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Harmony on High
Jaime Diaz
February 15, 1988
Al Waquie, a Pueblo Indian who finds spiritual peace in mountain running, is a great one for scaling heights
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February 15, 1988

Harmony On High

Al Waquie, a Pueblo Indian who finds spiritual peace in mountain running, is a great one for scaling heights

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Felix Waquie, who still runs in ceremonial races, chuckles as he listens to the fifth of his 10 children, whose trophies are displayed in the dining room next to Corina's prizewinning baskets and pottery. "Al, he's always been a lucky guy," Felix says.

From a visitor's perspective, luck would seem to be in short supply in Jemez Pueblo, a rundown collection of adobe and stucco structures set between unpaved streets and unkept yards. Jemez suffers from the same social maladies that afflict other reservation villages. The median household income is about $2,500 a year. Unemployment hovers around 60%, and most of those with jobs work in Albuquerque. Federal assistance accounts for about 70% of the tribe's income. Alcoholism is a problem among Jemez's males. Still, a feeling of alienation from the modern world keeps most of the population tied to the reservation and its traditions.

Billy Mills, a South Dakota Sioux who won the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, knows firsthand the struggle that faces American Indians. "White culture doesn't allow an Indian to be an individual," says Mills. "You are an Indian first, then an individual. Because the values of white society make Indians uncomfortable, most of our young people end up saying, 'I'll stay with my environment and my traditions because at least I understand them.' "

This dilemma is particularly frustrating to track coaches who see vast but wasted potential in Indian runners. "Native Americans don't seem to respond to normal motivational coaching," says Joe Vigil, the cross-country coach of NAIA champion Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo., who recruits in the Southwest. "They never develop to their potential because they don't want to dedicate themselves to the white man's ways."

It's debatable whether Waquie has realized most of his potential. After his two years of junior college Waquie didn't accept a scholarship offered by Kansas, which Mills attended. He has concentrated on mountain running, and his success in flat-road competition has been limited. He still harbors hopes of excelling in the marathon when he is older, as has Carlos Lopes of Portugal, who won the 1984 Olympic marathon at age 37, but admits he's unfamiliar with the latest training methods. "I'm just more comfortable with my Indian way."

He may be rooted in the past, but Waquie is a gregarious sort who enjoys traveling to the half-dozen races he competes in each year. "I don't get homesick," he says. "We are taught to be friendly. I want to see other people." He speaks with great pride of his accomplishments, from his running to his skill as a horseman. He enjoys being a role model for young Indian runners like his cousin Phillip Madalena, a 16-year-old who won the 3,000 meters at the National Junior Olympics last summer. "I will be a legend," he says. "You never know, maybe someday they will do a movie about my life, like Running Brave [the film biography of Mills]. Or maybe I could do a commercial for a four-wheel vehicle. I think I would be perfect for that."

It's an attitude that some of the Jemez people might object to, for any hint of self-aggrandizement is frowned upon in Pueblo culture. But Waquie has chosen the lonely road of the achiever. His friendships revolve around sports. He never hangs out in the village bar. "A lot of our athletes feel forced to drink and smoke, but I'm an individual who follows his path and keeps going," he says. "My grandfather always told me, 'Whenever there is a big crowd, just stay away. Be on your own.' "

He nearly always runs alone, often heading into the mountains and not emerging for five days. A vegetarian who sometimes goes on four-day fasts to "purify" his system, Waquie sustains himself in the mountains with spring water, roots and berries. "When I'm up there in the sacred places, I just don't want to come home," he says.

Not surprisingly, Waquie has physically adverse reactions to parts of the so-called civilized world. The air pollution commonly found at sea level gives him headaches. He once had a sip of coffee and contends it was enough to keep him up all night. The smell of cooking grease makes him nauseous.

New York City is particularly hard on him. The noise leaves his ears ringing for days. The 11 to 12 minutes he spends sucking in the dank, stale air of the Empire State stairwells gives him a sore throat that usually hangs on for a week.

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