Another Big T Win: Reflections After 4 years as Wings Program Director

Last Saturday I won my fourth race up and down the Aspen Vista trail above Santa Fe. Though I am certainly proud of my reign as “Big Tesuque” champ, the first weekend in October will always be special to me for reasons other than the prospect of free shoes (The Big T Prize) and bragging rights. In my mind, October will always mark the start of a New Year for Wings.


Photo: Max Mujynya

My first day as Wings’ program director was October 3, 2011. To make that start-date, I drove three days straight from New York City. I was somewhere in West Virginia the morning of Big T (10/1/11).  My dear friend (and then-colleague), Delight Talawepi, filled me in on what I missed first thing Monday morning. I was sad to have missed such a perfect opportunity to bask in my favorite things: running, mountains and Fall. I silently set my sights on winning the race in 2012.

For the next year I mostly forgot about my goal as I immersed my self in all things Wings. The learning curve for leading the organization was steeper than any hill I’d ever run and I immediately had to begin researching and recruiting the best Native high-school-aged runners in the U.S.. Soon after ushering the Wings National Team to St. Louis to compete at USA Cross Country championships, I became “the boss” of nearly 20 facilitators as they travelled around Indian Country coordinating running camps for other Native youth. All the while, I juggled other new responsibilities like fund raising, grant writing and program development. Though many Wings collaborators were surprised by the new bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 23-year-old  program director that first year, I never let my inexperience or age discourage me. I used running to help guide me through the challenge.

By early fall of 2012 I had my first year of summer programs under my belt and felt assured that I had not betrayed the Board of Directors’ vote of confidence. But was I still fast? Sure I could still train with our National Team Members and run around playing games all day at Running & Fitness Camps- but what would happen in a race against people my age? As I toed the line on October 6th, 2012, I remember feeling unsure. Unsure of the course ahead of me. Unsure of my fitness level. Unsure of how hard I was willing to push my self up a 6-mile hill.

Lucky for me, the previous years’ champ, Bernard Langat, did not return to defend his title and I won the race by two minutes in 1:24:22. I knew it wasn’t the fastest time in the history of the race but I was proud to have represented Wings so well- especially because the race proceeds were to be donated to the organization.

For the next two wins my Big T times got consistently faster. I mostly attribute this improvement to the fact that I had more time to focus on training through busy summers as I became more comfortable as program director. Those extra miles came in handy when I had Logan Ott biting at my heels for the majority of the race in 2014. Anyone can win a race after they drop their competitors within two miles of a 12-mile race. But it takes real will power to stay ahead of someone chasing (and periodically passing) you for 10 miles.

After crossing the finish line last Saturday the first thing I felt was frustration upon learning that I had not improved my time. The prima-donna race version of my self reared its ugly head and I paced around catching my breath and cursing my lazy legs. Rather than milling about to hear what I felt to be undeserved “congratulations”, I decided to run back up the trail to cool down. A few spectators made cheeky comments like, “Already getting ready for next year, huh?” and, “The finish line is back that way”.  I was suddenly too busy enjoying the perfect Fall morning to pay attention to their cajoling. Unlike my first time ascending the road that day I was running- not racing. More importantly, I was having fun.

I often get questions from runners and/or parents looking for tips on how to foster endurance and speed. It’s easy for me to give long-winded advice that includes obnoxiously specialized terms like “base mileage”, “fartleks” and “lactate threshold”.  But more often than ever, I now encourage runners to “keep it fun”. Unfortunately, this was something I forgot how to do in college when running was my “ticket”. With the help of nagging injuries and teammates infatuated with PR’s, I lost sight of the fact that running was supposed to be something to enjoy. A gift from The Creator.

I’m sad to admit that before and during the race on Saturday I mostly forgot my own advice. As I careened down the road from Tesuque Peak I became consumed with the footing in front of me and moving my legs faster. I didn’t have time to let the stunning landscape above and below me interrupt my mad dash to the finish. I was focused only on capturing another title and running faster than the year before.

Fortunately my cool down provided the wake up call I needed to enjoy the day for what it was- quality time with family, friends and nature. The cool air on my chest and the smiles of other runners as they flew by reawakened the hopeful and easy-come-easy-go dimension of my spirit that had been sedated by my desire to win. As I begin my fifth year at the Wings helm, I must do my best to keep “keep it fun”- and not just when I’m helping lead Running & Fitness Camps or workouts for our National Team. Even the slow days in the office and the planning meetings can offer opportunities to get collaborators excited. So if any of you out there catch me in one of my win/time-obsessed moods, remind me that winning (or “expansion”, or “improvement”) is not the be-all and end-all. Perhaps then I’ll still be able to enjoy the day a worthy competitor ends my Big T win streak. Because it’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN. And when that happens, I’d like to at least be able to set an example for other hard-working competitors of what it looks like to have fun.




Photo: Max Mujynya


Posted in 2015