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  • Writer's pictureTribes Team

Helping Young Tribal Runners Achieve their Olympic Vision

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

I. A Vision for Tribal Running

Running around the dirt track for the second time, he panted like a dog. He could feel patches in some places that still swelled with larger rocks. The sun glistened over the horizon in the early eve. Other boys from several neighboring homesteads walked towards the track on a slender trail that ran under the juniper and willow trees. The boys joked about who was going to be the rabbit the coming weekend. They were slender, dark from long days in the sun. Raw strength, needing refinement. With all the happenings, he kept up the pace, lap 3 and 4 at 1:10 each. Now the boys started their warm-ups, slowly off to the side. They noticed the tall strong runner but did not dare interrupt his run. Laps 6, he picks up the pace …1:07, 1:05. His lungs burn, from high elevation oxygen mixed with red clay dust. Now for the finishing touch on the third of a 2 mile by 4 repeats set. He pushes the pace at 1:03 and his legs get heavy, sweat pours from his brow. The pace turns into a full on sprint to push the pace to 59 seconds. He jogs slowly, working on his breathing and relaxing his entire being. Only good visions of poised pace, posture, and speed come into his mind. He cant afford any other thought. He cant and wont. The reassured confidence of knowing that he can handle a strong pace and utilize any strategy is strong. Now to finish with some quarters. He starts with 1 minute with a half lap walk between the next lap. All 6 are just as fast. He leaves the workout satisfied with a good amount left in the tank. The boys gaze with pride as he walks past them. They make plenty of room. They aspire and dream of one day being able to enjoy ultimate joy of one of the fastest men ever from 1 to 3 miles.

As he stretches, he recites the ancient prayers of his ancestors.

This vision is possible but tribal runners all over need support. This article is written from the experience of the tribes located in the Southwest United States where per capita, the runners at the High School ages on down are some of the most competitive in the country. The children are from tribes that have ancient running traditions. In tribal teachings, youth were taught to run before the sun rises among the holy beings that bring blessings of health, wisdom and good life. They are taught to build strength and discipline necessary for productive life. Good health was critical later in life as the person grew into adulthood and took on a the role of providing for their family and carrying on the career of the family. For example, some may become farmers following the path of growing extensive crops in the arid desert while others may become ranchers growing their herds in a respectful manner.

With tribal communities now merging with modern societies, there is a growing desire for many youth, from traditional tribal communities, to aspire for competition beyond high school. A few from tribal communities have done very well such as Billy Mills, who won a gold medal in the Olympics in the 60s. Yet the systems that supports them to be so competitive at a young age become almost non-existent after High School. In a few instances, the best runners continue their running in college. But many also do not do well there due to the culture shock of having to live away from their supportive communities, culture, and families.

The question that hasn’t been asked is “is it possible to support talented runners in a supportive tribal community setting? And how could it be done?”

II. Need for Support Systems after High School and College

Southwest tribal communities, as compared per capita to the rest of the country, have demonstrated that they have the best runners in the Nation, from the younger ages through high school. At all the junior high and high school meets in the Southwest, Native kids are outstanding performers. Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Pueblos, White Mountain constantly produce state championships at all levels. There are several new documentaries coming out that capture these exciting traditions.

But something happens right after high school. In running, the years where a runner gets strongest and attains intelligent training approaches, is usually between 22 and 35. In our Native communities, the attention span and support systems are drastically reduced right after graduation from High School. Imagine, if we could figure out support systems for some of the most aspiring kids within those years.

After years of getting our butts kicked by runners from Kenya and Ethiopia, the US Running organization has undertaken a needed change in strategy. We once again are producing competitive runners. This has occurred through running scholarships for aspiring runners post college and high school. There are also specialized types of support systems where a runner is accepted into a home where they don’t have to worry about their rent and can work part time, thus being able to train at a high level. The added benefit is that the runner lives around other runners, who can all support one another instead of feeling like an oddball as can happen in some communities where there are few serious runners. There are many other possibilities such as supporting the creation of competitive running clubs in several different communities, where there is a coordinator, several weekly group runs, and team entries into first class races.

III. Background on philanthropic funding to US Tribal Communities:

According to the organization Native Americans in Philanthropy, of all the philanthropic dollars in the Nation, less than 1% goes to Native organizations and even less goes to those organizations that are led by tribal people.

We have so much need for positive change in our Native communities. It would be great to find some philanthropic sponsors for our runners to achieve beyond high school and college.

With the right multi-year support, many Southwest Natives between ages 22 and 35 could easily break 2:10 for the marathon and 1:05 for the half marathon. They just need the right training environment and support. Yet, most funders never find their way to support our youth. We need dollars to send young Native adults to running camps, get the good equipment, understand good nutrition, get the motivation and mental coaching, be around an Olympic type environment.

The intent of the article is to get our runners, parents, community leaders thinking. Someone may get inspired to make change. The drawing board is open, the opportunity is there, the talent and desire is overflowing. Lets make positive change.

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