After school at the Pueblo of Sandia in New Mexico, several youth run the countryside framed by the Sandia Mountains to the east and the setting sun to the west.
The Notah Begay III (NB3) Foundation launched its first cross-country team ever at the Pueblo this past fall, led by coaches Kassandra McCook (Pueblo of Sandia) and Kalei Yepa (Jemez Pueblo).
Whereas golf and soccer require equipment, and a course and a field, respectively, cross-country only demands a pair of shoes and the great outdoors. “The kids enjoyed it, utilizing the tribal land — whether we were running in arroyos or running the hills in the back,” said Clint Begay, director of NB3Fit, who also oversees a year-round golf program and a soccer team in the spring at San Felipe Pueblo.
It was Coach McCook’s after-school running club that inspired NB3’s competitive youth cross-country team. She started the fun-run group to share her love for the sport with Pueblo of Sandia kids, while serving as the Pueblo’s recreation assistant.
“In the larger sense, I wanted to show them how to be happy and healthy,” said McCook. “I led by example and almost always ran alongside them. If there were runs that called for us to be dropped off in the foothills and to run back to the recreation center, I found another staff member to drive us and drop us off, so that I could run with the kids.”
McCook’s afterschool running club curriculum involved various course maps that led kids around the foothills of the mountains, in the Bosque near the river, along farm fields, and in and out of the immediate village area, McCook said.
“We’re coat-tailing off that,” Begay said.
Begay also hired Kalei Yepa, 19, from Jemez Pueblo, who was a distinguished cross-country runner in high school as well as track and field, winning multiple state titles her junior and senior years. She currently studies exercise science at the University of New Mexico and is considering pursuing a minor in nutrition as well. (Check out Kalei Yepa’s personal account, “My First Coaching Experience, Their First Running Experience,” in a recent NB3Fit newsletter.)
“The determination I see in their eyes — that’s the best part,” Yepa said of coaching.
Yepa utilizes cross-country to teach youth about more than just physical fitness and endurance. “We set goals before races — what they want to accomplish. They’ve learned about mind over matter; they’re focused on reaching that goal,” Yepa said. “They push through the pain and tiredness, because they’re striving for that goal. I teach them, ‘You don’t just run to run, you’re running for a purpose. It’s the same with life, you do everything for a purpose.’”
And when the kids see improvement in their race times, it’s incredibly rewarding. “They realize that putting the hard work and practice in does pay off,” Yepa said.
“Our main goal at NB3 is to completely rid childhood obesity and diabetes,” Yepa added. “Whatever communities we work with, my goal is for the kids to lead happy, fulfilled lives, and to do away with obesity and diabetes at a young age.”
In the fall 2016 season, the team of 15 practiced three days each week: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and they’d compete in Saturday races at every opportunity. Practice regimens and intensity were adjusted by age group for youth participants, most of them between ages 6 and 12. Tuesday practices were “easy days” — a long run, Yepa said. Wednesdays involved speed or hill training, plus circuit training and abs. “Fridays, if we were competing the next day, we’d do a light run and go over how to prepare [for the race] and what to bring,” Yepa said.
The fall 2016 team included 13 kids from Sandia Pueblo, plus Begay’s 6-year-old son Quenton Begay, and Yepa’s younger brother. “The ability to practice together and encourage each other — I think that comradery is what they really enjoy about being a part of the team,” Begay said.
Every NB3XC team member qualified to compete in the regionals race in Fountain, Colorado, the final race of the season for many youth. McCook was instrumental in gathering tribal and parental support for fundraising to cover travel costs, Begay noted.
Prior to joining NB3XC, most Sandia Pueblo kids had only participated in community or wellness fun-runs. Competitive racing opened their eyes to a new world. “We’re out there cheering them on and cutting through the course to get to another spot to cheer them on,” Begay said.
The events feel momentous, particularly at a higher level of competition. “You go from a race [in or near Albuquerque] with 30 to 40 runners, and then at regionals, there are 100 kids on the starting line,” Begay said.
One high school competitor, age 17, joined the team late in the season. She attended regionals with the NB3XC team and qualified to run at Nationals in Alabama, where she finished 18th. “If you finish in the Top 20 you’re considered an All-American,” Begay said.
In its first year, the NB3XC program has already made a tremendous impact on Native youth lives. Its dedicated coaches are role models for the kids — on the trails and in life.
McCook, who plans to graduate from the University of New Mexico (UNM) in May 2017 with her second Bachelors of Arts degree in Psychology (she also earned her Bachelor of Arts in History from UNM), also works as a language assistant with the Tiwa Language Program at the Pueblo of Sandia. “In addition to learning my native language, I work alongside elders to preserve the culture and revitalize the language. Once I obtain my psychology degree, I still hope to continue working with the youth, not only in my Pueblo but other surrounding Pueblos, and to continue to make a positive impact on their lives, both physically and mentally,” McCook said.
Yepa hopes to continue to influence Native youth through the NB3 Foundation and to give back to her Jemez Pueblo. “They’ve given so much to me. I want to make a difference,” Yepa said.
Begay anticipates the XC program growing significantly each year to come. “I’ve been getting some inquiries from other parents who want their kids to run with us. It could grow into something big; we’re excited to see what’s going to happen,” Begay said.
NB3Fit National XC Race
Every single youth participant in the NB3 Foundation’s cross-country program at Sandia Pueblo participated in the XC Race for NB3Fit Day, Begay said. “All of our kids ran in it, and we had a couple hundred runners participate [in total],” Begay said.
Whereas most cross-country races are road races, the 5K at Santa Ana Golf Club was unique. “Ours was an actual cross-country race, because we were on the golf course. We utilized the hills,” Begay said.
NB3Fit also partnered with Wings of America, which used the race as a national qualifier for their traveling all-Native high school team: Wings of America National Team.
NB3Fit plans to hold another NB3Fit National XC Race on NB3Fit Day in 2017.