Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Paatuwaqatsi Run - Water Is Life 50K

The Hopi Reservation is located smack dab in the middle of the Navajo Reservation in the northeast corner of Arizona.  For centuries the Hopi people have made their homes in villages atop three narrow mesas named, from east to west, First Mesa, Second Mesa, and Third Mesa.  These mesas and their 600-foot cliffs, have provided the Hopi with water from reliable springs and protection from enemies.  The Hopi keep in close touch with nature, actively farm their land and have developed a rich ceremonial life that maintains balance and harmony with their surroundings and one another.  

In an effort to strengthen community involvement, keep the ancient trails open and keep the villages alive the Paatuwaqatsi Run or Water Is Life Run was created.  The run is a conduit that allow the Hopi to share with other cultures their values and the role that water and running play in their lives.

The Hopi Reservation

First Mesa in the early morning light.

The Hopi village of Walpi sits atop First Mesa and dates back to the 13th century.  Even today the village lacks electricity and running water.  The race course would skirt below the village's walls.

A portion of the intrepid few:  Torrence, Tinder, Andy (your story teller for the following blog) and Liz Roth and Rebecca Valenzuela Franklin

My very good friend Andy Roth traveled from northern California for this, his third Water Is Life Run.  It was Andy who inspired me to join him and the many other ultrarunners, 3-person and 6-person relay teams for an event that's been in existence since 2003.  He sent me his story on this year's run.  His words capture the event so well and I'd like to share a few excerpts with you here.  Thanks to Philip Stark, Michael Skeer and John Douglass for the photos used herein.

"Looking toward First Mesa as Bucky Preston completed his pre-race instructions, I noticed a Hopi woman standing near him, straight, still and focused.  Her formal posture led me to expect that she was waiting to sing, to send us on our way.  But when Bucky finished his instructions, he explained the start signal and, with a wave of his arm in each of the four directions, we charged down the trail, through mud and puddles from last night's intense rainfall."

Bucky Preston, the race founder, sent us off into the desert with a pre-race prayer and a wave and toss of this shirt.

The race lived up to its name this year.  Friday's deluge left some of the course muddy but luckily solidified much of the loose sand that would have other-wise slowed us significantly.  Large puddles and sticky mud awaited us here at the start line.

"A little over five hours later, I came across the woman again, standing the same way, on a berm about a mile from the finish.  My run was going well, but I was tired and getting impatient to reach the finish line, which had been visible from miles away but never seemed to get any closer.  As I ran past, she told me to run with courage and to be grateful to be alive.   I thanked her for the encouragement and ran on, eventually crossing the finish line in just under 5 hours, 16 minutes, as the 16th ultra-runner. 

Waiting for the awards ceremony to begin, I went to refill my water bottle and came across the woman a third time.  I thanked her again for encouraging me during the last mile of the run, and explained that her words had helped recharge me at a low point.  She told me she had run for thirty years herself, and that running was a 'moving meditation.'  She wasn't running today, but she wanted to be out on the course to see the runners." 

Heading uphill between the rocks of First Mesa.

Typical course terrain and desert vegetation.

"She told me she'd seen many dragonflies along the berm, and that this was an auspicious sign:  The Hopi hold dragonflies in esteem because they start "from humble origins" and attain beauty.  I nodded and told her that I also had seen them along the course.  We introduced ourselves by name, and I thanked her again for cheering me on, thinking our exchange complete.  Looking me in the eye, she told me that she'd gone out to the berm to watch the runners shift from earth, to air, to water, and back to earth.  She told me she could see each of the runners who passed her transforming like this.  From previous experience at Hopi, I knew that when an elder begins to explain, it is important just to listen, not to ask questions or to be over-enthusiastic in agreeing.  She emphasized again that each of the runners that she'd seen pass had transformed from earth, to air, to water, and back to earth, before her eyes.  When we run, she told me, our spines are energized and our breath goes out, around the world four times before it goes out to the entire universe, blessing all of it.  Before we parted, she asked me to give her greetings to all of my family.  I thanked her and told her I would imagine her running the trails around First Mesa."

Ancient foot trails.

Climbing up mesa.

"As much as day's events encouraged all of us visiting Hopi land for the run to understand that "we are all one," my exchange with Janice made me realize that she, and others who hold firm to traditional Hopi beliefs, inhabit a different world as well.  Sharing her vision of our dynamic, elemental form, she offered me a glimpse of that world."  

Looking down and across to where we must go.

Atop First Mesa.

"This was my third time running the Paatuwaqatsi ("water is life") ultra, and I keep coming back for these glimpses.  The grandmother and granddaughter from a home outside of Polacca, below First Mesa, are there every year, handing out cups of water, and giving thanks to the runners.  Since 2008, I notice that the granddaughter is getting taller.  Soon she'll be taller than her grandmother.  In front of Polacca's general store, another old woman sat in a chair, showering water on each passing runner as she called Askwali!, thank you."

The final unrelenting hills as we closed in on the finish.

"The generosity of the Hopi, hosting this race and making visitors like myself welcome on their trails, is truly extraordinary.  The material poverty that many of them endure is evident to anyone who runs around First Mesa, but this does not keep them from extending every kindness, from the encouragement and gratitude of volunteers and spectators all along the course, to the traditional meal served afterwards, to awards that would make the directors of other, more commercial ultra-running events green with envy.  I'm grateful to have had the chance to participate again, and I look forward to returning next year."  --Andy Roth

An authentic Hopi post-race meal - mutton stew and watermelon.


Anonymous said...

In 2005 I joined a Sierra Club work party to help prepare the trail for Water is Life. It was a life-changing opportunity to experience the extraordinary Hopi mesas and the peoples' careful preservation of traditional ways.
Thank you's, to all you crazy runners, for continuing to honor these ideals.

ultrastevep said...

I will have to remember this and make the drive up next year, I live in northern NM.
Thanks for the notice..

Speedgoat Karl said...

Nice new photo....ahhhh, remembering Oscar's Pass.

Jannick Kjaer said...

Hi Ian,

I am sorry I am leaving a comment, I can't find your email. I am writing you in the hopes that you want to participate in an e-book we are writing about ultra runners.

We want to tap into the collective craziness (we mean that as a compliment:-)) of this community to challenge and inspire other people to make their own life an ever-greater creative expression of their own goals and dreams… without limits.

We would ask you to answer two questions about your experience with ultra running.

If you'd like to participate please shoot me an email at


All the best,

Dave Mackey said...

Ian, what a super cool race. The southwest is is so special and your write up brings back fine memories of adventures, rock, and canyons. 18 years ago I took a trip with a school group to experience some of the tribes' culture. Our Hopi visit was a special one.

Caitlyn OFlaherty said...

Hey Ian, I am similarly looking for your email but unable to find it. I am wondering if I could use a quote from Andy Roth in a race highlight I'm writing for Trail Runner Mag. Email me at Thanks!