“By placing one foot in front of the other, you begin a journey”
With so much uncertainty in the world today, Christian Gering has found direction. Rooting deeply into his Pueblo San Felipe culture and its values of movement and connection to the land, Gering finds motivation for his running goals, inspiration for his artwork and a way to better himself and his community.
Gering is one of the most under-the-radar professional trail runners, but he is competitive on the highest level in both ultra and sub ultra distance trail races. Just a few of his racing accomplishments include his 2015 Bandera 50K win, 2019 Javelina 100K win (and course record), 5th place finish at the 2020 Pikes Peak Marathon, 4th place finish at the 2020 USATF 50-Mile Trail Championships and his win at the 2018 Jemez Mountain Trail Runs 50 Mile, where he broke legendary mountain runner Anton Krupicka’s course record that had stood since 2014.
Beating Anton’s course record attracted the attention of shoe companies and helped him land his current sponsorship deal with Salomon. In spite of these accomplishments Gering didn’t always know he wanted to be a runner, let alone make it a profession.
PART I: Discovering the Gift of Movement
As a high schooler, Gering was a part of Nevada’s Olympic Training Development program for soccer. He had dreams of playing in college or even going pro, but changed his mind when he realized how the sport’s governing bodies ran the show. “It felt very bureaucratic at times,” explained Gering. “Buying into clubs, figuring out which teams are giving more financial support, how teams train and so on didn’t feel right. What my family could provide financially and the spaces I could get into on these teams were only so much. I loved playing the game, but didn’t necessarily like the politics of it.”
Calling an end to his soccer career, Gering went into an ROTC program and thought about joining the military after high school. He clicked with the values of brotherhood, camaraderie, physical training and hard-work, but wasn’t much a fan of the uniform and military code. He ditched the idea of joining the military and decided to grow a mohawk.
Gering’s introduction to running came unexpectedly during his junior year of high school. This didn’t happen in the usual way during a gym class mile run, by joining the track and cross country team or signing up for a local 5K. Gering’s first race, and the moment when he knew he loved running, came after he completed the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Marathon. Not only was a 26.2-mile race quite the extreme introduction to running for a young high schooler, but Gering did it with hardly any training.
Before the marathon, his older brother had just returned home from Marine Corps boot camp, and was preparing to leave home for a military career. “My father recognized that this was the moment where my brother was leaving the house and he wanted a bonding moment between the three of us. He signed us all up for the marathon. At the time, I remember thinking…I don’t need to train. I’m young, I’m fast, and I’m going to kick these guys’ butts,” recalled Gering.
Despite his enthusiasm, Gering did not beat his brother nor his father. Long story short, Gering hit the wall during the race. “I kept up with my brother until about mile 11, then I started cramping and feeling pain in my legs. By mile 22, I didn’t know if I could finish. Looking back now, I’m this professional athlete, but my brother and dad still hold their win over me. I’ve asked them if they want to run another race, but they’re like ‘na’,” said Gering jokingly.
After this bonding run with his father and brother, Gering signed up for the cross country team at Santa Fe Indian School his senior year. Although he was not a standout runner, he was enjoying his time in the sport and beginning to make observations about why running was so important to his Pueblo people.
“Running is not so much about winning, but deepening my understanding of my place in this world. I recognized I didn’t want to be doing this for accolades. I wanted to do this for the feeling of bringing gifts to the world. One thing they say back home at The Pueblo San Felipe is that we practice running for the ones who can’t. Having mobility, raising your knees and placing one foot in front of the other is a gift in the barest and simplest form,” said Gering.
Gering enjoyed running, but he didn’t see it as a path after high school. As a deeply creative person, Gering found his calling in the arts and was accepted with scholarship to the dorms at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Things looked bright for this young high school graduate, but like many of us at this age things can get wild. Sometimes there’s consequences for being too young and reckless.
“I got crazy, excessive, and unfortunately did things that compromised my health and opportunity to go to school,” said Gering. “I got kicked out of the dorms. I was a poor college student and I wasn’t able to find other affordable housing in Santa Fe and had to drop out of school. My recklessness with marijuana and other substances forced me to miss out on this opportunity to go to art school. This was a major low point in my life where I felt really down. I was being ungrateful and wasn’t recognizing the gifts I was given.”
PART II: Planting Seeds
Gering needed a place to rethink his life. He committed to rediscovering himself and did so on his grandfather’s farm on the San Felipe Pueblo reservation. He found his “roots” through deepening his connection to his family and Pueblo culture. This environment also propelled his running to a place he never could have imagined.
“We grew corn, squash, peas, spinach, melon, and chilis and I learned to respect my grandfather and the way he perceives being a farmer,” said Gering. “There’s so much work involved in farming that people don’t see. When we prepare food on a table, people see the end result but not the work that goes into growing this food into gifts on the table for others.”
His grandfather’s perseverance and commitment to his daily tasks inspired Gering.
“My grandfather has been doing this for many years. I recognized he has the ability to put in the effort day in and day out. It’s not so much hard effort, but the intention that he wakes up every day to plant his seeds and tend to them. That’s how I see my running now,” offered Gering. “Running is not a chore, not a task, but a gift that I get everyday. I nurture my running to the point where I can share it with people as a gift. I can share this conversation about my running with you and your readers, to a generation of younger Pueblo runners looking for advice and inspire older people to get out the door, whether that be with running, walking or some form of light exercise that they can do. The recognition of the gift of movement is why I run.”
With rekindled “roots” in his Pueblo culture and a better understanding of himself, Gering decided to refocus on education and running. He attended Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO. He had never even visited the campus, but from the moment he arrived and took in the views of the jaw-dropping San Juan Mountains he knew he was in the right place. “This was the place where I wanted to grow and nurture who I wanted to be.”
Gering’s running “seeds” took off on the Durango trails. “I called the cross country coach. He said I had to pay $250 and I could train with the team, come to preseason camp and be a part of the team. The first team camp was incredible. We hosted the camp just below Coalbank Pass (10,610 feet). We ran above the tree-line. We would run, eat, sleep and repeat. After the camp, I remember thinking to myself ‘I’m feeling pretty fit.”
Soon it became apparent to the rest of the runners on the team just how “fit” Gering was. By the second meet of the season he was on the varsity team. By the end of the season, he was the team’s top runner. Said Gering, “The following year I received a cross country scholarship. I was like ‘wow’ I’m getting paid to run!” He set multiple school records, went to nationals three times and achieved an impressive 8-kilometer cross country personal record (PR) of 24:13 (an average pace of 4:52 per mile on grass and dirt for roughly 5 miles).
Gering was establishing himself as a competitive runner, but he wanted to do more and keep improving. He recalls racing college track stars from Colorado including Matt Daniels (who is now also an accomplished trail runner) and brainstorming what more he could do to race at the highest level. He researched training plans by famous running coaches such as Joe Vigil and Jack Daniels (not the whiskey brand!) and decided that he wanted to pursue professional running after graduation.
With endless trails in the San Juan Mountains around him, it made sense to train for ultra trail races. Longer distance always came naturally to him (not many high schoolers could jump into a marathon with no training and still finish!). After graduating, he ran a 50-kilometer race near the Grand Canyon and won. He would spend the next three years in Durango establishing himself as an ultrarunner. He ran many respectable performances at major trail ultras races including the Bandera and Speedgoat 50-kilometer races.
PART III: Burnout
But the elite running scene wasn’t as fulfilling as Gering imagined. By 2017, Gering was feeling burnt out from the many competitions and wasn’t enjoying it. He chose to take a break from racing and returned again to his Pueblo people. “As much fun as it was to have adventures in the San Juan Mountains, I recognized my community and culture needed me back here in New Mexico. I was tired from the running life and went to work on a permaculture farm,” said Gering.
This was not just any permaculture farm. The farm was run by Pueblo sculptor Roxanne Swentzell, whose art has been exhibited in the White House, Cartier in Paris, France and the Museum of Wellington in New Zealand, to name a few. In addition to her art, Swentzell had a deep connection to the land and her Pueblo culture. She became a mentor for Gering, teaching him how he could find meaning in his life through connecting further to the land and his culture. Gering was ready to plant new seeds.
“I was amazed how by this woman’s understanding of the cultural teachings of the Pueblo and her adherence to these traditions that our people have been practicing since first settling in the Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon areas. She was taking these traditions and able to relate them back to us in a newer context through permaculture and sustainable building. We were planting, farming, building things and I remember being able to witness this woman living her life so beautifully. I thought, ‘how can I do that but with running?’ How can I live in a way that is purposeful and intentful? I worked on the permaculture farm but also continued to train and found meaning in my running again,” said Gering.
Swentzell had great respect for Gering’s running and how he used it to connect with his culture. Gering recalls a special memory between the two of them when he ran 25 miles in preparation for the 2018 Jemez Mountain Trail Runs 50 Mile race. Swentzell rode an E-bike alongside him the entire way.
Another point where they both connected over was Swentzell’s activism in the Pueblo Food Sovereignty Movement. This movement encourages the Pueblo people to grow and eat only the foods that existed in the region before contact with Europeans. The goal is to improve health and strengthen Pueblo traditions. Swentzell advocated for the importance of this movement on her farm and also through a personal project that has since been turned into the documentary The Pueblo Food Experience. She has also written a cookbook on the topic. Gering enjoyed his time with Swentzell and connected more deeply with his Pueblo roots through growing and eating the foods that had been in the region for generations. When talking to Gering about traditional Pueblo foods, he lights up and describes some of his favorites including atole and blue corn sweetened lavender tamales with currants.
PART IV: Looking Forward
Native American communities have been one of the hardest hit demographics during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Gering, that means his mission as a runner is more important than ever. Gering realized at the beginning of his running career, “We run for the ones who can’t,” and that is still a value he holds dear. Gering sees his ability to run, now as a professional, as a gift he can share with his Pueblo people. He hopes to inspire a deeper understanding of their values of health, movement and connection to the land. “Running races, especially competitive races, is a way for me to get my message out,” said Gering. Looking forward to his 2021 racing schedule, Gering plans to race in the Golden Trail Series, and compete at highly competitive European races including Sierre Zinal and the Mont Blanc Marathon.
In addition to racing, Gering will host a running retreat for his Pueblo community in June and is currently planning a running project in July that would involve running the original Pueblo trade routes from the Santa Fe Plaza in downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico all the way up to nearby Mount Baldy (12,441 feet) and back. He plans to document this project and involve historians and other professionals who can speak to the significance of this trail to the Pueblo people throughout history.
While pursuing his running goals, Gering has also found time to continue his passion for the arts. He’s turned his art into a business, performing graphic recordings for local nonprofits and schools. He specializes in abstract art. “The creativity that I get is from moving and experiencing the world. I listen to my surroundings as I move through it and turn it into art,” said Gering. Look for Gering to continue his art projects in 2021 and find inspiration from his running adventures and life experiences.
Gering’s running is about much more than just himself. He has recognized running as his gift to his Pueblo people and as a way for him to better understand himself and his place in the world. Most professional runners understand “winning” as the end goal, but Gering has found something in running much more meaningful. Gering is one of few Pueblo representatives in the mainstream trail running scene, but his message is clear and he’s inspired to share his people’s values with the world.