FARMINGTON — John Curley Jr. has been running since he was 7 years old, even if he hasn't always known why. "My father would come storming into my room with no warning before dawn and yell, 'Get up and go run! There's going to be obstacles, and some day I won't be here. Make yourself strong,'" recalled Curley, a 49-year-old from Steamboat, Ariz.
So Curley obligingly ran toward the east every morning to greet the sun. In middle and high school, he ran cross-country and track. As an adult, he continued to run, and, at age 32, he completed his first marathon in Phoenix. With a time of three hours and nine minutes, he finished in first place.
And in 2006, when his 94-year-old father lay on his deathbed, Curley wished he could make the elderly man stand up. At that moment, he said, he found meaning in his father's message and didn't shed a tear.
"I'm going to try and live it," Curley said he decided at that moment. "I'm going to make myself strong."
Since then, Curley has participated in dozens of 26.2-mile races all over the country, including in Boston, San Diego and Las Vegas. In 2009, he organized the Father's Day 10K, which has taken place every year since in Steamboat. On his birthday each year, he takes part in his own personal challenge — running one mile for every year of his life.
And now, at 7 a.m. on May 3, Curley and more than 1,000 other runners will line up in Red Valley, Ariz., for the Shiprock Marathon. From there, the runners head east, with the Chuska Mountains and the Shiprcok pinnacle in their sight to the north, to greet the sun — not unlike what Curley did each morning as a young boy.
For Curley, this will mark his seventh Shiprock Marathon. But the marathon has attracted local runners, as well as athletes from around the world, for 31 years.
"It is a destination marathon," said race director Tom Riggenbach, who is in his fourth year of organizing the event. "Runners aren't just coming to check another state off the list. They get to interact with a different culture."
Although the marathon did not start out as a Navajo tradition, it is now influenced by the culture. Navajo music plays at the start and finish of the race. Runners with the fastest times go home with Navajo pottery as prizes. Immense amounts of blue corn mush, a traditional Navajo dish that consists largely of cornmeal, are served by Navajo women from Red Valley for the post-race meal.
"Runners from 36 states and four countries will get a taste of traditional Navajo cuisine," Riggenbach said.
Riggenbach is excited about many aspects of the race, especially the new event this year. The 10K trail run that traverses over Blueberry Hill behind Diné College is scheduled for May 2, the day before the rest of the events, so contestants can combine the 10K with the half-marathon. The combo offers an option for those who can't run the entire 26.2 miles of the full marathon or would like a mix of road and trail.
Shiprock Marathon contestants are also varied. Since New Years's, 200 children, ages 5 to 12, have been adding up miles run to finish the equivalent of the marathon by May 3. "Super-elite runners" hope to use the Shiprock Marathon to qualify for the 2015 Boston Marathon. One participant this year is an 84-year-old man, Riggenbach said.
"How inspiring is that?" he said.
Proceeds from the Shiprock Marathon benefit Tour de Rez, an annual trip sponsored by NavajoYES in which Navajo youth travel around the reservation to participate in summer camping and mountain biking, as well as community service projects.
Curley and all of the other marathon runners have personal reasons for why they participate in the marathon. But Curley's advice for anyone wanting to run, walk or jog is the same.
"Begin with the end in mind," he said. "There will always be obstacles in the middle, but your mind will already be at the end."