A Monumental Challenge: Running Across Generations to Raise Grand Canyon Awareness
A Monumental Challenge: Running Across Generations to raise Grand Canyon Awareness
Photos by Derrick Lytle
All four seasons in 36 hours. That’s how Navajo ultrarunner Eli Neztsosie describes his September 1st, 2023, Grand Canyon R5 run.
Incorporating four back-to-back crossings of the Grand Canyon on foot—from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again, twice—the R5, at approximately 88 miles and 21,000 feet of elevation gain, is twice the length of the better-known, two-crossing, Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R3). It’s an extraordinary challenge and one worthy of the size and scope of the Grand Canyon itself.
Growing up on his family ranch in an area known as Smoke Signal Hill, near the remote community of Naa Tsis Asn (also referred to as Navajo Mountain), running was an important part of Eli’s life and an essential part of life on the ranch. In many ways, he had been building toward this day since he was about seven years old.
“I didn’t run for sport, I ran because it was necessary and it was part of my daily life. You’re chasing horses or cows, and running was just something you did as a rancher, especially where I live.”
Later in life, Eli began competing in ultrarunning races and has completed the R3 several times, largely relying on the on-the-job training acquired chasing cattle and covering long distances on foot around his ranch.
“A lot of people ask me: ‘You’ve done 200-mile races, 250-mile races, how much training do you do?’” laughs Eli. “‘I rarely train,’ I say. ‘My lifestyle as a rancher is my training.’”
Living near the Grand Canyon, Eli has always had a special connection to this awe-inspiring place. And, with multiple R3s under his belt, taking on the R5 was the next logical step, but it would take something special to inspire Eli to commit.
Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni
That inspiration came in August 2023, when President Biden designated Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument. As outlined by the Grand Canyon Trust, this “new national monument spans 917,618 acres of forests and grasslands to the north and south of Grand Canyon National Park, including cultural and religious sites, plants, animals, and important water sources that flow into the Colorado River.”
The surge in interest generated by this new National Monument presented Eli with a unique opportunity to bring awareness to a cause he cares deeply about. And the R5 would be the perfect way to do it.
“I want the Grand Canyon to stay the way it is today,” says Eli. “I want future generations to experience it the same way I do 100 years from now—largely untouched. I think running is a great way to bring awareness to these issues because it shows the world these places are out there, and you’re not destroying the land or disrupting nature.”
With our home base in Flagstaff, AZ, we at Kahtoola feel a deep connection to the Grand Canyon and the people inhabiting this landscape. Since 2015, we’ve partnered with the Havasupai Tribe, and more recently, joined forces with a coalition of 12 Tribal Nations, The Grand Canyon Trust and several other non-profit organizations to illuminate the issue of watershed contamination from uranium mining in and around Grand Canyon National Park. When we heard Eli was taking on the R5 to raise awareness about preserving the Grand Canyon, we jumped at the chance to support and help bring this important adventure to life.
Running as a Way of Life
When Eli’s great-great-grandfather first took up ranching near Naa Tsis Asn in the late 1800s, the remoteness of the area made his work particularly challenging. On the ranch, running was, and still is, more a necessity than recreational.
“I think the main reason my family considered running important is because it brought on discipline, as well as other physical and mental benefits,” says Eli. “The way my mother and grandmother talked about it is running gives you the mindset to outrun the bad things in life, both literally and figuratively. Running also gives the strength and endurance to chase down the good things in life.”
An Island in the Desert
Located approximately 30 miles (or a 90-mile drive) East of Page, Arizona, Eli’s ranch is surrounded by dozens of canyons, leaving only one way in and one way out. Winters are extremely cold and summers, extremely hot.
“It’s almost like an island where I live, and there are no aquifers, so we have to navigate these very remote areas to find water sources for the cattle,” says Eli. “You have to navigate 100-foot cliffs and canyons just to get to winter grazing pastures.”
So how did Eli’s family end up in such a special yet unforgiving place? As Eli tells it, this story too, begins with adversity…
In the 1880s, Eli’s great-great-grandfather and his family were homesteading on their land (located about halfway between where Eli lives now and Flagstaff, Arizona), when settlers from other parts of the United States began moving into the area. Eventually, a man showed up claiming the land next to Eli’s great-great-grandfather’s as his own and, although he didn’t agree with it, Eli’s great-great-grandfather allowed the man to establish a ranch there.
Before long, the new rancher began to put up fencing that encroached on Eli’s great-great-grandfather’s land. As time passed, tension grew between the two homesteaders, and when it eventually boiled over, Eli’s great-great-grandfather was forced to relocate to the remote area Eli now calls home. There, he took up ranching and was later joined by other ranchers.
Carrying on the Tradition
In recent decades, most of those other ranches have faded away due to the community’s remoteness, harsh environment and the difficult market conditions that are a reality for many ranchers.
As Eli puts it, “Most ranchers just don’t want to deal with this brutal landscape. But I think it’s the isolation that’s kept the language, heritage and lifestyle of where I live intact. I’m one of the last few who carry on the tradition of living this old-fashioned lifestyle there with cattle, horses and sheep.”
Eli also knows the difficulties he faces as a rancher today pale in comparison to those faced by his grandparents. With this in mind, he uses running to gain insight into hardships his family would have endured over a century ago. Eli believed the R5 would—in addition to raising awareness—be the perfect opportunity to challenge himself in this way. It did not disappoint.
A seasoned racer and ultrarunner, Eli was mentally prepared for the R5—confident he had what it would take to finish. But things don’t always go according to plan. Difficult weather, little water and sleep deprivation all conspired to make this R5 particularly challenging.
Going into the run, Eli planned on carrying only a small amount of water and refilling regularly at the drinking water taps that line the route. Unfortunately, he arrived at the Canyon to discover the taps had all been turned off due to a waterline break. This meant carrying extra water with him—enough to make it from rim to rim and back again—and finding whatever natural water sources he could along the way.
“For me running downhill is harder than uphill, and with a full pack of water, I’m running with eight extra pounds on my back for an hour down these massive steps,” says Eli. “Eventually, I even started drinking water straight from the creek. I know you’re not supposed to, but as a rancher, my body has a really good tolerance: I’m often drinking out of puddles when I’m running at home or out of cow troughs when I’m checking on the cattle.”
Weathering the Storm
While there was little water to be found on the trail, there would, at times, be more than enough coming from the sky. At times, Eli was forced to contend with thunderstorms, flash flooding, cold and heat, not to mention energy-sapping mud left behind by the wet conditions.
“I’m comfortable running in any kind of weather, but the one thing that concerns me is lightning,” admits Eli. “It would have been very irresponsible of me to run through lightning, so I took shelter for about an hour and a half. Once I got going again, there was flash flooding, which was…interesting. I didn’t feel like I was in danger, but it was a unique experience to hear the roar of the rushing water through the creeks—every other time I’ve been there, they’re slow-moving.”
Running on Empty
Having only slept for a few hours the night before his R5, sleep deprivation was a real concern for Eli, especially considering that, even if everything went well, he expected the run to take well over 24 hours.
“Early in the morning, about 20 hours after I started, I was climbing and getting extremely sleepy,” recalls Eli, “I thought to myself, ‘I gotta figure this out,’ and decided maybe if I just pick up the pace and completely haul ass I would wake up. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes of bombing it down the canyon, I was wide awake again and able to finish the rest of the run.”
The Strength to Endure
In the end, Eli completed his R5 in just over 36 hours, a few hours longer than expected. It was a difficult journey but one he was prepared to endure thanks to his experience as a rancher and on the terrain in and around the Grand Canyon.
“I’ve never had really low moments during my running career,” says Eli. “And maybe that’s because when I’m challenged, I think back to what my grandfather went through navigating these lands, and I try to put myself in his shoes. He didn’t have aid stations, running shoes or running packs. The only things he might have had was a sling over his shoulder with a few things in it and some moccasins—maybe even barefoot.”
Keeping the Canyon Wild
Eli believes running has real power to open the public’s eyes to the benefits of preserving the Grand Canyon for future generations: the more people experience it for themselves, the more they will want to preserve it. Its beauty and ruggedness are unlike anywhere else in the world and are worth fighting for.
“Anything to do with the Grand Canyon should be considered with respect,” cautions Eli. “As Native Americans, we view the land as female—Mother Earth and Father Sky—and I guess the best way to put it is she’s fierce, the Grand Canyon, and not to be taken lightly. I want it to remain that way: wild and, in large part, untouched.”