Meet the Tarahumara (Raramuri): the Best Trail Runners in the World?

| September 26, 2012 | 19 Comments
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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.

tarahumara_runner

For the Tarahumara age is not a factor: this 83 year old man was running the 100 km race. I took this picture when he had run about 60.

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.

Tarahumara in Guachochi

Tarahumara in the small village of Guachochi, Chihuahua.

Tarahumara best runners in the world

For the Tarahumara it’s all about running barefoot or with “huaraches”.

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.

Tarahumara runner

A Tarahumara runner carrying a stick for those extreme uphill sections.

Running in copper canyon

The 63km and 100km races take place in spectacular and extreme landscapes like this one. The trail follows a gorge that can reach depths of over 60 meters, is sometimes blocked by trees and rocks and crosses a hanging bridge.

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.

Tarahumara in copper canyon

A Tarahumara in Copper Canyon. The word “Tarahumara” means “light feet” , name that makes a lot of sense when you observe the stance of this athlete.

female tarahumara runners

It’s not only the men who run: Tarahumara females also run in all disciplines, and their running clothes are not to be missed.

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).

tarahumara runners

Tarahumara runners in the 21km race

tarahumara huaraches

Take a close look at the Tarahumara huaraches. This is all they use as foot gear, if any at all.

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.

visiting runners copper canyon

A few minutes before this picture was taken the racer in blue (who usually runs barefoot) and the one to his right in gray (who runs a travel and running agency called 26 Running Family) had finished the 63km race- it took them 15 hours.

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.

Category: Americas, Destinations, Mexico

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19 Responses to “Meet the Tarahumara (Raramuri): the Best Trail Runners in the World?”

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  2. Leigh says:

    I’ve heard of the Tarahumara and have always wanted to visit this region – but have been put off lately because of the drug issue. One can’t help but me impressed with their physical prowess but saddened to hear about the descent into a life of alcohol – at least for some. Your photos are wonderful!

  3. Awesome article Federico! I’m going to be in this area in a few weeks. Looks like there is a ton to see. Very impressed you ran that distance. :-)

    • maitravelsite says:

      Hey Matthew, you’ll enjoy the area a lot, there’s plenty to see. Getting from one place to the other does take quite some time though. Will you be going further South?

  4. Alex says:

    Wow, no I had never heard of the Tarahumara! I’ve only just recently (this summer!) taken up running and I’ve found it quite a challege but very rewarding so I loved this story. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Ayngelina says:

    I am so jealous you went here, I have always wanted to see this. I first heard about it two years ago when I first landed in Mexico and it’s at the top of my travel wish list.

  6. I loved this post! I’ve heard a little about the Tarahumara people but found it interesting to hear more. And you are CRAZY for running a half marathon with no preparation and in sandals – I barely survived mine, and I’d been training for months.

  7. Abby says:

    It really is an amazing feat. I’m so glad to see their story told!

  8. Erica says:

    You have me speechless. Like.. WOW.

  9. Angela says:

    Wow I had never heard of this run, amazing how much these people’s resistance, definitely bigger than mine!

  10. Megan says:

    That man in the picture is 83 years old and has walked upto 60 kilometres. Wohh!!! This is like unbelievable but anyhow I do believe it because I have seen the picture myself. This is very sporty of him and I am deeply inspired by him and also amazed by his capacity to walk such a long distance.

  11. Emy says:

    I can see a group of mix aged people of Tarahumara running the mountains in your pictures and yes these people also include the old aged people which impresses me to the core. Their spirit and boldness towards this sport is worth appreciating.

  12. Jannet says:

    Wow!!! Seems to me like you had quite a bit of fun. The Tarahumara seem like an interesting group of people. Also, it is unbelievable that they run mountain trails with those huaraches which barely offer any covering to the feet. Thanks for sharing with us about this interesting community.

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