Virtual racing: Socially distanced, but NavajoYES works on youth events
Despite setbacks, NavajoYES didn’t let COVID stop the organization.
In 2020, NavajoYES events were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following CDC and Navajo Nation guidelines, all activities were suspended following the lockdowns in March.
With everything closed, it was a wonder what NavajoYES could do.
Tom Riggenbach, executive director of NavajoYES, said he and his group didn’t despair. Of course, they were worried about the pandemic, but they saw it as a setback, and the group leadership stayed in contact throughout the ordeal.
“Basically, we’ve had to adjust some of our programming and some of our activities and priorities based on Covid obviously, and the Covid restrictions on the Nation,” Riggenbach said. “We started doing most of our events as virtual events.
“And that worked out really nicely, especially for that first several months when everybody was very uncertain about what was what was going on,” he said.
One positive that came out of the lockdowns was that it gave the group time to reorganize and plan what it could do.
“I think part of the thing is, everybody was so restricted and limited in what we could do,” Riggenbach said, “and I think people found it really fun and helpful to be able to do some positive things and to have discussions.
“And it seems like it was well-received by everybody,” he said.” And I think everybody was just really glad to see the meaningful talk, discussions about trails and what not, as everything else was somewhat limited at that point in time.”
In the Nation for 34 years
NavajoYES is a nonprofit organization that has existed for nearly 34 years on the Navajo Nation.
Its mission is to encourage youth to live healthy lives through community activities such as marathons, bike riding and trail hiking while enjoying the natural land – Diné Bikéyah.
Since 1988, NavajoYES created five programs that focus on cycling, running, trail initiatives, outdoor adventuring and youth programs, all of which focus on improving the community’s and youths’ heath.
Two years ago, NavajoYES began hosting virtual races and asked participants to sign up online, race their designated miles wherever they were, and post the information.
Volunteers mailed their packets containing bib numbers and awards (the volunteers would sanitize the material before sending).
Many people would agree they’d prefer in-person races so that they can run in iconic locations and interact with others.
Riggenbach believes the virtual races served their purpose and helped the community stay active.
Although the lockdowns prevented people from staying fit, he believes modern technology helped people keep in contact and reassure and encourage one another.
At the same time, it allowed NavajoYES members to coordinate while separated.
They also volunteered for food distribution in some communities and in hard-hit areas and donated bikes to help youth get active and take their minds off things.
Another thing that NavajoYES did in the past two years was focus on repairing and creating nature trails on the rez.
System for trails
Since the 2000s, NavajoYES has advocated for the importance of nature trails because it’s a healthy activity for people.
Advocates say trails help people to explore the beauty of the Nation and provide a connection to Navajo culture.
In 2015, the Navajo Trails Task Force was created comprised of a group of volunteers that travels across the rez to help communities with trail projects.
They specialize in clean-ups to creating new pathways, done through grassroots efforts with help and representation from the Division of Natural Resources and Navajo Parks & Recreation.
Also with support from President Jonathan Nez, Engineers Without Borders, International Mountain Bike Association, Southwest Conservation Corps, American Conservation Experience, Gallup Trails, and the Arizona Trail Association.
One of the group’s big projects is building the Chuska Mountain Bike Route, which starts in Red Valley and ends in Mexican Water.
The group also focused on the Code Talker Trail in Window Rock, the Rainbow Trail at Navajo Mountain, and the Four Corners Monument Trails, among other projects.
With all parks closed, the group found working there could be safe and helped maintain pathways, restore signs, construct toilet facilities, and clean up campsites.
Often, they acted in small groups, usually with volunteers from communities closest to the projects.
Last year, the group published their Navajo Nation Trail Guide 2021 edition, selling over 24,000 copies.
The group has worked on a dozen projects during the pandemic, encouraging people to check them out, saying the parks are as much for the local community as they are for visitors.
Riggenbach encourages people to travel the trails at the Little Colorado River Gorge, Rainbow Bridge, Lake Powell and Grand Canyon National Park.
Riggenbach gives credit to his group, the volunteers, and the workers at the national park and encourages people to support the parks and their projects.
Reuniting after isolation
Two years since the pandemic’s start, the tribe is slowly reopening, and gatherings are allowed again.
NavajoYES hosted its first race in February, the Little Colorado River Half Marathon, followed by the Shiprock Marathon and the Monument Valley Bike Race.
The many people in attendance said they were happy to participate in the activities again.
However, compared to pre-pandemic numbers, there aren’t as many people signing up for the in-person activities. Riggenbach hopes the number of participants increases while COVID cases decrease.
“It was really good,” he said. “It has been a bit of a challenge to try to get everything moving forward and keep everything moving forward.
“But I think we’ve been able to make some pretty good strides,” he said.
Riggenbach said NavajoYES is following all CDC and tribal guidelines for hosting events safely and preventing the spread of COVID-19.
With that, he encourages people to go out and exercise and have fun, maybe enjoy the trails, but to do so safely.
Riggenbach knows how terrible the pandemic was for many families. He said he knows many people are still suffering, but he hopes these community activities can help people heal.
He also hopes isolation shows how important it is to get out and exercise or to enjoy being outside. It’s been a long two years, but he believes that the Nation is starting to improve.
“It was definitely different,” Riggenbach said. “It seemed like people really appreciated it through (the virtual events), at least on our end.
He added, “But by the middle or latter part of 2021, folks were probably feeling maybe they’re ready to get back to live events. And obviously, that’s where we all are now, and that’s really great, and you could feel it.
“Everybody’s just really happy to be back in person,” he said, “with friends and family and reconnect again at that level.”