The Sierra Madre mountains of northern Mexico are home to not only one of the four largest canyons in the world, Copper Canyon, but to who many consider to be the best trail and endurance runners in the world: the indigenous Tarahumara, or Raramuri. For a better part of the year the evasive Tarahumara live in the mountains or remote valleys and stay away from the developed world, but for the past 16 years an event that only happens during the month of July brings both worlds together: the Ultramarathon of the Canyons (from the Spanish name Ultramaraton de los Cañones). I was there during its 2012 edition to see, learn…and race.
The Tarahumara indigenous people have been around for well over 500 years, when they retreated to the mountains while escaping from the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Since then they have lived self-sufficiently growing their own food , building their own houses and even brewing their own alcohol: tesguino, a low-alcohol high-calorie beverage made from corn that some believe has a lot to do with their endurance running abilities. The almost inaccessible rugged terrain has proved efficient at keeping intruders away for centuries, but at the same time has also challenged their natural communication means among villages making them run long distances across sometimes dangerous landscapes simply to deliver a message. With time running became the essence of the culture, and now all Tarahumara (also known as Raramuri) grow with one thing in mind: being the best runners they can be.
Their athletic capabilities have been well documented for many years, yet their shy and introspective culture has not allowed many opportunities to challenge runners from other parts of the world, and because of this there is only one race that provides runners from all over the world to test their skills against the superhuman abilities of who many call the best runners in the world. The Ultramarathon of the Canyons is a running event that takes place in the month of July in the small town of Guachochi, the closest village to their home land, right by the Sinforosa canyon. It has only happened for the past 16 years and includes several races of different distances (10, 21, 63 and 100km) allowing people from all ages an opportunity to run against the Tarahumara. I was there as part of my trip across the state of Chihuahua, looking to document the event and learn about these people, but after careful consideration I decided to challenge myself and run now only against them, but like them: in sandals. I am not much of a runner (I think I had never run more than 10 or 12 km) and signed up for the 21km race, and decided that my shoes would be the trekking sandals I was wearing. Sure, they might be a step ahead of their huaraches, but tough enough for me.
The 100km and 63 km races start at 6 in the morning, an hour before sunrise looking to avoid the heat and in preparation for the long time it will take some of the racers to finish- if they do at all. I walked down into the valley where the hanging bridge is, as I figured I’d be able to get some nice photos while observing these incredible athlete crossing it. Halfway down the path I crossed the man you see in the first picture which I suggest you look in detail: look at his clothes, his look of determination, his body…and specifically look at his footwear. He was running 100km in those basic sandals, and when I asked his age his reply left my in awe: 83 years old.
It took just over 9 hours for the 100km winner to finish the race, and around 6 hours for the 63km to complete his. Many however would take more than 15 arriving well into the night, and others wouldn’t finish it at all. My 21 km race (ordeal) took place the following day, and it was as much of a challenge as it was an extraordinary experience. Unfortunately the race did not take place along the gorge but across ugly trails right at the top, yet there was no way I was going to quit. I had in fact convinced my guide to join me, and with borrowed running shoes we both took off with excitement and wonder. There first 10 km went by well, observing how the Tarahumara females and other runners participated wearing all sorts of clothes (including jeans!!). Soon after though my sandals began to become a burden, but I eventually did finish the race despite my knee pain and blisters. I never learned in what position I arrived, as I had pinned my number on the back of my t-shirt and race organizers were not able to read it when I crossed the finish line (in my defense I have to say that as a last minute entry it was made of plastic and proved too annoying to be placed in the front).
Perhaps one of the things that surprised me most was the lack of international participation- there was barely a handful of racers from overseas, and most were part of the team of runners from Spain I was traveling with.
There is , however,a sad side to this story. The Tarahumara are probably the best runners in the world, yet during the past decade they have found themselves amidst troubles they were not looking for. An extreme drought has been hitting the region the past few years, and famine has been a problem. In addition to this, the isolated region has also been targeted by drug dealers who not only use the Tarahumara land to cultivate Marihuana and other drugs but bribe the Tarahumara into transporting 30-50 kg bags of drugs across long distances for amounts of money equivalent to a year’s waged in their terms, yet next to nothing for most people. As a result alcohol has become a problem and I was saddened to learn that many of the runners who win this race simply drink their race money away.
How did this article make you feel? Had you heard about the Tarahumara? Are you much of a runner? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below, and this post too if you liked it!
My visit to Guachochi and the opportunity to learn about the Tarahumara was compd by the Chihuahua Tourism Bureau, however the content in this article is entirely my own.