Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — The infamous running boom started almost 50 years ago in the 1970s. Another running boom may be under way with its roots in Albuquerque as more and more people turn to running during the pandemic.

It’s called Running Medicine, a nonprofit program operated by family medicine doctor Anthony Fleg and his wife, Shannon, in coordination with the Native Health Initiative that they founded in Albuquerque shortly after they married in 2005.

It brings together families from throughout the Albuquerque area several times a week in six urban and rural communities, with eight- to 10-week sessions. The program was honored in December with a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports award, which recognizes those who display a collaborative effort at making their communities healthier.

“Running Medicine has found a unique blend of intergenerational play, partnerships, and culturally grounded wellness creating an inclusive space for movement,” Anthony Fleg wrote in a 2019 article he co-authored in the Annals of Family Medicine.

Fleg, who is non-Native, is a family medicine doctor in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico Family Health Clinic and Outpatient Pharmacy Clinic. Shannon Fleg, Diné, from Moenave, Arizona, near Tuba City, is co-director of the Native Health Initiative and the Running Medicine program.

“The running movement and the unique things we do with running has always been medicine for me,” Anthony Fleg told Indian Country Today. “Working with Native peoples has led to what we now call Running Medicine. It is a very intergenerational approach to mind, body, and spirit with wellness.”

Anthony and Shannon Fleg founded the Native Health Initiative and the Running Medicine program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to help Indigenous community members - and non-Natives - to enjoy the benefits of healthy activities. Anthony Fleg is a family physician and professor; Shannon Fleg, Diné, is co-director of the programs. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Fleg)

Shannon Fleg says the program is teaching people how to move at their own pace.

“I know that individuals are interested in health and social determinants of health,” she said. “That is a part of the culture of understanding of improving health and wellness. (Running Medicine) is excited to be a part of NHI and being a participant to share with other families the RM model.”

The pandemic may have given it a boost, with new research showing that COVID-19 has caused a renewed interested in running. A recent study reported on runrepeat.com shows that nearly 29 percent of current runners started running during the pandemic. They are less likely to participate in in-person races than pre-pandemic runners, however, and instead favor virtual races.

Nearly three-fourths of those who are new to running are doing it for their physical health and the benefits of exercise, according to the survey.

Circle of Healing

The Running Medicine “celebrations” start with a circle, sometimes with as many as 80-100 people. Youths are in the center, with adults around the rim.

They begin with meditation and inspiration, followed by warm-up stretches. The group then breaks for 30-40 minutes of walking and running.

It concludes with stretching, strengthening and a traditional Native “handshake line,” to allow each person to thank the other persons for their medicine.

The activities take place on soft surfaces, such as trails or grass, and the program reports a very low rate of injury. Healthy foods and water are included in each session to encourage participates to learn about health eating.

Each person works at his or her own level of speed, ability and competitiveness.

“What we see in front of us are families that come to move together, and they might walk, they might run, they may have kids that run and walk at different speeds, or try something like yoga that we expose them to,” Anthony Fleg said. “They are moving together and sometimes through difficult things such as death in the family or family discord, and we try a positive way through their movement to heal.”

He added, “We want to see an Indigenous wellness boom that brings our relatives to great mind, body and spirit wellness.”

One recent group included several students who will be attending Haskell Indian Nations University this fall, in addition to less-competitive participants, he said.

“It matters that everyone belongs and it doesn’t matter who is fastest,” he said. “This morning we started with cornmeal. We started with putting our intention of who we are running for, and who’s ailing in our individual families and communities. I feel like that’s a beautiful way to do competitive running rather than what our stopwatches tell us today.”

Longtime educator, coach and Indigenous games instructor Dan Ninham, Oneida, of Red Lake, Minnesota, who writes regularly for Indian Country Today, participates in the Running Medicine sessions with his granddaughter Saniya Joy Ninham in the summer of 2021. (Photo courtesy of Arlene Espinosa-Armijo)

The college students may gain a different perspective, he said.

“I look at that work as leadership development and teaching all the principles of what it’s going to take to be successful,” Fleg said. “They’re doing it through track workouts and running at a high, competitive level.”

Yoga has also become a popular part of the program.

Rosalita Marie Whitehair, Diné, is a certified Yoga instructor through the Native Strength Revolution, a Native woman-run nonprofit dedicated to healing Indigenous communities.

She now provides yoga stretches and core-strenghening poses for the Running Medicine participants.

“Every event is family-oriented, playful and supportive,” Whitehair said. “We have fun doing the yoga ‘animal’ poses, like cat-cow, butterfly, up and downward dog, tree pose for the kids and gentle poses for those with limited physical abilities. My fave is getting 100 participants rolling on their back on the grass looking up to the sky in Happy Baby pose.”

Whitehair was a runner throughout her life but also served as emergency management director of the Navajo Nation.

“A key part of running for a lot of us is to clear the mind, running long distances, getting outside and just going wherever the ‘rez’ dirt roads take you,” she said. “Running is our medicine, it helps the spirit, strengthens our bodies, our hearts and our minds.”

Bringing people together

The Flegs bring the components of Running Medicine together.

“I am a healer,” Anthony Fleg wrote in describing himself on The Medical Care Blog. “I am a father, a husband, a brother, and a son. I am a writer. I am a runner. I am a love activist. I am grateful for each new day, and do my best to show this in my life, my actions, and my writing.”

He received his medical degree and a master’s in public health from the University of North Carolina. In addition to his medical practice, he now also teaches at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Family and Community Medicine as an associate professor.

In 2016, he received the U.S. President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition’s Community Leadership Award, which is given to individuals or organizations that enhance opportunities for communities to participate in sports, physical activity or nutrition programs.

He was cited for helping promote healthy lifestyles among Native families and youth, according to a statement from UNC at the time.

In December 2020, he was cited by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with an award that “recognizes and honors those in sport who display an innovative and collaborative approach to making their communities a healthier place to live,” according to a statement from the University of New Mexico. The award carried a $25,000 prize.

“I'm inspired by this year's winners who show us the power of sports to connect us and make us healthier, no matter our race, gender, abilities or economic background,” Julie Morita, the foundation’s executive vice president, said at the time. “Playing sports unites people, and that's a wonderful vision for a healthier, more just, more equitable world for everyone.”

Running has also long been a part of Shannon Fleg’s life.

“Basketball was my sport in high school but I also did cross-country, too,” she said. “Running has always been a part of my life, emphasizing on the health benefits rather than its competitiveness. I met my husband, and running became part of my life more. Now since we have children, running and being physically active is a crucial part to our life. It’s not just about running but that is a part of our daily activities, and it is modeling wellness for others, encouraging others, and running and walking for those who can’t run and walk.”

She has been in Albuquerque for 13 years and has participated in — as well as directed — the program.

“I have been a part of the leadership but also a participant of NHI,” she said. “We have six programs that look at and focus on Indigenous perspective and teaching Native and non-Native people … We are identifying projected activities, programs and projects in the community with service and looking at cultural exchange.”

Community impact

During a recent summer session, Indigenous games were welcomed as a part of the Running Medicine celebrations. The concept of northern woodlands stickball, for example, coincides well with the RM program.

The Running Medicine program, created by physician Anthony Fleg and his wife, Shannon Fleg, Diné, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, helps Indigenous and non-Native community members enjoy the benefits of healthy activities at their own pace. (Logo illustration courtesy of Anthony Fleg)

The medicine in the game is how the game is played; when participants play hard, and play well together, they enjoy the game. That is good medicine.

Participants at an end-of-summer swimming event said the program has changed their lives.

Monica Waikaniwa, Laguna/Acoma Pueblo, has been an RM leader going on three years. She became familiar with RM through Anthony Fleg when her older daughter ran cross-country. She said it helped her and her girls to be stronger within themselves and as a family.

“My older daughter, Destiny, became a youth leader,” she said. “RM helped me as a woman to help them become strong ladies. My youngest is becoming more empowered and more in tune with herself as far as going through different phases of running. She’s a strong leader in her classroom.”

“RM has helped the three of us as a family this year with losing my brother. It has helped relieve the stress and the grieving we’re going through,” she said.

Waikaniwa not only runs but also walks. She has learned to take off the headphones and listen to nature, a move that provides healing no matter what level of movement she is doing.

“RM has been a strength for a lot of individuals,” she said. “It’s not only about running but it’s about moving and healing yourself.”

Her daughter, Destiny, 20, also Laguna/Acoma Pueblo, said the program has helped her realize her potential. She is attending Central New Mexico Community College and plans to transfer to a four-year college to continue studying business.

“RM has empowered me to be a leader and to help the youth be open more and be less shy,” she said. “I helped a girl with cerebral palsy and helped her run at least a half a mile. In the beginning she couldn’t run 100 meters without stopping.”

Kristi Chapman, Laguna Pueblo, is one of Running Medicine’s Circle of Healers. She has been part of the program since 2015, and on the board since 2019.

“RM and NHI programs have been very instrumental in our Native communities and in our urban Albuquerque area in terms of being for Native and non-Native individuals,” she said. “They have brought people together in communities and with that value of love and respect in grooming young people to value that nurturing community for love and service.”

She continued, “RM brings families together and that is important in Indigenous societies. The urban community may not be connected to immediate family back home and RM provides that home away from home.”

Danielle Kie Hopkins, Pueblo of Laguna/Acoma and Diné, who helped author the article in the Annals of Family Medicine, started in the program as a participant before moving into a leadership capacity. She is now logistics director.

She was introduced to Running Medicine through Coach Mike Daney, former national college champion running coach at Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque.

“I was nervous when I first started since I thought I was going to be with fast runners training for a marathon,” she said. “I was really a slow runner but came there and it was more a family environment … being introduced to running and to run for fun.

“We started our healing journey bringing back to our traditional ways and tying mind, body and spirit together and that’s what our family has truly enjoyed,” she said. “RM helps us heal our family trauma and it’s nice to have a home away from home and this is the community you can come to.”

Chavez Holiday, Diné, ran for Daney at Southwest Indian Polytechnic and was on one of the national champion cross-country teams. He said his 6-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter were in the 2021 spring and summer Running Medicine programs.

“They loved it,” Holiday said. “They love to run. They love being outside, and seeing nature.”

Rod Lansing, Diné, the program’s associate director, said he was motivated by listening to members’ stories and seeing the impact on the community.

“It was great to see youth moving along with their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings,” he said. “It was something new to the common practice of dropping off a youth and parents waiting in the car or leaving and coming back after movement….

“Sometimes the best conversations come while exercising and being outdoors away from the internet, mobile devices, and other distractions,” Lansing said. “We all have our struggles and when someone shares their wellness journey, it can put your struggles into perspective and help realize that we can share the same wellness road. Movement is great for mind, body and spirit.”

Rod Lansing’s wife, Janice Yazzie, Diné, has been involved as a participant in RM since the program started.

“What I like about RM is they include everybody no matter how slow, how fast, how tall or short you are, and a lot of kids are included,” she said. “I like them being inclusive for everyone.”

Lansing said everyone has a chance to benefit.

“Everyone is welcome to our circle,” Lansing said. “There will be a space for you, and there is no back row.”

FOR MORE INFO

To review the Native Health Initiative’s Running Medicine 2019 Report, visit this link. For additional information, visit the organization’s website.

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