A River Runs from a Mountain Race to Strong Native Youth

This article originally appeared on Outside

On a June morning in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 26 children are jogging on the city's paved river trail. From kindergarteners to high schoolers, some of them look more at ease than others. That's just how jogging goes on a hot summer day, especially for beginners. Their teenage chaperones lead them to the grassy field of Alto Park, where they're free to sit in the shade, drink water, and stretch before getting up again and playing ball games. Bagged lunches are waiting for them in coolers on picnic tables.

This is a Wings of America summer running and fitness camp, where every attendee and staff member is a member of a Native Tribe and the goal is to encourage self-care through an active lifestyle, with a particular focus on running. The camps are completely free, supported by grants and donations to Wings of America, the sole beneficiary of the nonprofit Earth Circle Foundation of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Based in Santa Fe, "Wings" hosts dozens of running and fitness camps for Native youth each year, plus endurance and coaching clinics for teens and adults. The organization also partners with the Boston Athletic Association each year to take promising high school runners to Boston Marathon weekend, and its flagship program, the Wings National Team, selects and trains high school runners to compete at the USATF Cross Country Championships. Wings has become a springboard to college running scholarships and other expansive opportunities for Native teenagers.

Native runners in a park
The group leaves Alto Park for morning movement along the river at the 2022 Wings Running & Fitness Camp. (Photo: Dustin Martin)

The Sante Fe youth summer camp is primarily funded by proceeds from the annual Big Tesuque Trail Run, held the first weekend of October on the Aspen Vista Trail in Santa Fe. Wings executive director Dustin Martin's first week on the job coincided with the 2011 Big Tesuque Trail Run, and since 2012 he has run the race every year but one (winning six times). The Santa Fe Striders running club, which directs the event, donates 100 percent of proceeds to Wings and also asks registrants to pledge their own donations upon signup.

Martin finds more connection between the race and the camp than just funding. "This camp in particular is so significant because the water is running in the Santa Fe river just next to us. That water comes directly from the watershed that is 'The Big T' race," he says, noting the Big Tesuque Trail Run's location along Big Tesuque Creek. "For me, the race is an opportunity to pray for a good winter of moisture, and to be up there as you see the leaves turn, you can almost taste the change in the dewpoint in the air at that time of year." He adds: "The water and its significance to our existence is just very apparent to me at that time, so during the race I think good thoughts for the mountain and all that it will provide for everyone."

Months ahead of this year's race, in the mountain’s watershed valley, young runners are blossoming. "First and foremost, we hope that they have a lot of fun moving," says Martin, looking on as some campers and counselors start running back and forth in a game that looks like tag. "We encourage them to move by having staff members that they can look up to and can see themselves in, and that play just as vigorously as any camper is expected to," he adds.

After the campers eat lunch, it's time for a presentation from one of the counselors--Wings prefers to call them "facilitators," and Martin takes pride in how the organization selects and trains them. Facilitators are trusted to mentor the youth at more than 20 different camps throughout the summer, and Martin says they've all "proven that they really love and can share running in a healing way."

The post-lunch presentations at these camps cover topics in Native American history, teaching campers about everything from messenger runners in the pre-colonial era to modern luminaries like Olympic gold medal winner Billy Mills-- "to let them know that they come from a tradition of strength and a very strong lineage of runners, and they should be proud of that," says Martin. Other presentations focus on wellness and nutrition, "to remind them that movement was crucial in the ways we gained our sustenance and harvested our crops prior to refrigeration and all these other [modern] tools."

"Hopefully what they’re teaching will stick with these kids for many years to come," says Nancy Davis Roybal, director of Native American Student Services at Santa Fe Public Schools. SFPS has a month-long slate of summer programming for Native students, which the Wings camps get folded into rather seamlessly. In other parts of New Mexico, Wings has to get creative when it comes to recruiting campers and getting the word out about its programs--not so in Santa Fe.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Roybal says as she watches the campers on the grass at Alto Park. "It just brings a smile to my face because the kids are having fun and they’re learning. It's an outdoor classroom all along the river."

Far upstream, this year's 37th Annual Big Tesuque Trail Run will be held on Saturday, October 7. The challenging route climbs six miles and 2000 feet to the summit of Tesuque Peak in the Santa Fe National Forest and then returns to the start, for a round-trip total of 12 miles.

The top competitors finish in about one and a half hours, but the race is as much about taking part as it is about winning. "We’ve designed the race with an early start and a main start, to welcome runners of all abilities," says race director Don Brown. "We’re just as excited to see people finish who didn’t think they could, as much as we are excited to see the fast men and women at the front of the field competing for top honors."

Starting as a small, local event, the field has grown to more than 200 from all over the region. "We’d like to continue to grow the race to our permitted limit of 250, while trying to keep the old-school charm of the race – trail running for the love of running," Brown says.

And the Santa Fe Striders plan to continue their successful association with the Wings of America youth program, connecting with those who lived here before them, and building bridges between "people who love a good challenge and the peace you feel when running in the mountains," Brown says. "We are truly blessed to have this race, this mountain, and this beautiful setting as the aspens turn to gold."

You can sign up for the October 7 Big T race here, and donate to the Wings of America programs here (whether or not you run the race).

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