The Ultimate Warrior
Craig Curley Draws On Navajo Spirit To Reach The TCS New York City Marathon
As Craig Curley heads out the North-facing front door of his apartment, the early morning sky shrouds his Tucson neighborhood in darkness indistinguishable from the dead of night.
He walks slowly, saying a prayer and taking in the serenity of the palm trees backlit by the street lamps and the hum of nearby cars as he embarks down Silverbell Road toward Sentinel Peak.
The 25-year-old is as concerned with the direction of his run as he is with the tempo of this workout. Direction is of utmost importance to Curley, who lives his life as an elite athlete according to the ancient teachings of his Native American upbringing.
“The Navajo tradition instills the teaching of being in harmony with nature, animals and people,” Curley explained. “We're told to wake-up early at dawn and run to the East to meet to sunrise. The sun represents a new beginning, new opportunities and it's up to you to meet those blessings. Running toward the sun everyday teaches you about your surroundings. Your responsibility is to care for your surroundings because you're surrounded by life. Take care of the life around you and the life around you will care for you.
“In running I use my Navajo tradition in the same way. I'm running for health in mind, body and spirit. In order to care for the things I love, I have be willing to work hard and be discipline. Every day is a day to start something positive and seize the day.”
Curley has applied those principles, as well as the perseverance gained from a laborious upbringing on a Native American reservation to blossom into one of America’s promising young distance runners. Through sheer determination, he has climbed the U.S. road racing ranks from a next-to-last finish in the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon to a spot in the elite field at the TCS New York City Marathon
“New York’s the venue I’ve always wanted to go to because it’s the greatest road race in the world,” Curley said. “For a while, it was like a feeding-me-to-the-wolves kind of a deal because the marathon was so new and scared me enough. But I was like, the only way you can face your fear is if you face it.”
Curley was born the fifth and youngest child to a Navajo family living in Kinlichee, part of the Fort Defiance Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The nine-square-mile swath of land near the Four Corners in Northeast Arizona was returned to the native Navajo in 1868, nearly three decades after thousands saw their livestock slaughtered and were forced to walk 450 miles to internment near Fort Sumner, New Mexico under the order of Brigadier General James H. Carleton.
Although a treaty allowed the Navajo to return to the land their ancestors inhabited since the 13th Century, life in the Pueblo Colorado river valley is hardly prosperous. According to the 2000 census, the median household income of the area was just under $39,000 annually with 18.3 percent of the population living below the poverty line, including 29.8 percent of those under age the age of 18.
That reality meant Curley, as soon as he was old enough to manage the physical demands, was expected to work the land, before anything else, with his older siblings, brothers Sherwin and Bryan and sisters Sherlyn and Valerie, and the rest of the family.
“I grew up on a farm so I had responsibilities at a very young age,” Curley said. “We had no running water. We had no electricity. There would be no babysitters so if someone was hauling wood I would go with them. That was my babysitting for me, someone watching over me while they herded cattle and I was brought along.
“The winter would be the season where we would need to spend our weekends hauling wood, so we would go out and chop wood and lift the wood for the rest of the winter because we would use that for warmth in our wood stove. The spring and summer were mostly meant for planting. My parents also have 200 head of churro sheep, which we would have to shear by hand.
“Where I grew up there's no running water or electricity so at 10 years old I was driving the tractor to haul water,” Curley continued. “We would have a water trailer hooked up to the tractor and I would drive to a windmill a couple miles away and bring back the water that would be used for bathing or for other household uses and also for our livestock. The horses drink a lot of water and when you have 200 sheep the water gets used pretty quickly.”
Despite the hard labor, Curley embraced his family’s spartan, outdoor lifestyle over the more privileged backgrounds of some of his classmates.
“The kids that grew up in more residential areas would have things like video games and stuff like that,” he said. “I saw that but -- I don't know -- I was more intrigued with the outdoor life. I felt my games were more fun. I had a compound bow and I grew up with a BB gun. If there were crows or rabbits or anything that could potentially try and take our crop, I would shoot those. But you definitely have your target practices on your free time, too.”
Not unlike his Kenyan counterparts, who develop supreme cardiovascular ability through the rigors of the meager lifestyles at altitude in the Rift Valley, Curley’s upbringing began molding him physically to become a talented athlete.
“I wasn't training or anything like that, but I was also really strong,” he said. “I didn't weigh more than 120 pounds. But when you’re a skinny kid having to pick up a bale of hay, you've got to be pretty strong and you've got to persevere.
“I realized early on that I had to rely on myself and develop myself physically and psychologically. If I couldn’t do something on my own, I knew I had to figure out a way to get it done.”
Above And Beyond
Equally as important as family life among the Navajo Nation is education. Rather than send their son to the public high school in nearby Ganado, where Curley’s mother worked, the Curley’s opted for a Roman Catholic education 30 miles away at St. Michael’s Indian School.
The school was founded in 1902 by Katharine Drexel, an American heiress and philanthropist who, after a private audience with Pope Leo XIII in 1887, became a religious sister and missionary, dedicating her life and nearly $7 million fortune to working to improve the lives of American Indians and Afro-Americans in the western and southwestern U.S. She was canonized a saint on Oct. 1, 2000.
“When Sister Katharine Drexel visited the Navajo Nation, she saw the boarding schools at the time had a saying, ‘kill the Indian, save the man,’ meaning the goal was to make the Indian more like those in Anglo society,” Curley explained. “If you were a male, they cut your hair and you weren’t allowed to speak your language. They didn’t think of Native Americans as equals. They thought of them as savages. She founded St. Michael’s to provide a quality education that is rooted in Catholic values but sensitive to Native traditions.”
Curley said that the expectation of students at St. Michael’s is, “to do something above and beyond.” His chance to do just that would come in the sport of running.
There was only one catch: his parents were against him joining the cross-country team.
“I came from a family where my parents didn't really want me running,” Curley said. “What they wanted for me first was to focus on my schoolwork and then on the family responsibilities with having livestock. It wasn’t that sports were unimportant. They just valued these things a little bit more.
“My coach would tell me, ‘Come on, run for the cross country team. You can go to college on a scholarship.’ I tried to tell my parents that, but it was like I didn’t have any proof I was going to be good, you know? I was an unproven athlete.
“I went back to my coach and told him they still won't let me,” Curley continued. “He says, ‘Where does your dad work? I'm going to go to your dad's work.’ So he goes to my dad's work and he's talking to him. I'm watching from a distance in a vehicle, not knowing what was going to happen. His answer didn’t change, but I was at practice the next day.”
Curley didn’t even own a pair of racing flats until a teammate gave him a pair that he had outgrown.
Despite that, and without his parents’ knowledge, he continued to train with the St. Michael’s cross-country team, making extra-special care to be on-time for his after-school pick-up, to get all of his daily chores on the farm completed, and most importantly not to let his school work slide.
“The hard part was juggling responsibilities on the weekend because that is when we would have some practices,” Curley said. “I was able to keep my running a secret for a while, but as soon as the first meet came, they knew. They weren’t upset. But I knew that I was on a deadline to show them proof of what I was capable of.”
As a sophomore, Curley competed at the Arizona state championship meet for the first time. The following year, he finished fifth. As a senior, he won the 1-A state title, becoming the first and only state champion in St. Michael’s 112-year history.
“It was a great feeling making waves in the running scene out of small high school,” Curley said. “There were schools and runners who had more advantages and better facilities but it didn’t matter because of my training. All I needed was that dirt road, Mission Road, to run on. Those hills made me tough.”
As for Curley’s parents?
“After that, they were the most supportive parents of running you could have,” he joked.
From Small Things
Despite becoming a state champion, few doors of opportunity for scholarships to big collegiate programs were opened to Curley. He even entertained the thought of giving up on running altogether.
But he couldn’t tear away from his calling.
“I was going to put it all down and say, ‘Alright, that was fun, now it’s time to grow up,’” Curley said. “But I still had this yearning.
“I asked my sister, Valerie, if she could go talk to this coach at Pima Community College and ask him if I could maybe talk to him, or maybe go for a run with their team one day.”
Greg Wenneborg, who was in his second year as coach at the time, set up a meeting with Curley and invited him to join in on one of their workouts.
“I came in and those guys were good runners,” Curley recalled, “but right away I was running with them. I held my own like I was supposed to be there. Afterward, Greg was like, ‘Yeah, let me go get scholarship paperwork for you to sign.’”
By the time Curley finished his two years at Pima, he had gone from a runner who hadn’t broken 16 minutes in the 5000m to running 14:15.16 at the Oxy Invitational, breaking the school record of four-time U.S. Olympian Abdi Abdirahman.
“If my coach at Pima would have said no, you can't join us for practice, I think that maybe would have been the end of it, to tell you the truth,” Curley said of his running. “It was like, ‘I made an effort in the sense that I reached out.’ If he would have said no to my sister that day, I would have just left it at that and went on with my life.”
Down A New Road
After concluding his junior college career, Curley decided not to continue on to a four-year school to finish out his collegiate eligibility, but instead turned to road racing and the dream of one day making it to the grandest of the big city marathons.
“There were a lot of reasons behind that decision,” Curley said. “One of them was that I knew that I was better at longer distances. I mean, I ran the 5-K on the track at Pima but I knew the 10,000m would be a better event for me, and it wasn’t really competitive on the junior college level.
“Plus, I was still building a resume. Having junior college school records is still not enough compared to being, say, a Foot Locker national champion.”
In 2010, Curley made his half-marathon debut at the U.S. Championships in Houston, finishing 13th in 64:14, a time which qualified him for the 2012 Olympic Trials marathon.
“I didn’t really have much knowledge in how you qualify and stuff like that, and I really didn’t care to know,” Curley admitted. “I had the intention to become as fast as I could because I was curious about my capabilities. My goal was still to get to New York, but once I qualified for the Trials I decided Houston was where my first marathon would have to take place.”
The second-youngest competitor in the field at age 24, Curley entered the race without any semblance of a game plan. His mission was simply to try and be competitive, an area in which he had proven to thrive.
But, as it tends to do, the marathon humbled Curley.
“I found out that 26.2 is a long way and running it for the first time in a race, it's hard to be successful,” he said. “I ended up running as hard as I could and the last, I think it was the last two miles or so, I can't remember, but I walked. I was cramping up walking and even if I tried to bend my knee, I would cramp up in the hamstrings. So it was very miserable. I wound up finishing next-to-last in 2:39:53.”
Crossing the finish line in 84th place left Curley emotional, but not for the reasons you might think.
“I actually cried that last point-two miles,” he admitted. “I never thought I would be at a big race or big venue or anything because I didn't have the money and my parents weren’t privileged enough to afford those kinds of things. I was like, ‘Man, people pay to come here to watch this race and they actually paid me to come here to compete.’ That realization put me into an emotional state because I was so thankful for what I was experiencing.”
Motivated To Make It
Inspired by his experience at the 2012 Olympic Trials, Curley forged on with his marathon training, determined to demonstrate he belonged among the nation’s elite distance runners.
His next proving ground came later that October at the Nationwide Columbus Marathon in Ohio, where he was not allowed to line up with the elite field.
“I didn’t say anything, and part of me thought that maybe [the race director] was right, but deep down in my heart I was like, ‘A few months ago I was lining up with Olympians and now he doesn’t want me to in the first group,’” Curley said. “I took it personal. I felt unwelcome.
“A stranger came up to me and asked how I thought I was going to perform that day and I have never talked big, even when I was younger. That day, I said, ‘I am going to win this fucking race.’”
Curley finished first in 2:19:03, a 20-minute PR.
“My coach encouraged me to go and be myself out there,” Curley said. “He said that if I should find myself far enough in the lead, to make sure that I enjoy it, so the whole last mile I just had my arms spread wide open and just kind of soaking it all in. It really allowed me to get over what happened in my first marathon.”
The performance also earned Curley his first sponsorships, a shoe deal with Mizuno and a partnership with Nideiltihi Native Elite Runners, a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization that fosters Native American distance runners, in the Four Corner’s States, to compete in national road and track competitions and also promoting elite youth in athletics while integrating traditions, culture and Native language.
“Signing with Mizuno was validation of my hard work and I felt compelled to commit myself to making certain I help others around me,” Curley said. “I knew I needed a strong foundation to reach out to others like myself.”
Curley continued his upward trajectory in 2013, running personal bests of 29:03.45 on the track in the 10,000m and 44:04 in the 15-K, 1:16:14 in the 25-K and 2:15:16 at the Twin Cities Marathon on the roads.
“I was like, ‘Well, this is taking off really well,’” Curley said. “That kind of put me in the category of respectable runners. Not just respectable runners, but runners that you can't overlook.”
At the same time, Curley was approaching his races without any real strategy. He was just showing up and competing with a warrior’s spirit, his results more a product of sheer will than any traditional race execution.
“I was still very raw to the distance,” Curley said. “I told my coach, we have to work this in to our training so I can be prepared to run New York.”
It was around this time, however, that Curley and Wenneborg began having difficulties in their relationship.
“I acknowledge Greg as a father figure,” Curley said. “As a coach and athlete we were an unstoppable force with a tight bond. However, our lives began to pull in opposite directions.”
The trying times behind the scenes manifested in Curley’s slowest running season as a professional. After opening 2014 with a PR of 63:27 at the Houston Half Marathon, he slowed to 45:23 at the USA 15-K Championships and 65:09 at the Go St. Louis Half Marathon, and then finished 88th at the Boston Marathon in 2:29:26 and 25th at the USA 10-K Championships in 30:52.
For the first time in his running, doubt began to creep in.
“I wasn't going to give up running but every time I went for a run it was like, ‘I don't want to do this. This doesn't seem right,’” Curley said. “After July I got my feet underneath me and I was like, ‘Alright, this is what I did wrong.’ Every time I run, I'm going to focus on being the fastest runner I can be.”
The Final Climb
Curley rededicated himself and set his sights on the Mt. Taylor 50-K in Grants, New Mexico, a race steeped in Navajo tradition – the run begins before dawn and heads east from the start at La Mosca Lookout toward the sunrise – and one he had put off competing in for far too long.
Being able to run among the volcanic plugs to the north, the lush green Continental Divide Trail and the mountain meadows up to the summit at 11,301 feet provided an experience that helped Curley reconnect with his roots as a runner and a spirited Native American.
“Running wasn't going right so I was like, ‘I'm going to this mountain,’” he said. “Why do people go to mountains? For me, it's a place to go test your capabilities, a place that you go find and make sense of the shit that's going around you. It was just a place to be happy, to look at life at a different perspective.
“Once again I felt my childhood dreams, my childhood memories. I remembered when I was out in the fields doing chores or whatever and I was so tired and wanted to crumble from discomfort because my legs ached from walking all day and my hands hurt from digging. The race brought me back to those feelings and reminded me that I'm indomitable. It was a spiritual awakening.”
Prior to the race, Curley inquired about gaining entry into the TCS New York City Marathon. Because his showing in 2014 had been shaky, at, best, NYRR elite athlete coordinator David Monti first needed proof of Curley’s fitness and told him to be considered he needed to run under 65 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon on Oct. 5, just four days after the Mt. Taylor Ultra.
You don’t need to be a master chef to figure out that racing 50 kilometers at altitude days before time-trialing a half marathon at sea level is probably not a good recipe for a fast time.
At this point, Curley wasn’t backing down from the challenge or his chance at a dream.
“I knew there was a chance I could get injured but you know, if I didn't run this then I wouldn't have a shot at New York,” he said. “So I was like no matter what, I'm doing this. I ended up running 64:19 that day. I wasn't quite recovered but it gave me more fire to feed on.”
Even though he has inched closer to his dream of competing in New York, Curley isn’t done with the challenges or proving himself.Two weeks ago, he and Wenneborg parted ways. Although Curley will enter the race without a coach, he does finally have a race plan.
“The goal is to run 5:05 pace,” he said. “So that would give me a PR of 2 hours and 13 minutes, 11 seconds. I've been training for that. Think of it this way, this is the first marathon that I have a game plan, you know? As much as 2:13:11 is a crazy time, meaning it's going to hurt a lot for me to do because it's almost two minutes faster than I've ever run and I never run in New York before, I am a big believer in my training and my hard work.”
Before heading to the concrete jungle of his dreams, Curley returned home to the serenity of Kinlichee last week for one final reminder of how far he’s come and what it took to get here.
“When you're feeding the horses, there's a lot of time for self-reflection and to think about the good things that you want for yourself, your family and your community,” Curley said. “Every community has some good and some bad. I feel like my running gives me a foundation where I can turn the way people overlook the good qualities for things like poverty or alcoholism.
“When you just visit a place like the Navajo Nation you might see trailer homes and people living hard lives, but there's a lot more to it. There's a lot of depth in those stories. My story is basically that it doesn't matter where you come from, you can reach the top. We all come from different places but we all have the possibility to do great things as long as we work really hard and we're driven by something more than self-preservation.”