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Thursday, August 28 2014 @ 07:15 PM EDT

'Peace runners' stop in Willow Glen during journey from Alaska to Panama

Expat TalesBy Tiffany Carney for the Mercury News.com - In the 100-degree heat, more than 40 runners crossed the grass two at a time at Willow Glen's Gardner Community Center. The steady beat of a drum echoed throughout the neighborhood, setting the pace for the runners armed with walking staffs as part of the Peace and Dignity Journeys 2008 run that celebrates indigenous people from North and South America with a relay that stretches from Alaska to Panama. "It helps out with your culture, your spirit and your mind," said San Jose resident Jacob Palomares-Mason, 14, who is participating in his second run. Similar to a relay, the inter-continental journeys are described as "spiritual runs that embody the prophecy of the eagle and the condor," with the eagle representing the North and the condor representing the South. (more)

As part of the event, runners stopped in the Gardner neighborhood on their trek to Panama, where they will converge Nov. 15 with those runners who started in Argentina.

As the runners entered the Gardner site, they were greeted with a two-hour, traditional ceremony involving prayers and songs performed by Muwekma Ohlone tribe from the Bay Area, and dances performed by Calpulli Tonalehqueh Aztec dancers. Community members also came out to support the cause.

Similar to a relay, each person is responsible for running 4 to 8 miles each day, less if there are more people. Throughout the journey, the number of runners fluctuates as they weave in and out of different cities and are joined by some as others put down their running shoes.

Jacob, who lives in the Gardner community, joined the runners on the next leg of their journey. He attended the welcoming ceremony and couldn't wait to run.

In 2004, at age 10, Jacob ran with the group to Watsonville. "That was the toughest thing I have ever done in my life," he said, recalling his aching joints and tired muscles. This year he plans to run more than 40 miles to the next rest stop at Indian Canyon Ranch, just west of Hollister. "I am prepared," he said confidently.

For the past few months, Jacob maintained a strict training regimen by running laps and working out to get his body ready for the run.

Peace and Dignity Journeys, a grassroots and nonprofit organization, hosted the first run in 1992 after entertaining the idea in 1990 at the first Continental Commission of Indigenous Nations and Organizations conference.

The organization is now responsible for coordinating volunteers and organizing host communities that raise money to provide shelter, food and supplies along the way.

Ruth Alejo of Watsonville ran seven hours from San Francisco to San Jose. In 2000, she ran the entire length of California to "honor and celebrate our traditions," she said.

"It is really to (fulfill the prophecy) of spiritually bringing different indigenous and native communities back together. It literally does that," Alejo said.

Another integral part of the run is the carrying of the staffs from start to finish. Each staff, similar to a walking stick, represents a native community. The staffs also represent prayers offered by runners and supporters at each stop and are then carried throughout the journey.

Mayra Montoya, who now lives in Hayward but grew up in San Jose, was given the opportunity to carry the main staff and lead the group.

"One of the best parts about doing this run is being welcomed with open arms and being embraced by the community," Alejo said.

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