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Boston or bust: Native runners finish Boston Marathon with victory

Boston or bust: Native runners finish Boston Marathon with victory

WINDOW ROCK

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Boston Marathon, a famous race that attracts thousands of runners every year.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the race was pushed back from its usual date in April to Oct. 11, on Indigenous Peoples Day, possibly for this one occasion only.

Honoring ancestors

From Three Mesas villages – Orayvi, Kiqotsmovi, Hoatvela, and Paaqavi – in Hopi land, Kyle Sumatzkuku emerged as a young endurance runner whose only wish is to help his people and honor his ancestors through running.

Running in the Boston Marathon was Sumatzkuku’s dream, not only would he run alongside the best runners in the world, but it was through opportunities like these that his icons began inspiring others, such as Jim Thorpe, Lewis “Tsökahovi” Tewanima and Andrew Sockalexis.

Sumatzkuku originally qualified for Boston in 2019 when he completed the Shiprock Marathon and was set to compete in 2020. However when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the race was cancelled and Sumatzkuku’s place was bumped up to next year.

Undeterred, Sumatzkuku used this time to further training and preparing for the race. He also spent that time volunteering for food distributions and other services during the height of the pandemic, looking for ways to help his people. He also started raising money so that his family can travel with him when he goes to Boston.

This year was his first time on the East Coast with his family. They got to visit historical sites and interact with the people and learned the culture there. The next morning they got up early so the family can find a good spot to watch while Sumatzkuku stood with the other runners.

“It gave me a good place to get ready physically and mentally,” Sumatzkuku said, “and with seven years of training behind me I just approached it as I was so focused and in the zone.

At the starting line

“Sometimes it feels like an instant blur and sometimes it was monumental being at the starting line with thousand of runners from all over the world. It was a lot to soak in.”

Though nervous, Sumatzkuku felt prepared and ran with the crowd, running on concrete roads that rolled and flatten at intervals. Despite running in the desert, Sumatzkuku was struck by the humidity that clung to him as he ran.

However, he kept going and finished 48th out of 2,400 runners, with a time of 2:26:17. He was also reportedly the first Native runner to finish but that is unconfirmed.

After the race, he found himself in the company of other Native runners from across the U.S, including some Hopi as well. They all stretch and walked together. Despite Boston being an amazing place to visit, Sumatzkuku said it was great finding a piece of home, a piece of Hopi, out there.

“During the race I felt ready and let it roll mentally and spiritually,” Sumatzkuku said. “I was just running to represent my community, my people and the Hopi tribe.

“It was inspiring to run in solidarity, all the tribal community and Indigenous people from all over the globe on that day, each one representing a voice, a call to action for our people.

“And on Indigenous Peoples Day there was plenty to be grateful for including meeting and learning from some of the best Native runners,” Sumatzkuku added.

Sumatzkuku said he enjoyed the trip and had since returned home. The Boston Marathon was a huge success for him and he is already looking forward to breaking his record in the next marathon. And if he does it at the Boston Marathon again that would be even better.

Runner’s high, mental benefits

Michelle Mitchell is from Sanders, Arizona, and although she has been running most of her life, it wasn’t until she became an adult did she become invested.

She mostly runs to relieve stress and maintain her health, but she does run the occasional race every now and then.

She follows the social media group “Native Women Running” as they share posts of Native women running in beautiful lands while encouraging each of their members.

One of the group’s administrators, Verna Volker, said they had some bibs available for Native runners participating in the Boston Marathon and asked Mitchell if she’d like to run in it.

Though surprised and not certain why she was chosen, Mitchell accepted.

Mitchell felt prepared as earlier this year she ran a virtual race for NavajoYes and the Shiprock Marathon, both of which were also virtually.

She was also thinking about running in ultramarathons and since then has increased her mileage. This was her first in-person race since the start of the pandemic.

“It was a different experience,” Mitchell said. “I did not know what I was getting myself into.

“I was not expecting it to be so huge,” she said. “I was more awestruck. Just the buildings alone and I was just standing there literally staring up at these tall buildings and all of these other runners coming together. It was a great experience.

Inspiration to run

“Watching with other runners, competing at a higher elite race and it definitely inspires you to continue running,” she added. “Maybe I’ll qualify and go back, and I’d definitely go back.”

The only problem Mitchell encountered was running on concrete, which hurt her shins and knees as she’s more accustomed to running on dirt and she was also surprised by the humidity. Despite that, she pressed on and crossed the finish line.

Running on Indigenous Peoples Day made her think about her own experience with running and how it helped her maintain a healthy life mentally, physically and spiritually, as was taught in the Navajo culture.

She also met another Navajo runner before the race, Erin Tapahe, and they encouraged each other and thought about the cultural significance of running.

Mitchell thanks her family and friends for the support and also thanks Volker and the Native Women Running community for the opportunity. Saying it was a huge honor to run in a prestigious race on Indigenous Peoples Day.

“I did not realize I had inspired other people through my social media platform,” Mitchell added. “I don’t have a large platform, but I have other runner friends who followed me.

“I didn’t realize how many people are there supporting me,” she said, “and I inspired them and my family were excited I was running the Boston marathon and hopefully I’ll inspire other young Indigenous runners and hopefully my own children to run.”


About The Author

David Smith

David Smith was born and raised in Chinle, Arizona. He graduated from Chinle High School in 2015 and went on to study journalism at Northern Arizona University. He graduated in the spring of 2020 with his bachelors in journalism and a minor in English. He later moved back home where he is now working as sports writer for the Navajo Times. Contact him at david.smith@navajotimes.com

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