FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Alvina Begay is one of the fastest Native American women in the country. You may recognize her stoic gaze and defined cheekbones from Nike ads. Distance running has been a catalyst for Begay and for many other young Navajos enduring hardships like drug and alcohol abuse, gangs, high dropout rates and unemployment.
It’s Navajo custom from a very early age to get up before the sun, run to the east and shout to the gods. In return, Navajos say, you will be blessed.
"I didn’t know what that meant, I didn’t really care because I just wanted to sleep," Begay said.
But Begay has kept up that morning ritual because she says now she understands why her parents made her do it.
"Those gifts that my parents said that I would be blessed with didn’t come to me in material ways," Begay said. "They came to me in the form of teaching me how to get through hard things, to keep working toward goals, and to just keep striving and pushing even if it was really hard."
And life has been really hard for Begay. She’s dealt with a string of injuries. And her father, a former runner himself, has struggled with alcoholism.
She said her mom and a grassroots program called Wings of America kept her focused on her goals. Wings provides running camps for Native American youth and selects a team of young athletes to compete in elite competitions in front of college recruiters.
Until recently, Shaun Martin directed Wings.
"Running, to me, is everything," Martin said.
Martin teaches and coaches high school cross country in Chinle, Ariz. He also runs ultramarathons. He’s currently training for a 100-mile race. He met his wife running in high school. He went to college on a running scholarship.
"So it gave me an education," Martin said. "It gave me my career. It gave me my wife and my kids, everything that I hold sacred."
At practice Martin tells his kids running is a prayer.
"Pray as hard as you can with your feet, your body, your lungs, the air and push yourself to the breaking point so you learn about yourself, become familiar with hardship, become familiar with pain, make the uncomfortable comfortable," Martin said. "And once they see that connection, our kids work."
Martin said he’s constantly inspired by his athletes’ ability to endure.pe="oembed" width="300" align="left" >http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxllYQwbvWg&feature=youtu.be
"I’ve gone and I’ve had meals with their families in their homes and I’ve experienced some of the things that they’ve experienced," Martin said. "And to see them come to school on a daily basis and be positive and not focus on all the hardships they endure is enormously inspiring."
Martin reminds his team of the Navajo creation story. The twin warriors were chosen to slay monsters that plagued the people. These two warriors trained by running great distances. Martin tells his kids 'through running, the warriors learned all the skills they needed to overcome the monsters and so can you.'
"They are like the twin warriors," Martin said of his team. "They are using running to better themselves and better the people around us around them and better the Navajo people because they represent the entire nation the entire Navajo Nation."
In his nine years of coaching cross countyr, Martin's runners have brought home 12 team titles and 18 individual state champions. But more important to him are his kids academic and personal successes. Martin has had a 100 percent success rate getting his kids to graduate from high school, and 42 of his students have received athletic or academic scholarships, some with the help of Wings of America.