shivering flesh. A circular wall of clouds ringed the expanse of the horizon. Under half-blue skies and gold-rimmed clouds, for a minute or two, at the start line, it snowed. The moon lingered evanescent in the west, and three Navajos chanted to the beat of drums. Few times in my life have I felt such happiness.
A runner from a Canadian tribe blessed the trail in his own language, and off we went.
For a couple of miles I kept behind a bow-legged Indian with an i-Pod and a red bandanna, not knowing that by the end of the day I would take his shape. Then the sun rose over the wall of clouds, holding me next to an Indian woman in a fixture of light. I do not know her face or her age, I did not turn to look at her. I only know her waist-long pony tail swinging black above a black outfit. But I thought for a while that, if I had been born 5000 miles to the West, we could have been friends. She was running relay, and I stayed at her side until her station was in sight and she sprinted ahead.
I took it easy at first. It was only the beginning, my legs were numb from the cold, and we faced a slight incline. But after the highest peak I took it easy as well, since I had never run so steeply downhill, and did not know how to handle it.
The sun illuminated our path, and the course was visible for miles ahead, a bejeweled belt laid across the hipbones of the desert. The dawn enhanced New Mexico’s beauty to eerie, breathtaking purity. With Navajo 13 closed for traffic, except for the occasional official car, for miles we heard nothing but our own step, and the wind tearing at our bibs, growling through the gold-brown expanse of the plateau, the intensity of the sky, and the exhilaration of silence.
There were no mile markers. Aid stations – sometimes simply two people standing next to a car in the middle of the desert – were posed every two miles, but I lost track of count. Once or twice I glanced at my watch, but I could not grasp the lines on the screen, and what their position meant. It didn’t matter. Shiprock – the giant volcanic rock itself, not the town – was in sight from start to finish line, a timeless center holding us enthralled.
I ran in its spell for miles that got longer and longer, searching for the mysterious essence of this ground sacred to Indians, for the elusive vibration that would propel me to overcome my own melodramatic and indolent bent, the countless “don’ts” and “you can’ts” drilled into me from early on, the shadow of myself I was conditioned to embody.
The sun pulled on a hood of clouds, the temperature dropped, the muscles faded. At mile 13 I thought I had done 16. I was lagging behind my spirit. I ran.
The walking breaks I started to take somewhere after mile 10 were enough to warrant a few stretches and the smooth sipping of a half cup of water. I was ready at one point to give up this purist approach and just walk, but I saw the next station ahead, and I decided I could make it there. I had to ask three people what mile we were at before I got a definite answer. Mile 20. I smiled. Only six more miles to go.
I walked for a dozen yards, holding on to my water cup, and turned north on highway 491, only one of its four lanes closed, back to civilization and traffic. I started running again, and I found myself in a twirl of panic.
I was so exhausted I could cry. I had done at least 20 miles twice before, but with walking breaks – frequent, long, unmonitored. This time I reached mile 20 by running, and my legs felt as if they would break at the next step, they were not mine, and I could not coordinate them. My breath was coming out in a pitiful whine, my eyes darting back and forth in search of a place to collapse.
I remembered the idle thoughts of a few miles back: I was not supposed to be this helpless little girl they taught me to be. I remembered what I knew when I tackled that first mile 15 months ago: I am. I do. I can.
I struggled to pull myself together.
I have a way with words, and I have talked my way in and out of diverse situations over the course of 42 years. But I very rarely talked myself into anything. This time I did. It was fortunate no one was around me. I said it out loud: go – run – go – don’t think – just run – just do it – run lia run.
And I ran.
Mile 23 was the hardest. I hobbled myself up to an aid station manned by a single Indian woman. She asked me repeatedly if I was all right. Obviously not, but that was beside the point. I swallowed an energy gel. I slurped some water. I shed my boyfriend’s old sweatshirt that until then had sheltered me against the worst. And I ran.
Only three more miles to go. Uncharted territory, the miles I had never explored. Finally I caught up with a figure in black and white that had marked the horizon for a long, long time.
His accent was funny and I thought more than once to ask him about it, but I never got to it. It sounded Southern. He was cramping up, and timing himself – three minutes run, one minute walk. As soon as he broke loose from me he was yards ahead, and I had to fight to keep up. Whenever he walked, I caught up again, and got a few steps at his side before he sprinted once more. I wished those breaks were longer, and I was grateful he didn’t wait. He pulled me for the last two miles.
Only when the finish line was in sight did the rhythm change. We were walking next to each other, and he didn’t take off.
I said: “Whenever you go, I go.”
He asked “Are you ready?”
And we ran.
I always thought I would cry. I teared up innumerable times beforehand just thinking of it, the finish line after 26 miles. But I only cried when I saw my boyfriend rushing toward me under turbulent skies. Otherwise I just thought of throwing up.
There was a glitch in the relay of information, and the results for women marathoners were not updated for more than an hour. It took me endless stumbling through the wind gaining in fierceness before I eventually found out my time – a glittering line of digits and letters on a computer screen in the back of the truck belonging to the timing crew. 4 h 34 min 36 sec.
Once in the car driving back to Farmington, the sky split open and the rain gushed forth without mercy. But the work was done. Our trail was blessed.