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Bertram Gabriel
November 26, 1979
Indian youngsters growing up in the shadows of ancient pueblos like New Mexico's Sky City reflect age-old traditions by exhibiting a precocious talent for distance running. But after racing brilliantly in high school, they almost invariably drop the sport, descending, figuratively and literally, to the depths of the uranium mines
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November 26, 1979

Running To Nowhere

Indian youngsters growing up in the shadows of ancient pueblos like New Mexico's Sky City reflect age-old traditions by exhibiting a precocious talent for distance running. But after racing brilliantly in high school, they almost invariably drop the sport, descending, figuratively and literally, to the depths of the uranium mines

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The 16-day Hopi Snake-Antelope Ceremony still includes two dawn races of about five miles each. Once even Hopi women ran in the Flute Ceremony. And the Zuni had a six-month racing calendar, for which men were in constant training. The season was inaugurated just before spring planting with a sacred kick-stick race of 20 to 30 miles. Later in the summer, less formal races were held between clans, against Navajos and even against U.S. soldiers from Fort Wingate. With huge piles of food, clothing and jewelry wagered on these events, the anxious bettors, 200 to 300 strong, would follow their teams around the course on horseback. The ethnologist F. H. Cushing, who watched a kick-stick race in the 1880s, reported that all 12 runners completed the 25-mile course in less than 2½ hours.

All this was and is mimetic magic, the setting of human examples for nature to imitate. Kicking a stick or ball across arid land would induce rain to fill the dry arroyos. Races held between the winter and summer solstices would control the course of the sun, ensuring its return. In a religious context, the object was not to win but to push your body to exhaustion; only then would life's vitality be lent to the recalcitrant forces of nature.

Next year marks the tricentennial of an epic Pueblo run that, in a more perfect world, would have had its place in the history books beside the famous jaunt from Marathon to Athens. In the Pueblo Revolt of 1680—sometimes called the first American revolution—the temporarily united Pueblos rose up and drove all Spanish colonists out of New Mexico for 12 years. The initial coordinated Indian attack, which had been secretly planned for Aug. 11, 1680, had to be advanced suddenly when the Spanish governor in Santa Fe learned of the plot on Aug. 9. So the uprising began the morning of the 10th, after Indian runners fanning out from Tesuque Pueblo had carried the message in a single day as far north as Taos and as far west as Acoma—distances many times greater than 26 miles, 385 yards.

Even though most of the age-old races have been discontinued, other rites that remain a vital part of Pueblo life put an equal premium on forcing the limits of human endurance. At a conservative pueblo like Acoma, initiation into a battery of esoteric societies requires all boys and girls to undergo a long and secret ordeal at about the age of puberty.

"Just about every Indian custom stresses stamina," says Coach Hunt. "In everything we do we talk about enduring pain, no matter what." The summer rain ceremony held at Sky City last July offer a fair example of this, although it was confined to the 70-acre mesa top and closed to all but male Acomas. Martinez, who took part, says, "The men and boys run back and forth from house to house, up the ladders of the kivas, down the ladders, all day and almost all night. It's sort of like helping out. You're helping the corn to grow faster and to make it rain. It's worse than running a marathon."

Despite such traditions, when Martinez first began competing he was recognized as something of a prodigy. His two older brothers, Vernon and Galen, preceded him at Grants High, where each took a turn pacing the cross-country team. Once during the hunting season, Galen had tagged a deer by running it into the ground, and for years after, it was a joke at Grants High that anyone who couldn't catch a deer had no business on the cross-country team. But in 1972, while still an eighth-grader, Andy nearly ran Vernon into the ground at the state cross-country finals, where he finished a close second to his older brother. When he was in high school, Andy swept four state cross-country titles in a row, a feat performed only once before by a U.S. teen-ager.

Because of the religious status given endurance, many Pueblo runners in their early teens are years ahead of non-Indian kids. The measure of Martinez' potential was once taken by the late Steve Prefontaine, who saw Andy run at an Albuquerque track meet and pronounced him further along as a high school sophomore than he himself had been. Prefontaine, who had blossomed into the best middle-distance prospect in the world by the time he entered the University of Oregon in 1969, had turned in a 4:32 mile and a 9:42.5 two-mile as a 10th-grader. By comparison, Martinez ran his precocious 4:17.9 mile and his New Mexico two-mile record of 9:29.1 during his freshman year. College recruiters, assuming, not surprisingly, that he was a senior, flooded his mailbox with letters of introduction. There was no guarantee, of course, that Martinez would develop into America's next track sensation, but Jerry Tuckwin made some excited calculations at the time and his projections indicated that Andy would be capable of a four-minute mile his first year in college, and in three more years would be world-class at 5,000 meters.

Only two runners challenged Andy's supremacy in high school: Gary Louis and Meldon Sanchez, both Acomas and both a year behind him. Louis, who also ran for Grants High, finished a maddening second in cross-country meets all over New Mexico, although it was a different story on a flat track, where he held the state two-mile title as a sophomore, junior and senior. Sanchez, who attended Laguna-Acoma High, became a three-year state Class AA champion in cross-country, mile and two-mile.

True, the best times of the three Acomas are only mediocre compared to what the swiftest high school runners in other states have done. Sanchez' best mile was 4:23, his best two-mile 9:35. Louis, who broke Martinez' state two-mile record with a 9:29 in 1977, would have been outclassed by Prefontaine in 1969, when Steve set his still-unbroken national high school two-mile record of 8:41.5. What has to be understood is that all three Acomas so far outclassed their in-state competition that they never had to work for their laurels. Even more telling, Sanchez and Martinez produced their best times as ninth-graders, while Louis, a high school All-America in his sophomore and junior years, had only a middling senior season. The colossal loss of ambition that would lead all three to turn down opportunities to run in college had begun even in the flush of their earliest successes.

Nonetheless, on a few occasions they were capable of electrifying efforts. In one race, when Andy was a junior and Gary a sophomore, the two were the youngest entrants in a field of college runners. Pressed by the older competition, Martinez won and Louis was second, both finishing the three-mile cross-country race in under 14 minutes. So impressive were the times that the coach who laid out the course had to swear up and down that the distance was correct.

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