You can either run from something, toward something, or just run for the pure pleasure of it. Navajo ultramarathon competitor and cross-country coach Shaun Martin prefers the latter as part of dagha, the Navajo tradition of running in the dark to greet the sun.
“Running before sunrise allows you to experience the birth of a new day,” he says. “It’s the most innocent time of day when there is no sound. All the positive things we have been blessed with are involved…the holy people, the creator himself…it’s a spiritually-connected time as we celebrate life and its positives. As we run, we not only pray with our minds, but the act of running allows us to pray with our bodies as our feet touch Mother Earth.”
Martin started getting up and running before sunrise at the age of 3, accompanied by his 3 older brothers and father Allen (Dine from the Tsinajinnie clan), a man with traditional beliefs that Navajo teachings are not a religion, but a way of life.
Now with a son of his own, 4-year-old Maverick (and a 2-year-old daughter named Isabell), he plans to pass along that inherited way of life. “If they decide they want to pursue the competitive side of running, that’s their decision, but as far as being Navajo, they will run in the traditional manner.”
In the documentary Run to the East, Martin told producer Joe Spring: “Running isn’t just about winning races, but about growing, each individual getting better over time. Distance runners become better people by embracing struggle and pain and learning how to overcome those obstacles.”
As a mentor and teacher of young minds for reservation high school students in Chinle, Arizona, Martin instructs his young charges about the fact that running can be a celebration of the positive things in life. “I come from the same place these kids do and had the same hardships growing up. I came from a community so small it’s not on most maps, a village that lacks water and power, but has its share of alcohol problems. People told me I would never achieve, but I did and I used running to better myself — I made a conscious decision to use running as a way to get my life in order. If you choose the right path, running will help you be successful, to be humble and live in balance.”
For the wiry 30-year-old, distance running isn’t just a lifestyle, it's life itself, which Martin views in the tradition of fours. “To the east is spring and the thinking process of goal identification and new learning. To the south is the summer planning process to accomplish those identified goals. The north involves evaluation of the efforts made and that leads to the west, the fall season, an active social time.”
In coaching his young runners, he works to instill Dine virtues of thinking (nitsahakees) and planning (nahata) while he practices what he preaches. “For me, my ‘runner's high’ comes in terms of spirituality. It’s the touch of Mother Earth and the breath of Father Sky and when the two are at the center of our core, it’s a sacred thing expressed in various ways. Some are taught to think it, some to sing it, some to speak it, some to yell it. I start by yelling and come back to a yell as the sun hits the horizon. In between, I say my prayers.”
With a daily run of 10-plus miles before school classes begin (at a 6 ½ minute mile) to a weekend run of 30 miles from the family’s hogan above Canyon de Chelly to his Chinle residence, Martin carves out as much time as he can to follow his passion. Wife Melissa, also a coach and teacher, offers her encouragement by acknowledging the runs give him time to think, to unwind, and to pray.
Martin’s dedication in teaching his students how to become better people through running has not gone unnoticed. In 2011, the National Rural Educators Association awarded him the title of National Rural Teacher of the Year for his passion and desire to incorporate his heritage into his teaching strategy. “I feel a person is defined not by what they do, but by their belief system,” he says. “The accolade represented a feeling of accomplishment not just for my wife, kids, parents, and siblings, but an enormous honor for my people as I became the first Native American recipient of that award in its 104-year history.”
Then he went for a long run to enjoy the moment.