Shiprock, N.M. – The Strong Warriors Challenge in this Navajo Nation community is gaining in popularity, with 71 participants this year compared with 20 last year.
“The word is getting out about our race here,” said organizer Sharon Ticeahkie. “We’ve improved the course, making it tougher, but not so bad your average athlete will be afraid to enter.”
The course is over 5 kilometers, forcing racers to negotiate sand crawls, hurdles, balance beams, wall climbs, tire obstacles, a 100-meter dash carrying sand bags, and a walk-swim upstream in the swift San Juan River.
Jonathan Charley, 17, a lanky cross-country runner from Kirtland, N.M, came in first with a time of 30.50 minutes.
“The river was tough, I high-stepped through it,” he said. “I got an early gap, and just kept going. An obstacle course is more fun than just running.”
Reynaldo Yazzie, 36, of Farmington, came in second at 36.48 minutes. Angelo Lincoln, 29, a mixed-martial arts fighter from St. Michaels, Ariz., came in third with a time of 36.48 minutes. Lori Todacheene, 38, of Shiprock, was the first female finisher, with a time of 42.11 minutes.
“These events are all the rage now, like the Tuff Mudder and Spartan races. It helps me keep in shape,” Yazzie said, adding he built his own obstacle course at his home to practice.
This reporter accepted the challenge, but with some trepidation. The race was a reasonable $20 and includes a T-shirt plus bragging rights at the pub.
On race day, superbly fit, mostly Native American athletes, are decked out in slick sporting gear doing pre-race pushups and sprints, making my Hawaiian shirt and swim shorts look out of place.
Woody Lee traveled from Sweetwater, Ariz., to volunteer.
“It’s like being a kid again, crawling through the mud, up and over things, jumping in the river,” he said. “We’re teaching kids there is more fun out there than video games and TV.”
Tee Jim, 18, of Shiprock, participates in rodeo, and jumped at the chance to test himself in the Warrior Challenge. He finished 15th, with a time of 47.50 minutes.
“Everyone has been talking about it; it’s pretty cool and it’s close to home,” he said.
Ve’ Hensley, of Farmington, was goaded by his mother Angela Gettler, to enter with her.
“Mom wanted to try it out, so I said I’m ready!” Hensley said.
The gun fired, and a there was a sprint to the first obstacle course, including running through tires, a 50-yard crawl under netting, balance beams and mud pits. Then it’s a 1.5-mile foot race across rugged desert with views of the towering Shiprock spire.
Judges make sure you complete each obstacle. If you fail, the penalty is 15 “burpees,” a type of aerobic push-up.
A grinning volunteer hands you a 30-pound sack of sand and tells you to run toward some distant trees and back.
A hot sand crawl and two 8-foot vertical walls simulates military-type training. Up and over, then into the rushing San Juan River where racers plow 100 yards upstream against a strong current, intensified from recent rains.
A very uneven bottom, logs floating by, and Russian olive trees with 1-inch spikes makes this section tough. Shorter racers start to swim, and we’re all laughing, helping each other along.
For this weekend warrior, my lunchtime runs paid off. On the home stretch, I doubled-down to gain some ground. A gal in a red shirt eludes me, but I finally catch her, then stumble into the dirt. I recover with minimal grace and gain on two other racers, decide not to pass, then reconsider and go for it just when they kick and leave me in the dust.
At the finish, politicians show up in fancy cars and trucks to get in the mix and campaign.
“I’m proud to see the participation here,” says Kenneth Maryboy, a commissioner from San Juan County, Utah, and a candidate for Navajo president candidate. “We’re fighting diabetes on the reservation and nationwide. Two thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. This makes staying healthy fun.”
The next Strong Warriors Challenge is Sept. 13 at the Utah Navajo Fair in Bluff. Register online at www.strongwarriors .com