Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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The Greatest Runner You Have Never Heard Of!

A few days ago I wrote about East African dominance in distance running and discussed the “talent” issue vs. the environmental and cultural factors that make the Kenyans and Ethiopians so good.  However, for people like me who were living and running competitively in the American Southwest in the late 1970s there is an alternate answer to “who will beat the Kenyans?”

In the late 1970s a few of my friends and I traveled from Tucson to Albuquerque, New Mexico to participate in the La Luz trail race up Sandia Peak.  The race was won by Al Waquie of the Walatowa Pueblo of Jemez tribe.  As I recall, he defeated Ric Rojas by 2-3 minutes in a race that lasted about an hour (I think I finished about 15th).  At the time Rojas was among the top ranked 10k runners in the US and seen as a potential heir to Frank Shorter.  Waquie dominated the classic mountain climbs in the West and also won the Empire State Building ascent numerous times.

Waquie is not alone, Native American kids from selected high schools in the Four Corners region like Tuba City have done very well in high school distance running.  And, this is nothing new; in 1912 the great Hopi runner Lewis Tewanima won a silver medal in the 10,000m in an era when runners from Finland were as dominant as those from Kenya and Ethiopia are now.   Like the Kenyans and Ethiopians, the tribes that live in the Four Corners have lived at high altitude for centuries.

Al Waquie is perhaps the most impressive runner I have ever seen and that includes the likes of Alberto Salazar, Frank Shorter, Henry Rono and Bill Rogers.  Most people who saw him in action or raced in the same races he competed in still can’t believe what they saw or what he did.

















One Response to “The Greatest Runner You Have Never Heard Of!”

  1. September 11th, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    Frank E Heslin, Jr. says:

    Thank you for the article about Al Waquie. How can I find Al Waquie’s high school times in the 2-mile run? I ran the same event in New Mexico in the early 1970s and luckily never ran against Al Waquie or I’m sure I would have been double lapped! I remember seeing his times in the sports pages and I probably even saw him run in the 1972 state meet in Albuquerque. I can remember seeing some incredible 2-milers there. On every lap they turned into the home stretch lifting their knees like quarter milers. It seems to me that Al Waquie was running the 2-mile in less than 9 minutes and 30 seconds (when 9:50 was a great time), but my memory could be playing tricks on me.

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