Sep | 6

Voices of the Run: Riley Ortega

I started running when I was 10 years old. I’d run everywhere, to my grandmother’s house a mile away from mine or to nearby fields and parks, either by myself or with my childhood friends.

My uncle Danny Poolheco inspired me to start running. He was an ultra runner, one of the best in the state. He once won the Old Pueblo 50 miler and also finished among the top five twice in the Leadville 100 in Colorado. Sadly he was killed by a drunk driver when he was 53 years old.

What I admired about him was that he didn’t really run for competition. He was a member of the Hopi tribe, like me. Running is our tradition, a form of prayer, and that’s what motivated him. After my uncle died, I started to compete. I wanted to get better.

I run about three to five miles a day by ranches and dirt roads, usually in the morning before I go to school because it helps me wake up faster. I like to wake up before the sunrise and run to a hill to watch it come up. I feel like everybody should have running in their lives because it can take you to beautiful places physically and mentally. It’s what to do to soothe the day and help calm yourself.

brooks running stories of diversity, brooks running profile of everyday runners, everyday runner stories, sarah gearhart runner storiesRunning is what helps me stay present, live in the moment and take in my surroundings–everything I see and hear, like my heartbeat and every footstep. That’s also how I like to race. Racing is not all about winning. For me, it’s about experiencing the moment, 80 percent as a form of prayer and 20 percent to be competitive.

I think of running as a gift. I’m naturally good at it, and it’s part of my tradition. Running is also how I talk to my ancestors. I ask them what they thought about when they ran and about how they trained. Sometimes they talk back, but only in my dreams. When I run, I think about all the people that can’t do it, and I carry their prayers.

Last September, I had an idea to run from Arizona to North Dakota. It’s 1,400 miles. My purpose was to raise awareness about the Dakota Access Pipeline. I wanted to make a statement. My whole motive about that run was that water is life. Everyone in the world needs water to survive.

I am more than a runner. I am a Hopi runner. I feel obligated to protect the environment as a Hopi because this is my land and my Mother Earth. I want to keep clean water and a clean environment for my future children and their children.

I can’t live without running. I’m getting into longer distances. One day I’d like to be like [my uncle Danny] and run some of the races that he did. That’d be really cool. And I’d like to pass down the running tradition in my family. I dedicate a lot of my runs to him.

About Sarah Gearhart
Sarah Gearhart is a sports journalist based in New York City. Formerly a senior producer for USA TODAY Sports, her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Runner's World Magazine, ESPN, Vice Sports and Victory Journal. An avid runner for 17 years, she is a three-time Boston Marathon qualifier and has completed 11 marathons, most recently in Berlin, Germany, where she also curated a running-related photography exhibition.
  1. Don Decker

    Riley came to my attention during his 1200 mile run from Yavapai-Apache Nation via Flagstaff, Arizona to North Dakota Pipeline demonstration site in 2016. Since then he participated in the Sacred 500 Mile Run with teens from Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona and the Oglala Nation in late June, 2017 for 6 days running through South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. I admire Riley for his initiative as a community organizer. He will go a long ways in life. Don Decker, Editor of Gahnavah-Yati News, Yavapai-Apache Nation-Arizona.

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