Former Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez Finds Health in Trail Running

A profile of former Navajo Nation President and ultrarunner Jonathan Nez.

By on July 6, 2023 | Comments

After growing up as an athlete and outdoorsman, former Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez reached 300 pounds before having an awakening for his health, which catalyzed his ultrarunning passion.

Jonathan Nez grew up in the small, rural community of Shonto, in Navajo County, which occupies the northeastern corner of Arizona and the western portion of Navajo Nation. Today, the public servant lives in Flagstaff.

While growing up, Nez was a runner on the cross-country team to get in shape for basketball, which was his primary athletic focus. “In Indian country, basketball is big. As I grew up, I went to school 20 miles away in Kayenta, Arizona, which is the gateway to Monument Valley. I played for the Mustangs of Monument Valley High School, where I graduated in 1993,” says Nez, who also spent a lot of time playing in and connecting with the outdoors.

Jonathan Nez - public speaking

Jonathan Nez speaking in his role as Navajo Nation President. All photos courtesy of Jonathan Nez.

“When I was growing up, we did a lot of outdoor activities. We also did a lot of sheep herding, overseeing the flock, riding horses, and driving cattle, so I grew up with animals. As a young person, I did a lot of dry farming in a rural area, and that really set the stage for my future in terms of public service, health, and wellness,” says Nez, who was the youngest of three sisters and one brother, who has passed away.

While growing up, his elders encouraged him to get a higher education and experience the world, and then bring that information home to help the community and their people. Nez was inspired by the stories of his grandfather, H.T. Donald, who was a lawmaker and the former Navajo Nation Council Delegate for the Shonto Chapter.

“When you’re introducing yourself, you share your clans and tell folks who your grandparents and parents are. People would be amazed when I introduced my grandfather, because he helped so many people when he was in office. It really inspired me, and that’s the reason why I went into public service, to be known for helping people and to help people,” says Nez, who completed a Bachelor of Science in political science and a master’s degree in public administration from Northern Arizona University. While working on his Ph.D., “a call came from my community to become an elected leader. I became a Shonto Chapter Vice President,” says Nez, which started his political career. He stayed in the role for two years.

Jonathan Nez - with family in mountains

Jonathan Nez (center) enjoying a hike with his family.

“My goal was to be like my grandfather and become a lawmaker. I reached that goal, when they then elected me as their Council Delegate, which is equivalent to a lawmaker. We have our own legislative body, and it’s like a state representative or congressman for our nation,” says Nez. After more than eight years serving on the Navajo Nation Council, the then 32-year-old served as Vice President for four years. He stepped in as Navajo Nation President from 2019 to 2023.

“During the early stages of my elected position, I didn’t really take care of myself. From where I lived in Shonto to Window Rock, the Navajo Nation capital, it’s a three-hour, one-way drive. I had a lot of time behind the wheel and fast food, which is prevalent on Navajo Nation,” says Nez. While fast food might be convenient for quick pick-ups and road trippers, a food desert exists on Navajo Nation and healthy food is not readily available even for locals.

Nez gained weight during his first term as a Council Delegate, eventually reaching 300 pounds. “I’m a lawmaker, telling and encouraging people to do healthy things and take care of themselves,” he recalls.

At a youth event, he was presenting to kids on the topics of self-care, eating well-rounded diets, and exercise, when a student raised his hand and asked, “‘Council Delegate Nez, you tell us to take care of ourselves, eat right, and exercise — but every time we see you, you’re getting bigger and bigger,’” recalls Nez.

“Young people are bold and tell you the truth. Your first reaction is you feel offended and sad. After you get over that, you think … you might not recognize it yourself because you’re living in the body, but others see it. I made a commitment to myself to be active once again and to take care of my body,’” says Nez.

After the interaction regarding his weight, in 2012, he started walking — he couldn’t yet run — and created a list of progressive goals. Goal one: Run one mile without stopping. Goal two: Run a five-kilometer run nonstop. Goal three: Run a marathon.

Jonathan Nez - early running days

Jonathan Nez (front and center) in his early running days.

Within one month, he lost 10 pounds. After a full year, he got down to 200 pounds. After that first year, the pounds were shed even faster, especially the more he ran.

In 2013, his political agenda paralleled his personal effort to become healthy, like the Healthy Diné Nation Act, a 2% tax on unhealthy foods.

“We have high rates of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. This tax was one way to elevate the need or the self-reflection of our own health. The taxes generated from the communities go back to the chapters,” says Nez.

There are 110 chapters in Navajo Nation, which utilize the tax fund for health and wellness projects in their communities for building trails, farming initiatives, or hosting runs and walks.

“We started runs all over Navajo Nation. Our nation is so beautiful, and some areas are closed to the public. We opened it up for races and could bring visitors out to enjoy our homeland,” says Nez. He also helped reauthorize the Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI) grant program, hosted food summits, organized farmers markets, and overall began to see a decrease in diabetes rates.

“Navajo Nation is a role model for other tribes through our wellness projects. Being the largest nation in the country, we can embrace our sovereignty through regrowing our fruits and vegetables and feeding ourselves. With 27,000 square miles, we can grow a lot of crops. I’ve had a vision to be the largest producers of Indigenous foods in the Southwest. Not just healthy or organic foods but legacy seeds that have been handed down from generation to generation,” says Nez.

Eventually, the servant leader and politician reached the goal of running back-to-back marathons, then a 50k, 50 miler, and 100k. A handful of his favorite races include the Silverton Alpine Marathon 50k — where he finished 13th overall — as well as the Moab Red Hot Ultra and the Behind the Rocks 50 Mile.

Nez at a race

Jonathan Nez (right) at his first ultra.

He was signed up for the September 2014 Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, but tornado activity led the race to be downsized to a 55k. “I was in the best shape of my life, and that was the closest I’ve ever been to a 100 miler, from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon,” says Nez.

Work got even busier and more committing as the President, and he couldn’t keep up with the 100-mile training blocks.

“I was getting to the 100 miler and then life just took a different turn and politics, which might be an excuse: You can put runs in, but being the nation’s leader doesn’t allow you to do long distance running — hours and hours of running,” says Nez.

During that phase, he also met ultrarunners like Scott Jurek, who he became friends with and learned about a plant-based diet, inspiring Nez to become vegan more than five years ago. The diet helps him recover quicker and subsequently run further, because he can do more back-to-back training days. “I was moving around better,” says Nez.

Now 48 years old, Nez retired from his political role this year, and started a consultation business with his wife Phefelia Nez, called Nez Consulting, to help with a range of national, statewide, and tribal projects from federal funding proposals to speaking engagements for corporate diversity training.

Being out of office allows Nez to train for ultra distances again, and his goal is to complete a 100 miler. Today, his training is up to 20-mile long runs each week and 40 miles per week. He aims to run 50 miles per day by September. He’s also helping to film a documentary, running 400 miles from Fort Sumner to Window Rock, which he’s training to complete.

The sentimental, historic route commemorates the signing of the 1868 Treaty, which allowed the Navajo people to return to their homeland. Prior to that, more than 10,000 Navajo had been forced to migrate east on the Long Walk to Fort Sumner’s Bosque Redondo reservation, where many Navajo people perished from starvation and disease.

Jonathan Nez - 400 mile commemoration run

Jonathan Nez (second from left) during a 400-mile commemoration run.

“It was a sad time in our history. [Our people] went from Navajo Nation to Fort Sumner, more than 400 miles, where we were in captivity for four years and we came back to our homeland. Five years ago, some of us long distance runners ran 400 miles to commemorate this on the 150th anniversary of the treaty. We followed the same route as our ancestors, coming back from Fort Sumner,” says Nez. He ran the entire distance in 50-mile segments every day.

Recently, Nez supported, paced, and cheered on several Indigenous runners at the Cocodona 250 Mile: Eli Neztsosie, Greg Secatero, and Kellen Lomayestewa.

Jonathan Nez - Cocodona 250 Mile

Jonathan Nez (left) stops for a quick selfie while pacing at the Cocodona 250 Mile.

Beyond his personal and physical health, Nez is motivated to run through the enjoyment of the outdoors and self-reflection on the trail. For him, movement helps catalyze new ideas, some of which he could implement in politics and government. “Running in Navajo Nation, I got to see places that not many people have seen before, and running opens up your backyard and can show our children how beautiful our land is,” he says.

As he transitions out of government, he remains passionate about the role that Navajo Nation plays for the nation and tribes. Nez says, “Navajo people are reinstating our native way of life — running is in our culture and ceremonies, and eating healthy foods is a part of our nation. I’ll continue to promote health and wellness throughout the rest of my life.”

Call for Comments

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Morgan Tilton

Morgan Tilton is the WeRunFar columnist of iRunFar and a Staff Writer for GearJunkie and AllGear Digital. Morgan has covered outdoor industry news, adventure travel, and human endurance for nearly a decade. Aside from iRunFar, Morgan has written for more than 70 publications, including recent contributions to Outside, Forbes, Trail Runner, Runner’s World, Bicycling, and NewsBreak. She’s a recipient of more than a dozen accolades for her travel writing from the North American Travel Journalists Association. Based in Crested Butte, Colorado, Morgan enjoys mountain running and exploring the high alpine in the summer when she’s not splitboarding or mountain biking.