Running for Life
Trail running is part of their ancient culture, but are these spiritual runners a dying breed?
Traditionally dressed, Martin runs in an arroyo in Copper Canyon on his way to Batopilas. Photo by David Clifford.
I first heard of the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico in 1993 when Victoriano Churro, wearing huaraches he’d made from old car tire treads, won the Leadville 100. In 1995, another Tarahumara from the same region of Mexico’s vast Copper Canyon won Leadville again. After that, I kept my ears open.
There was plenty of news about the Tarahumara in the coming years. When Nike tried to supply shoes for the Tarahumara competitors, they only ran a few miles before they exchanged the expensive runners for their homemade sandals. The Indians were, reportedly, very spiritual runners. One Tarahumara front-runner at Leadville stopped dead at a vista, overwhelmed by the beauty of the snowcapped Colorado mountains, and let the pack catch and pass him.
In contrast to their spiritual dispositions, they were incorrigible partiers. Prior to the race, they were offered accommodations in the mountains, but elected to stay in Boulder, where, by all accounts, they drank into the wee hours surrounded by infatuated female Boulderati. They were culturally naïve. The first runners to compete in the United States didn’t do well on the night runs because they ran with their flashlights pointing up like the torches they carried at home.
At home, conditions were apparently bleak. The Tarahumara were starving. In a 1996 article in the Los Angeles Times, the Tarahumara Madero Herrera said, “[T]here’s very little food, there’s very little water ... There’s no electricity in our community. People are hungry. People are dying.” There were Americans, varying degrees of impresarios, attaching themselves to the Tarahumara, soliciting funds to ease their plight. It was one of these, Richard Fisher, who first brought the Tarahumara to America to compete. The motivation behind some of the fundraising was being questioned. Is all that money going to the Indians? Are they still starving? Were they ever really dying?
This little girl was all smiles as she sold baskets to tourists. Photo by David Clifford.
Interest piqued, I cracked the books and found that the historical anecdotes on Tarahumara running were as amazing and as curious as the recent news. In 1894, anthropologist Carl Lumholtz reported that Tarahumaras ran “easily 170 miles without stopping.” The Mexicans hired them to bring in wild horses. “It may take two or three days, but they will bring them in, the horses, thoroughly exhausted, while the men who, of course, economize their strength, are comparatively fresh.”
In 1900, Alexander Shepherd employed Tarahumaras to haul an upright piano through 185 miles of steep barrancas. They made the trip in 15 days and ran home, 185 miles, in three days. In 1971, filmmaker William Sagstetter was passed by a Tarahumara man carrying his crippled wife on his back for 60 miles. On the same trip, while visiting Indians at Divisadero, a Tarahumara ran 24 miles to get Sagstetter pipe tobacco.
In the same year, Michael Jenkinson reported that a Tarahumara courier from the Sisoguichie Jesuit mission ran 50 miles in six hours including stops in villages to check on health conditions. In 1979, Bernard Fontana, with the Arizona State Museum, hired an elderly Tarahumara to carry a 65-pound earthenware jar out of the canyon. “The old man made the 16-mile trip that night and was back by dawn.”
Clearly, the Tarahumara know something about running. But who were these incredible runners and what made them so strong? Itching to find answers, I hooked up with my friend David Appleton, a longtime Copper Canyon guide. We drove south from El Paso, Texas, and spent seven days exploring the trails and villages of the Copper Canyon, from the high-country ponderosa and madroño forests of Creel, to the desert of Palos Blancos, to the strangler fig (Camochin) and organ pipe (Mapache) cactus at the riverside town of Batopilas. Along the way we met several Tarahumara, both women and men, those who worked in the towns and dressed like modern Mexicans and those who lived in remote ranchos and wore the traditional costume of brightly woven skirts, blouses and loincloths.
Any discussion of the Tarahumara and running must begin with a picture of the Sierra Tarahumara. The Copper Canyon in southwestern Chihuahua is actually one of six massive canyons that crisscross a section of high mountains and encompass an area four times the size of the Grand Canyon. The climate varies from subtropical at river level to alpine.
Teporaca, the recalcitrant Tarahumara leader of the resistance against the Spanish, was executed on March 4, 1653. After that, the Tarahumara, or “Raramuri” (The Light-footed Ones) as they refer to themselves, retreated into the rugged canyons where they have remained ever since, summering in the cool coniferous forests at 9000 feet and retreating to the lowlands during the winter.
Life in the Sierra requires a runner’s endurance, as the Raramuri herd goats over the rocky trail systems and farm corn in the equally rocky soil. The scale is vast, and distances between ranchos can be huge. In order to pass news or visit friends, it is necessary to walk or run. Micah True, an expatriate trail runner known to the Tarahumara as El Caballo Blanco (The White Horse), says simply, “The terrain is gnarly. The most efficient way to get around is by foot. Nothing can keep up with foot travel [in the Sierra], not a horse or a bike, nothing.”
True suggests that living in the canyons, “closer to the earth,” is the primary reason the Raramuri are such fast runners. “They know exactly when it’s more efficient to walk, to fast walk and to full-out run.”
The Tarahumara's multi-purpose tire-tread sandals or huaraches. Photo by David Clifford.
During the week I spent in Copper Canyon, I was able to sample a variety of trails. While the ground and surroundings changed character according to the altitude and climactic zone, the trails remained copious. These people had cut and maintained trail systems all over the place. Some of the best-preserved trails, marked with high cairns or pine trees pruned high up their trunks, ended abruptly at the edge of some precipitous drop-off. Others wound through strange rock towers and mushroom-shaped boulders or ascended stairways cut from solid rock. One morning we passed a friendly Raramuri family living in a cave. Smoke from their breakfast fire billowed into the blue sky as we exchanged a “Buenos dias.”
Most of the good trails serve as foot highways that link different quintas or farms. The homes are typically rocked-in caves or cabins built out of pine logs, with peaked roofs and open lofts that serve as attics. Goats, sheep and dogs roam about as the women, dressed in bright skirts and shawls, shyly offer woven belts, wraps, baskets and wooden dolls for sale. Cats peer from the hay lofts and the men, if there are any about, typically remain to the side, uncommunicative and at times, a bit surly.
The Raramuri are a proud and fiercely independent people, and they have largely resisted the homogenization that has beset native cultures all over Mexico, America and the rest of the world. This resistance to change is apparent in the resiliency of their culture, which has retained a number of unique features including distinctive costume, a widely spoken language and an emphasis on running in the form of a hugely popular game called Ralajipame.
Ralajipame is a race run by a number of competitors representing different villages. The object of the race is to kick a ball, typically carved from madroño wood or the root of an oak, across a predetermined finish line. John G. Kennedy in his study of the Raramuri, Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology and Social Organization, offers this description of the game as part of his analysis of a 21-mile race that took place on the mesa of Inapuchi. “A number of runners begin for each team, but it is only necessary to have one runner take the ball across the finish line. The hard wooden ball is not actually kicked, but it is lifted swiftly in the air with the toe in a motion so rapid that it looks like kicking. The runners are not supposed to touch the ball with their hands. Most Tarahumara boys gain great proficiency in this as they practice it from a very young age while out herding.”
Ralajipame is not only a diversion for the Raramuri. The entire community turns out to support the runners, with spectators running long distances, five or six miles, alongside their hometown favorites and supplying impromptu massage or pinole, an energy drink made of roasted corn, milk and raw sugar to help keep the men peppy. Betting is prodigious, with everything from a bar of soap to a crop of corn wagered on the outcome.
Chokeames, or referees, oversee the races, which often take place spontaneously, as an offshoot of a Tesguinado, or drinking party where the warm corn beer loosens inhibitions and can cause the normally reserved Raramuri to act out. Fouls, such as runners tripping each other, tearing off each other’s loincloths or grabbing the ball, are common. Men of all ages compete. The oldest competitor in the race at Inapuchi was 55 years old and the youngest was 14.
I was hoping to see some runners or at least catch a match of Ralajipame, but when we were in Copper Canyon most of the men were in the fields, plowing and planting. The occasional heartbeat of drums echoed across the canyon walls to scare off the devils and bring on spring rains. Although every Raramuri man I asked said he runs and plays Ralajipame, nobody would tell me where I might see a runner or a competition. In fact, while I was in the Canyon, the only Indians I actually ran into on the trails were either drunk, riding a bike or looking to hitch a ride, at times all three. Whether we were several miles into the backcountry or in the old city of Batopilas at the bottom of the canyon, nobody was really interested in talking about running. Instead the Raramuri were interested in asking for money or tipping back a bottle of Viva Villa, the $1-a-liter rot-gut grain alcohol that is fast replacing their traditional corn beer.
I asked Don Bush, an 18-year resident of La Bufa in Copper Canyon, and intimate of several Raramuri runners, if running was on the decline and he seemed to think that the culture was, in fact, in a period of transition. “The women don’t grind corn anymore,” he said, “they buy Maseca. Starving? I’ve never seen it. We had a drought in the early ’80s and the government was right on top of it. A big truck showed up with corn and the Indians were drunk on the tesguino they made with it for months.”
Maria laundering her family's clothes in a trickling stream outside of Creel. Photo by David Clifford.
As we were driving out of the canyon, up the steep switchbacks from Batopilas, David Appleton told a story about a Corona truck that plunged off the edge and fell into the river. “The drivers were all messed up, but the Indians ignored them and plundered the beer. They thought it was a gift from God.”
Micah True, El Caballo Blanco, told me that the Raramuri are very detached. “You give them something, they take it. They are not going to over-thank you. The Tarahumara do not run for fun. I tell them that I run for fun and they look at me like I’m crazy. The Tarahumara run for material gain. To understand the Tarahumara, you have to understand korima.”
“Unconditional giving. That’s how they operate. You can run for 70 miles and know that when you get there, anywhere in the Sierra, you’ll be given a blanket and some food. They give like that and, consequently, expect it in return.”
I’d come to the Copper Canyon to learn about this tribe of super-runners and I was leaving with more questions than answers. I’d checked out some of the best trails imaginable, trails that wound through the pines and hardwoods and deserts and along rivers, through pastures of boulders and up and down mountains for hundreds and hundreds of miles. I’d met native people who lived in caves and washed their clothes in the mountain streams. I’d talked to gringos who lived and ran with the Raramuri, but I still was no closer to understanding what it was that made them such tough runners.
I could say, like many others before me, that the Raramuri run so fast on trails because they live in the canyons and mountains and engage in a pastime that is, as scholar John Kennedy puts it, “more than a game, [but] an economic activity, a force for social cohesion, and a channel for aggression.” The Raramuri are so good because their physical and social reality, every aspect of their life, is intricately linked with running. I could say that, but it’s not what I observed.
Then, as I was beginning to feel my mood turn down toward dejection, we rounded a bend and the school we were passing in Majinache let out for the day. Two young boys came bounding alongside the van and passed us with such speed and alacrity I almost missed the fact that they were kicking a ball of hard wood, running full tilt down the rocky road, right foot bare, each one holding a tire-tread huarache and laughing.
They were running like you and I run, not because bets were laid or they had some place to go. Those boys were running for the sheer joy of it, running past the peach trees and through the boulders, raising the ancient dust like so many generations before them and I realized in a flash that as long as there are trails in the Sierra, there will be Raramuri running.
Trailhead: Copper Canyon
Getting there. Drive south from El Paso, Texas, and cross the border at Ciudad Juarez. You’ll need to present your passport or notarized birth certificate at the checkpoint and secure a tourist card before continuing to the interior of Mexico. You’ll also need to present your title, driver’s license and credit card (in the same name as appears on the title) in order to receive a car pass. Once your paperwork is complete, drive south for five hours to Chihuahua City on Mexico 45, turn west on 16 to Cuahtemoc and follow signs to Creel. The drive from Chihuahua to Creel takes around five hours. Chihuahua City has an airport if you’d prefer to fly. Bus service via Estrella Blanca is also an option. Buses run from El Paso. Eight buses a day run from Chihuahua to Creel. Creel is an excellent hub from which to explore the Copper Canyon.
Seasons. Because of the varying altitude, Copper Canyon offers good temperatures year round. Summers are blistering in the lower elevations and winters are frigid up high. For this reason, spring and fall might be considered the best seasons to visit.
Guidebooks. My favorite guide to Mexico is Insight Guides Mexico, mainly because of Kal Muller’s incredible photography. Let’s Go and Lonely Planet also offer basic information on accommodations, camping, transportation, restaurants, etc.
Recommended trails. Some of the more popular destinations make for excellent trail runs. Check out The Valley of the Monks, nine kilometers from Creel, an eerie collection of rock spires known in the Tarahumara language as The Valley of the Erect Penises. Basaseachi Falls is the highest waterfall in Mexico and offers a difficult trail to the base (two hours of trotting and scrambling). The Batopilas River, at the bottom of the Copper Canyon, has a nice trail along its banks that goes as far as your legs can go. Some of the nicest trails are those that connect Tarahumara villages. Check with locals for more information. Given the nature of the landscape and ubiquitous trail systems, I would recommend contacting or, better yet, hiring a guide before venturing into the unknown.
- Fontana, B., Tarahumara, Where Night is the Day of the Moon, 1979, Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona.
- Kennedy, John, Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology, and Social Organization, 1978, AHM Publishing Corporation.
- Lumholtz, Karl, Unknown Mexico, 1902, Rio Grande Press, University of Chicago.
- Lister, Florence C. and Robert H., Chihuahua, Storehouse of Storms.
- Nabokov, Peter, Indian Running; Native American History and Tradition, 1981, Ancient City Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This article originally appeared in our July 2003 issue.