The cooling air felt refreshing after the summer day’s heat in Standing Rock (Tsé’íí’ahí), New Mexico, a chapter in the southeast corner of Navajo Nation. The moonlight vividly defined the silhouettes of the wooly sheep in their pen. Diné runner Loren Morgan, his siblings, and cousins heard a loud clanging and rushed to check on the livestock. Next to the corral, a line of wild horses had sauntered up and swung their muzzles into the fence to knock down the barricade. They wanted to nibble the stack of hay.
Morgan and his comrades released their uncle’s dog to chase the wild horses away—but the strategy backfired. The pup sprinted after the horses and wouldn’t let up as they galloped away, across the rolling mesa. Morgan took off after them, passing his cousins. The sides of his calves and thighs braised the sagebrush and fourwing saltbush, as his feet pounded the dry, coarse soil. Five miles later, he caught the dog, turned around, and ran home. He was just seven years old.
“Everyone was surprised. My uncle said, ‘Wow, you ran that far?’ My cousins cheered me on and said, ‘You’re a runner,’” says Morgan, who is now a 45-year-old ultrarunner and youth run coach based in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, about 150 miles east of Standing Rock. Running is now inextricably woven into his life, work, service, and family. And running saved him, too.
For the past two years, Morgan has been a youth coach for the Rio Rancho/Albuquerque Westside chapter of Running Medicine (RM), a family-oriented, affordable run and walk program that’s inclusive to all abilities, fitness levels, ages, and backgrounds. RM was created in 2016 as an arm of the nonprofit Native Health Initiative, which aims to eliminate the health inequities faced by indigenous communities through health and wellness programs ranging from tobacco-education sessions to health-career mentorship. RM was founded by Dr. Anthony Fleg, an ultrarunner, Native Health Initiative faculty advisor, and Clinical Ed-Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of New Mexico. Fleg wanted to create a running-centric organization that welcomed any person yet recognized that Native Americans face higher rates of disease.
It was serendipitous that Morgan stumbled upon the RM flyer when the organization launched. He was 40 years old, nearly 210 pounds, and in declining health. “I’m a Marine Corps veteran, and I went in for my Veterans Affairs check. I was borderline diabetic. The nurse said,‘You’re halfway to diabetes.’ I said, ‘No way. That can’t be me,’” says Morgan. He was shocked. How had this happened?
As a kid, Morgan’s endurance was braided into his lifestyle. He’d grown up herding sheep, which required nearly 10 miles on foot each day. For fun, his family would also host their own private rodeo. Morgan, his three siblings, and all of his cousins would practice rodeo drills for the competition. “Being on the reservation, there were no real organized sports like how it is here in the city. It’s a remote area, so me and my cousins would play basketball or baseball together,” he says.
When Morgan was in the fifth grade, his immediate family moved to Gallop, New Mexico, 40 miles southwest of Standing Rock. “There, we were able to do physical-education class. That’s when I knew I was different from other kids, meaning I was able to run faster, longer, and had the endurance. I owe that to growing up with farm animals,” he says. Later, as a high-school sophomore he ran the five-kilometer distance in cross country, and the 1,600- and 3,200-meter distances in track. He already had an affinity for long distance. In college, he focused on earning his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Management from New Mexico Highlands University. Afterward, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a sergeant for four years. After serving, he secured a job as Operations Manager at FedEx Ground, in 2004, which he held for 11 years. It was during this life chapter that unhealthy habits formed for both Morgan and his family, like watching television everyday after work and not drinking enough water or eating healthy, in addition to not running or walking.
When Morgan learned about RM, he invited his wife, Enica, and their three kids—Jessica, Johnathan, and Ben—to join him at the community run and walk meet-ups. The family attended three times a week. “I started researching more about eating healthy and drinking more water—I never really drank water before. I started drinking a gallon in the morning and another in the afternoon. Within six months during that first season of Running Medicine, I lost 40 pounds. Then, I lost another 20 pounds. So, within a year, I lost 60 pounds. RM got me back in shape,” he says.
Alongside his weight loss and health journey, Morgan trained for a couple of races: the 10k Louis Tewanima Footrace in the Hopi Reservation and the 10k Narbona Pass Classic in Navajo Nation. “I’d barely gotten back into running. The Louis was a tough race. The Hopi people live on mesas, so you start on top, run down, and run straight back up. Then, the Narbona Pass was hard, too: You start on the bottom and run up the mountain and come back down. I was able to participate, and I wasn’t shooting for a goal. I was running it to show my kids those areas,” says Morgan.
After that debut life-changing year with RM, Morgan felt compelled to give back to the community. He volunteered as a RM leader to guide and support adults in their exercise and goal setting. “We’re open to everybody: runners, walkers, distance runners, joggers. We do what we can within 20 minutes and say, ‘Remember to love yourself. Give others a high five.’ That makes us so successful. We welcome all races of people. For a lot of Navajo who move off the reservation and feel scared, RM is there to be family and share information. We have all indigenous and Middle Eastern families and a Mexican family that doesn’t speak English but can still learn about running. We welcome them with open arms. They have taught us a lot about their culture and us them,” Morgan says.
RM attendance grew and the program expanded with chapters in the Acoma/Laguna Pueblos, Downtown Albuquerque, Zuni Pueblo, and Farmington. Anywhere from 30 to 70 walkers and runners show up to each gathering. “We don’t call them runs. We call them celebrations. We are celebrating faith, life, and happiness. It’s every Tuesday and Thursday at 5:45 p.m.,” says Morgan.
A year after serving as a RM leader, Morgan transitioned into his current role as the youth coach for the USATF Youth Cross Country Team Running Medicine, which is a “very competitive” team, he says, “But we see the differences between our approach and the approach of other running clubs. For us, we keep the same RM concept of keeping it fun and doing what you can. Give your heart out.”
In parallel with youth coaching, Morgan trained for the 2018 La Luz Trail Run, a nine miler with more than 4,000 feet of vertical gain, in the Sandia Mountains of Albuquerque. The trail event ends at 10,678 feet altitude. By that time, Morgan knew a lot more trail racers, so he sought advice and trained really well. A year later, Morgan completed his first ultra race: the Mt. Taylor 50k, in Grants.
When Morgan isn’t running, he works as a supervisor for the Property and Supply Department of the Indian Health Service, an operating division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He’s also the active supervisor for housekeeping. “Day to day, I wear several hats: I work with maintenance providing supplies like bandaids for the clinic, and housekeeping. We have an important job with COVID-19, making sure everything is clean in the clinic and exam rooms. And, I work with grants to get money to buy equipment like computers and supplies. I work on contracts for third-party services like a nurse or doctor. I’m also the employee-association president, so I do a lot to build morale during these COVID-19 times, like with fundraisers to provide luncheons for employees,” says Morgan. He also helps organize an annual 5k run fundraiser for the homeless community. Four years ago, the inaugural event garnered more than 600 pairs of socks for the homeless community in Albuquerque. The second year, they gathered more than 1,500 pounds of food.
At the centerpiece of his new lifestyle, Morgan and his family run together at least four mornings a week. They walk out the door and run anywhere from three to six miles. Morgan says, “We’re all competing and running as a family. Usually we all participate in a 5k run. We do trail runs in Arizona, the Hopi Reservation, the Navajo Nation, or make a vacation out of running the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego, Phoenix, or Denver. My 12-year-old son Johnathan ran a half marathon last year. That’s the longest he’s run!”
Morgan learned from RM the importance of taking rest days and switching out your training routine, so that you don’t get burned out. His daughter, Jessica—who is 20 years old and in college now—hit that point when she was growing up. “With my older daughter, I had only some sense of running practices to show her: wake up at 5 a.m. and run your heart out every morning. That was the mistake. When she was a sophomore, she didn’t want to run anymore. With my boys, we keep it fun, and that’s what you need to do,” he says. His youngest son, Ben, is seven years old and loves running.
As with many sports, Morgan’s youth coaching is sidelined due to COVID-19. The spring track season and fall cross-country season were canceled. And his son Johnathan’s high-school cross-country season was, too. “It’s a disappointment. He’s in eighth grade but was allowed to run for the high-school team, because he’s fast enough. So, he ran all summer and fall and then they canceled the whole season,” says Morgan. And, their family plans for 2020 races were postponed, too.
But they’re looking forward to next May, when they plan to run the 15.1-mile Ragnar Trail Zion, relay-style, near Zion National Park. They’ll also run the Duke City Marathon in Albuquerque as a relay. And of course, the spring season of Running Medicine will commence. Morgan says, “At each celebration, we start in a big stretching circle, where we call out our motivations. The youth create an inner circle and the adults make an outer circle: the kids will learn from the adults in the middle of the heart, and the kids are our goal and heart.”
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