While jogging on the spot, Mexican-American runner Noé Álvarez showed his passport to the border agent in Nogales, Arizona. Álvarez was participating in the Peace and Dignity Journeys (PDJ), an ultramarathon for runners of indigenous background like himself. His group had run 3,200 miles from the Arctic to the US border with Mexico. They still had miles to go before their destination of the Panama Canal, but for Álvarez, the crossing into Mexico had extra meaning – it was the homeland of his parents before they immigrated to the US. The border agent, a fellow Latino, smirkingly asked if he was running in the wrong direction.
It’s an emotional moment in Álvarez’s new memoir, Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land. The book chronicles not only that epic run in 2004 but also the background of the author and his immigrant parents.
“I feel like I’m still writing it,” Álvarez says. “It continues to inform my life. It took me years to figure out how I was going to tell it.” Ultimately, he decided on uniting the beauty of the journey and the messy moments along the way “through the medium of running.”
And what a run it was. The PDJ is a quadrennial event intended to reconnect indigenous participants with their ancestral land, with the latest edition, which had been due to take place this year, cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak. In 2004, Álvarez’s group was heading south to rendezvous with another group running north from Argentina.
“We ran beyond trying to burn calories,” Álvarez says. “Those [kind of] runners didn’t last. It’s bigger, larger than yourself … Before you knew it, 10, 15, 20 [miles a day] was easy,” although, he clarifies, “we were hurting afterward.”
There were unexpected difficulties — an encounter between Álvarez and a mountain lion in Oregon, stone-throwing motorists in Mexico, and tensions between the author and some of his fellow runners. And he didn’t quite finish the way he intended to. But the first-time author has come to find satisfaction in both the run and his life trajectory.
Álvarez grew up in Yakima, Washington, the son of Mexican immigrants of Purépecha heritage. His father worked in an orchard, his mother at an apple-packing plant. As a teenager, he worked with his mother at the plant, describing the days as physically demanding; he said his mother is starting to lose sensation in her hands from overwork. He also started to run, although he grew up thinking of it as a way to keep one step ahead of immigration authorities.
He received a full scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, but says he felt “cultural shock on all sorts of levels. I had difficulties, there was the shame of failing, I could not save my family.” Serendipitously, he learned of the PDJ from “a friend of a friend of a friend.”
“I had to do this,” Álvarez explains. “It was part of my escape. I was not connected to college at the time. It was not how I needed to learn. College was joining the run.”
He joined one month in, after the group had started its journey from Alaska. Their paths crossed in British Columbia. Fellow runners collectively represented nine indigenous communities.
“It was interesting to see how fluid and multilayered our identities were,” he says of his fellow participants, whom he portrays through composite characters in the book. They included runners of Mexican heritage living in Canada, and “an elder, our spiritual guide, from the Arctic.” He noted that there were “some former gang and military members and others completely living off the land,” and women runners committed to “female energy, healing power, balance.”
PDJ runners start and end each day with a ceremony, and carry feathered staffs during the run. Daily destinations are indigenous communities across North America. At each stop, community members share an important cultural story with the runners, signifying the story with a feather to add to the staff. Sometimes they also shared running traditions, including running as a group in the Tohono O’odham territory in the Arizona desert.
Álvarez, who had never run more than 10 miles in a day, would receive myriad tests. The PDJ takes place relay-style, with each runner committing to a certain amount of mileage each day while others wait their turn while traveling by motor vehicle. He learned to eat on the run, finding that a hard-boiled egg stuffed into his pocket might not be the wisest nourishment with wildlife around. He and his fellow runners slept in all manner of venues, from campgrounds to casinos, and encountered varying terrain, from the forests of Canada to the deserts of Washington and Arizona to the jungles of Mexico.
“It was not just running blindly,” Álvarez says. “It’s a story about why land is important to people.” He noted that in the Canadian forests, trees were being cut down for the ski industry and the Winter Olympics, while more arid areas were suffering from drought.
“We honored the land that a lot of people depend on,” Álvarez says. “We were physically walking, running and connecting with it every step of the way.”
In Oregon, he made an unexpected connection – a mountain lion waiting for him atop a peak.
“I was completely unprepared,” Álvarez recalls. “I couldn’t run back. I had to keep moving forward.” He says that when he joined the run, “one guy, a really good friend and spiritual guide, talked about how to be thankful for the presence of an animal that decides to notice you, sort of take it as a message, an opportunity to reflect.”
In the book, Álvarez describes the mix of gratitude and footwork that helped him escape the big cat. “Luckily, I’m still here,” he says. “I did some studies on what you’re supposed to do, and they said definitely don’t run. It’s definitely the dumbest thing I probably ever did.”
After the group crossed into Mexico, they encountered a different kind of danger: people who threw rocks from cars. Female runners were also at risk of assault; Álvarez describes one attempt that left some runners wary of continuing.
“We came across situations with real shady encounters, people trying to force you into a vehicle, throw rocks at you, who didn’t want you there,” Álvarez says. “We adjusted, ran in pairs … Some territories were extremely unsafe. If you didn’t want to run, you didn’t have to. Others took on the miles.”
Ultimately, it was a familiar runner’s story – injury – that determined Álvarez would finished his run in Guatemala before he could reach the Panama Canal. He calls it “the toughest decision, probably, I ever had to make.”
“I didn’t want to quit,” he says. “But knowing when to quit was part of the lesson.”
This lesson has stayed with him ever since – as has the border officer’s question about whether he was running in the wrong direction.
“I no longer think about the wrong direction,” Álvarez says. “I have a line of inquiry now, a ritual of asking the questions I need to.” And, he says, “Running is the way I process things now.”