Al Waquie climbs the empire State Building in New York City more adroitly than anyone since King Kong, although he'll have to go a ways to get a twentieth of Kong's publicity. To begin with, at 5'3" he's only about a twentieth of the big ape's height. Waquie, 36, is a Pueblo Indian who has won the annual Empire State Building Run-Up five straight times, and he's favored to make it six on Feb. 17. He negotiates the 86-story, 1,050-foot climb by taking the 1,575 steps two at a time until he reaches the finish line on the observation deck. Along the way he calls on the same passion with which he trains as a mountain runner in the forested heights and red-rock mesas surrounding his village in New Mexico.
"When I start uphill, I can't stop," says Waquie, in defiance of both Sir Isaac Newton and lactic acid. "The higher I go, the better I feel."
Known as King of the Mountains among the people in Jemez Pueblo, an Indian village of some 2,800 inhabitants about 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque and nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, Waquie (pronounced WAH-key) is one of the best mountain runners in the world. He's a two-time winner and record holder, at 3:26:17, of the Pikes Peak Marathon, a numbing 28-mile trek to the summit of the 14,110-foot mountain and back down. He has also won the grueling La Luz Trail Run, a nine-mile climb up a 12% grade to the top of 10,678-foot Sandia Crest near his home, a record eight times. Compared with those two, the Empire State run is easy. Last year Waquie won the New York race in 11:56 while running with a sore left knee, beating the second-place finisher by 26 seconds.
The records and titles and modest appearance fees he receives are nice, but they are not what make Waquie run. Like many of the Jemez people, he runs as a way of gaining harmony with the land and environment, an ideal that is the spiritual foundation of Pueblo culture. Waquie comes from a line of great runners who gave up chances to achieve fame in "white" society to stay with their families on the reservation and live by ancient traditions. Except for two years as an All-America cross-country runner at Haskell Indian Junior College, in Lawrence, Kans., Waquie has trained mainly on his own. He may love to get vertical, but when it has come to gaining fame and fortune in the world of distance running, his approach has not exactly been upwardly mobile.
February 15, 1988
"What I have here [in the village], I can't find down there," Waquie says, nodding in the direction of Albuquerque and its suburbs. "That's just a lot of modern life. Here, I can live like my ancestors. I can be strong, and free."
Waquie's paternal grandfather, Felipe, was an acclaimed messenger in the early 1900s who carried news on foot more than 20 miles across Redondo Peak and Jack Rabbit Flats to other Pueblo villages. His father, Felix, 69, excelled in wild-horse chases on the plains and in Pueblo ceremonial races, which are held every year at harvest time. His older brother Robert, now 40, was a four-time New Mexico state high school champion in the two mile, but like many promising Pueblo runners, he gave up serious training before he turned 20 years old. As a boy Al learned about the sacred mountain trails from his elders, and he always had a special affinity with his grandfather, who died in 1979 at the age of 87. "I'm like my grandfather," says Al, who lives alone in an adobe home a few hundred yards from the ranch-style home of his father and his mother, Corina. "I'm basically living his life."
It's a life with few conveniences beyond a pickup truck. Waquie's activities are tied to the land, whether he's running or doing one of the many jobs—including trapping, hunting, farming, woodchopping, raising livestock, fighting forest fires—he has had to support himself. "I love to work," he says. "It makes me happy to sweat."
Waquie is happiest when gliding along with his powerful but light-as-a-feather stride. Before setting out on his two-hour training runs at 9,400 feet, he sings the hunting songs of his tribe. He does speed work by sprinting along the abandoned logging trails near the summit of 11,254-foot Redondo Peak. (To prepare for the Empire State race, he visits Albuquerque's tallest structure, the 18-story First National Bank Building, to practice running up stairs.) Waquie is most comfortable in the wilds that surround Jemez, where he often encounters elk, deer, rattlesnakes, cougars-and bears. "The animals have gotten used to me," he says. "Now they just look at me like, 'What's up, Al?' Sometimes I chase them, because their energy can take me a long way. Deer and elk, they start fast, but after three or four miles they're so tired they almost let you touch them. I've even chased bears, but the only time you can do that is when they aren't hungry—when they are all fattened up."
Waquie laughs a boyish giggle that perfectly suits his open features and smooth skin. At 112 pounds, his reed-thin wrists and ankles contrast sharply with an impressive chest and thighs that propel him up the steepest grades. He can bench-press 170 pounds, and his resting pulse has been measured at 37.
"Other guys tell me they're stronger than me, and they are—in the village," Waquie admits. "But once we get in the mountains, no one can stay with me. My dad says, 'They are only stronger than you because women are watching. In the mountains, you get your strength from the land.' "
Felix Waquie, who still runs in ceremonial races, chuckles as he listens to the fifth of his 10 children, whose trophies are displayed in the dining room next to Corina's prizewinning baskets and pottery. "Al, he's always been a lucky guy," Felix says.
From a visitor's perspective, luck would seem to be in short supply in Jemez Pueblo, a rundown collection of adobe and stucco structures set between unpaved streets and unkept yards. Jemez suffers from the same social maladies that afflict other reservation villages. The median household income is about $2,500 a year. Unemployment hovers around 60%, and most of those with jobs work in Albuquerque. Federal assistance accounts for about 70% of the tribe's income. Alcoholism is a problem among Jemez's males. Still, a feeling of alienation from the modern world keeps most of the population tied to the reservation and its traditions.
Billy Mills, a South Dakota Sioux who won the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, knows firsthand the struggle that faces American Indians. "White culture doesn't allow an Indian to be an individual," says Mills. "You are an Indian first, then an individual. Because the values of white society make Indians uncomfortable, most of our young people end up saying, 'I'll stay with my environment and my traditions because at least I understand them.' "
This dilemma is particularly frustrating to track coaches who see vast but wasted potential in Indian runners. "Native Americans don't seem to respond to normal motivational coaching," says Joe Vigil, the cross-country coach of NAIA champion Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo., who recruits in the Southwest. "They never develop to their potential because they don't want to dedicate themselves to the white man's ways."
It's debatable whether Waquie has realized most of his potential. After his two years of junior college Waquie didn't accept a scholarship offered by Kansas, which Mills attended. He has concentrated on mountain running, and his success in flat-road competition has been limited. He still harbors hopes of excelling in the marathon when he is older, as has Carlos Lopes of Portugal, who won the 1984 Olympic marathon at age 37, but admits he's unfamiliar with the latest training methods. "I'm just more comfortable with my Indian way."
He may be rooted in the past, but Waquie is a gregarious sort who enjoys traveling to the half-dozen races he competes in each year. "I don't get homesick," he says. "We are taught to be friendly. I want to see other people." He speaks with great pride of his accomplishments, from his running to his skill as a horseman. He enjoys being a role model for young Indian runners like his cousin Phillip Madalena, a 16-year-old who won the 3,000 meters at the National Junior Olympics last summer. "I will be a legend," he says. "You never know, maybe someday they will do a movie about my life, like Running Brave [the film biography of Mills]. Or maybe I could do a commercial for a four-wheel vehicle. I think I would be perfect for that."
It's an attitude that some of the Jemez people might object to, for any hint of self-aggrandizement is frowned upon in Pueblo culture. But Waquie has chosen the lonely road of the achiever. His friendships revolve around sports. He never hangs out in the village bar. "A lot of our athletes feel forced to drink and smoke, but I'm an individual who follows his path and keeps going," he says. "My grandfather always told me, 'Whenever there is a big crowd, just stay away. Be on your own.' "
He nearly always runs alone, often heading into the mountains and not emerging for five days. A vegetarian who sometimes goes on four-day fasts to "purify" his system, Waquie sustains himself in the mountains with spring water, roots and berries. "When I'm up there in the sacred places, I just don't want to come home," he says.
Not surprisingly, Waquie has physically adverse reactions to parts of the so-called civilized world. The air pollution commonly found at sea level gives him headaches. He once had a sip of coffee and contends it was enough to keep him up all night. The smell of cooking grease makes him nauseous.
New York City is particularly hard on him. The noise leaves his ears ringing for days. The 11 to 12 minutes he spends sucking in the dank, stale air of the Empire State stairwells gives him a sore throat that usually hangs on for a week.
Still, Waquie looks forward to the race every year, even though he always keeps its organizers in the dark as to when, or even if, he will arrive. Indeed, last week he was somewhat reluctant to commit himself again for this year's race. He remembers arriving for his first, in 1983. "When I stood next to that building, man, I couldn't even talk," he says. "It was hard to believe that this world and my world could exist at the same time."
But each time Waquie has won the race and conquered the skyscraper, it has been a reaffirmation that, for him, the Indian way is better than modern life. He admits he might feel a twinge of longing when he watches the Olympic marathon this summer, but he can take solace in knowing he will probably be running in ceremonial harvest races long after the gold medalist has retired. "Most people stop running because it's hard work that they get tired of," he says. "For me it's fun, but it's also much deeper than that. It's why I'm sure I'll run the rest of my life."