Trail Runner’s Book Review: Spirit Run

Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land, by Noe Alvarez. Catapult, 2020. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark exclusively for the American Trail Running Association. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.

Those for whom a few days without running is unthinkable most likely started out as ordinary individuals who simply wanted to lose some weight, get in shape for a “real” sport, battle mental turmoil, or raise money for a cause. After a few months of braving the elements, these benefits, while still important, took second place to feelings of empowerment and release. Once you get your run in, the rest of the day becomes easier, more peaceful, even if in truth it is not. For a select few, however, the act of placing one foot in front of the other becomes a path to redemption and a threshold to cultural awareness and acceptance.

Such was the case for Noe Alvarez, the son of Mexican immigrants who labored in brutal conditions in orchards and fruit-packing plants. As a child he had no clue and enjoyed playing in the fields and helping his father in the orchards. But when he was old enough to join his mother in the inhumane fruit packing factories, he saw the disparity. Running became his escape and good grades in high school a ticket out of this lifestyle.

Or so he thought. Confronted by the cultural divide between himself and middle/upper class college students he felt out of place. It was as if he had been transported into a foreign country with no Lonely Planet guide. After attending a lecture about a Native Americans/First Nations movement called the Peace and Dignity Journeys, he dropped out to embark on a 6,000 mile run tracing paths his parents and his ancestors had followed. Nowadays we would term this “taking a gap year,” but at that place and time it seemed more like quitting and running away.

Alvarez’s decision to discover his roots and learn how he could make a difference in issues that mattered took real courage. It was a resolution that passes from his mind to his feet as he pushes through thirst, hunger, animal encounters, hostile townspeople and disputes among exhausted running mates. Through participating in Ceremonial Circles, he becomes part of each culture he journeys through, of each landscape he explores. There comes a moment, however, when his swollen knees call a halt. But by this time, Alvarez has realized the power of story, that the ancient traditions he has absorbed will be an alternate way to continue his advocacy. As he so aptly puts it, even before the new COVID vocabulary, “The world that we had put on pause (during the marathon) was beginning to move again.”

By taking the next step to continue his college education, he learns that “…if we imagine a better future, and speak it with words and the soles of our feet, we just might see it come to fruition.”

On Sale from March 3, 2020 | ISBN 9781948226462

Editor’s Note: Be safe as we continue to navigate the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic. Please continue to follow the recommendations and updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including proper hygiene practices. Also consider reading iRunFar’s COVID-19: A Trail Running and Ultrarunning Community Guide.

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