Running through exhaust

Illinois cornfield and rural road - Photograph by Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert

On Friday of last week I went on a run that brought me to the middle of corn fields outside the city of Champaign, Illinois. As I plugged away on a country road, a large truck drove by and I got a mouth full of exhaust. This is one of my least favorite parts about running on rural roads.

But it reminded me of Hopis during the 1910s and 1920s who “ate exhaust” in many marathons that they competed in. It was not uncommon for newspaper reporters or race officials to drive their automobiles 10 or 15 feet in front of the lead runners.  Some runners were so overcome with exhaust that they quit.

Back out at Hopi, runners did not have to contend with automobile exhaust, but when they competed in events beyond the mesas, it became a serious issue for them to manage.

It’s difficult enough to run long distances with high heat and humidity, and sore legs and feet, but adding the heavy exhaust element to running must have seemed unbearable.

And yet the vast majority of Hopi runners pressed on to complete (and sometimes win) the marathons that they started.

For the runners, the exhaust was simply another obstacle for them to overcome. It was one more hurdle for them to navigate through when they ran beyond their homelands in northeastern Arizona.

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert

I run because I’m Hopi

I have been running regularly for the past twelve months. This winter I found myself running in all kinds of wet and frigid conditions. Sometimes when I run, I imagine myself on the dirt trails out at Hopi, and not the city streets and paths of Champaign, Illinois. But Hopis have a long tradition of running beyond the mesas, and I like to think that this tradition still exists in the Midwest.

I am not the only one in my immediate family who runs.  My wife is an avid runner, and our daughters refer to themselves as “Hopi runners.”  They are also Irish on their mother’s side and I often remind them that the Irish are known for running long distances as well. I hope they will appreciate this more as they get older.

My daughter is already quite the runner.  I am constantly amazed by her running form and how effortlessly she makes running appear.  She and her sisters are sure to run cross-country in middle and high school.

Some people run to lose weight or to relieve stress.  Others run to lower their cholesterol or blood pressure. Although these are great benefits of running, I tend to focus less on these reasons. A friend once asked me why I run.  I simply replied, “I run because I’m Hopi, and that’s what Hopis do.”

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert