- 18 Sep 08, 01:30 PM GMT
I was gasping for air as I jogged beside Kaitlin Yepa through the humid New Mexico night. "How long does it take before you start to lose your breath?" I wheezed. "I don't know," came the cheerful reply. "Maybe an hour?"
We'd been on the road for, at most, five minutes. But then Kaitlin, 15, is a Native American - a people for whom running has become a form of communal survival.
And earlier, as I was driven through Pueblo of Jemez, I'd seen the reality of these figures before me.
Underneath spectacular, bright red mountains were the reservation's peeling, ramshackle adobe cottages. Ancient pick-up trucks heaved their way up dusty side roads. At the request of my hosts, and out of deference to their traditions, I didn't take any photographs there. What I saw was beautiful, yet utterly bleak.
No-one there I visited was keen to talk about the hardships they faced, however. These were proud people. They wanted to tell me how much they loved running.
The sport has deep roots in their culture, something elders have tried to harness to keep their young people away from addiction and unemployment. The Wings of America cross-country team, based in nearby Santa Fe and composed of young Native American athletes, has won a boys' or girls' national title every year since it began competing in national contests in 1988.
Kaitlin belongs to the Jemez Eagles Running Club and trains for one to two hours a day, seven days a week. She told me that she loves the feeling of freedom it gives her, as well as the sense of achievement she gets from winning races.
"But I also hope that it can win me a scholarship to go study somewhere," she added.
"I'd like to go out of state. My mom always tells me that Jemez isn't going to go away anyplace."
This was exactly what Benjamin Mora, 40, hoped for when he set up the Eagles in 1995. After he became a state athletics champion while at high school, universities across America clambered over themselves to offer him a scholarship. His education degree had given him a good career as a teacher, and he was determined to show successive generations how to copy him.
"My grandfather told me that he used to run everywhere," he told me. "If we had to get somewhere, he'd say: 'Why don't you go run?' That's how we always did things."
The tragic, bitter history of the Native Americans was clearly extremely raw with Benjamin. He told me about the cruelty of the Conquistadors and the betrayals of Theodore Roosevelt.
It still angered him, he added, how his parents and grandparents had been taken away from their homes as children, separated from their culture, punished for speaking their own language, Towa.
I asked about the election. He couldn't see either McCain or Obama offering much to his community. "Even though I'm a Democrat, I haven't decided yet."
What struck me, though, was his that his anger appeared to be directed at the denial of Native American culture rather than the poverty and hardship that his people faced. Was he not enraged at the gap between their quality of life and that of middle America?
He gave me a look of pity. "I've got all my family here. I'll never be hungry. I'll never be homeless. How many rich men can say that?"
He was right. Still, it was obvious to me what his people were running from. What nobody can predict is where they will end up.
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