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Encouraged by friends, family and music

PHOENIX – Thank you King of Pop and King of Rock. Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley helped me finish my first marathon; at least their songs on my iPod did. I held on to the words of certain songs during the difficult times of the race like when my knee started to bother me, “Beat it. … beat it.”

Just two weeks prior to the mid-January P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon I was having second thoughts; my motivation waned. I was burned out from logging so many miles during the six months I trained. Is it worth it I asked? After three half-marathons I wondered if I could run twice the length.

Distance running is a Native American tradition. Tribes relied on runners for survival and it was integrated into the culture for spiritual and recreational purposes. Plus it’s literally in my blood. My mother ran a marathon and so did my late brother. Still, the day of the race I just wanted to get it behind me. I decided this would be my only marathon.

The night before the race about 80 people showed up for the 4th annual Spaghetti Dinner for Native American runners sponsored by the Ak-Chin Indian Community and the San Carlos Apache Tribe. My family and I started this tradition as a way to meet other Native runners. Most hailed from the Navajo Nation. There were others from the Hopi, Pima, Tohono O’odham, Pueblo and Apache nations. The Native runner who traveled the longest distance came from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana. The event grows every year and has become a source of inspiration. Many runners have shared stories of overcoming diabetes and high cholesterol or simply wanting to lose weight and get fit.

One of the eldest female runners encouraged the audience to lead a healthy lifestyle. “I started running when I was a child. I used to pick on my younger brother and make him cry. When my mom found out, she would come looking for me, so I ran,” said Kathy, Navajo, 65, with a laugh. “Native Americans drink so much soda. I used to be that way. It’s so important to exercise and eat right.” The eldest male runner was Raymond Pinto, 70, Navajo.

There were others with inspirational stories like Isadore Boni, who is infected with HIV and wore a T-shirt during the half-marathon with the words “Aids Survivor.” He started running last year as a way to lose weight and cut down on his high blood pressure medication. In the past, he cheered people on from the sidelines. “I would watch others do what I thought was impossible. I thought ‘I have AIDS, there’s no way I can do this.’ Then I reminded myself I’m Apache and there’s nothing I can’t do.”

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As the dinner came to an end I asked for parting words. “Bring some toilet paper,” someone yelled. People chuckled and smiled. “Seriously; the port-a-johns run out,” he added. I obediently brought a little the next day along with three energy gel packs, my iPod and cell phone.

My cell helped me stay connected with other Native runners. Aside from M.J. and Elvis, their encouraging texts pushed me when I needed it including one that read, “Keep going! U own those miles! U got this! I’m gonna cheer u in. U R not alone. So proud of u. Go, go, go!”

Running my first marathon was unlike anything I’ve experienced. I’ve heard some runners say a marathon is easy. I decided to do the run/walk method, stopping every mile to walk 45 seconds. The long runs, weight training and cross training helped. Still, my first marathon was far from easy.

My body started to show signs of weakness at mile 17, but the small aches in my legs went away. I’ve heard about hitting that infamous “wall” around 20 miles. I can’t say I hit a wall, but with three more miles to go my body was definitely screaming at me, including my eyes. One of my final texts to a friend read “1 more mile to go, running cross-eyed! :)”

What made it all worthwhile was seeing my family including my parents, relatives, goddaughter and friends near the finish line. My nephews brought noisemakers leftover from New Year’s Eve. My mother, who finished her marathon some 30 years ago, rang a cowbell. A friend held a homemade sign. My sister Millie, who earlier completed a half-marathon, stuck around to help cheer me in.

I was happy to hear one of the top five female finishers and the only American among the top five females was Alvina Begay, 29, Navajo, who ran fast enough (2:37) to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials. She was one of only eight Americans in the race to do so.

On the day of the race, after six hours of running/walking and sheer exhaustion, I again decided it would be my only marathon. Now, days later, a fellow marathoner asks what my next race will be. How about San Diego she asks. Hmmm.