Readers Note: Certainly a legend in the Desert Southwest, renowned 58-year-old ultra-marathon runner Micah True (right) was found dead Saturday in New Mexico’s Gila National Park after failing to return from a running trip. (Story here.) Mr. True was the race director of The Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, (Photo scene above from last year’s race) a 50-plus mile extreme race that last took place in Urique, Mexico, on March 4; and has been featured in the magazines Running Times and Outside. Also Mr. True is the central character — known as “Caballo Blanco” — in the New York Times best-selling non-fiction book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. The book chronicles True’s time in northern Mexico’s spectacular Copper Canyon with the Tarahumara Indians, an isolated tribe known for their long, grueling runs. Center for Social Minimalism and the Desert Mountain Times‘ own contributor, Alpine’s Jim Glendinning, traveled along with a neighbor, Pilar Pederson, to Copper Canyon a year ago to personally observe one of these running events. Below is their report and photos they’ve filed. Wow! I’m sure you’ll say. What feats! (Jim’s photo above is the awards ceremony after the race. Earlier versions of the story have appeared in other Big Bend newspapers.)
By Jim Glendinning
March 6, 2011 dawned warm and cloudless in Urique, a town of around 1,000 inhabitants deep in Chihuahua’s Sierra Madre range, and the site of the annual Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon. Urique Canyon (depth 4,265 ft) is one of only two canyons in the area accessible by road and public transportation.
This was how the international runners arrived, by bus or van from the station at Bahachuivo on the rail line from Chihuahua City. The Tarahumaras arrived on foot from various parts of the canyon region, travelling along trails known only to them. The 7th Ultra Marathon, for men and women, pitting Tarahumaras, more correctly known as Rarámuris, against Mexicans against North Americans plus a few runners from other countries, was about to begin.
Our group of five visitors from Texas arrived the previous evening as it was getting dark. (Pilar Pedersen of Alpine, our 6th group member, had gone ahead to help with race preparations). We crossed a wide paved street, sloping sharply uphill, on which two small planes were parked. This is Urique’s airport. We checked into the Figueroa Hotel. Thin sheets, bright green walls, bare bulb illumination and a private bathroom cost $10 per room. We are right behind the large, ornate Presidencia (City Hall) and a mariachi band is playing at full throttle.
In the tropical warmth, Rarámuri runners in breech cloths and huaraches (sandals made from tires) are strolling around the plaza or sitting watching the folkloric entertainment. They are handsome, dark in complexion, slight in build and impassive in demeanor. Standing taller by a head or more, and very much in the minority, are the gringos who are mainly attired in conventional running shoes, shorts and t-shirts.
Visible because of his lean, tall frame and shaven head, is the late Micah True (see photo caption above), known as Caballo Blanco – after whom this race is named. This race was very little known until the publication in 2010 of Born to Run, carried an account of the race’s origin and the role of Mr. True, long time resident of the Copper Canyon, and promoter of the race. “White Horse” (Caballo Blanco) has worked tirelessly to bond gringo and Rarámuri runners and to bring assistance to the Rarámuris who, despite their outstanding running prowess, have dire health statistics.
Above the din of the band in the background , there is a hum of discourse. Greetings are exchanged, hands are clasped and hugs given as racers and friends reunite. Race officials in green t-shirts are darting around making last-minute arrangements for the race, which will start at 6.30 a.m. tomorrow. The Urique director of tourism, vivacious, English-speaking, Cecy Villalobos is in constant motion, greeting people or giving instructions for the next morning.
It is still dark when the race starts the next morning. The runners are bunched together in a street in front of the Presidencia. A dog in the street delays the start, which is 5 minutes late. In front of the main pack, sprinting madly, are teenage local kids who are not competing; next come the mass of Rarámuris gliding along in their distinctive style, while the gringos bring up the rear.
There are 307 runners, the majority in Tarahumara traditional costume and sandals, even a few Tarahumara women in skirts. Twenty-six are internationals, from USA, Canada and 9 other countries. A gringo from Mason, TX, still in street clothes, spontaneously joins the pack at the rear wanting to share the experience.
The course is 52 miles long, which describes a figure of eight loops, starting at the town. It brings the runners back through the town after approximately 21 miles, continuing to do a second 21-mile loop before again passing through Urique for a final loop of 9 miles. The whole course encompasses 9,300 feet of elevation gain, and equal descent, sometimes on single track.
(While the runners have departed, it is a good time to reflect what an extraordinary event this is. A remote location, and fundamental cultural differences, are overcome by good will and a shared joy in running. A couple from Seattle has cycled here, and one of them will run. A young Canadian working in New York heard Caballo Blanco give a talk, and decided to sign up there and then–despite never having run more than 26 miles, or even been to Mexico. An English tourist in Mexico City heard about the race and somehow found his way to Urique. As the day progresses it is apparent that something is happening here. Everyone is in this race–runners, helpers, spectators. They are all energized by the joy of the event, the beauty of the canyon settings and the bond of the race.)
Thanks to the course layout, the spectators in the plaza see the runners four times. On the way back through town for the second time, with only 10 miles to go on the last circuit, some runners are plainly stressed.
One Rarámuri is having his legs massaged at the aid station by Cecy, the tourism director. Friends of other runners run with them through town to encourage them. Drinks of water are extended, bananas also. Two Rarámuris duck into a shop, buy two Cokes which they consume, then continue. Some quit here at mile 40; others insist on completing the final circuit, even if it means walking. They arrive after dark when the awards ceremony (photo, top of page) is almost over.
Shortly after 7 hours have elapsed, the lead runner appears – 20-year old Miguel Lara. There is particular elation in the plaza, since he is from Urique and he has set a course record of 7 hours 04 minutes, arriving 24 minutes ahead of the next runner. Cecy is bouncing up and down with joy, clapping and shouting. Lara is still moving briskly (7 mph speed overall) when he breasts the tape showing little sign of fatigue. Seven other Rarámuris follow him. The first foreigner comes in at 8th place.
One hundred and 33 runners complete the course. The first woman runner is from Chihuahua City, the second from Japan, and the third from Ohio–all with times over 9 hours. Lara poses for photographs, patiently answers questions and walks around a bit. Fifty miles is a short distance for these runners.
Speeches, folkloric dances, more music by the mariachis, and the presentation of prizes take up two hours. Some of the speeches, when the awards go to foreigners, are translated by the indefatigable Cecy.
Checks for up to US$3,000 each are presented by the mayor to the first three winners, male and female. Every finisher receives a voucher for 500 lbs of corn. In the spirit of the occasion, all the gringos donate their allowance of corn to their Tarahumara co-runners. This is korima in action, the Rarámuri word for “sharing”, which is central to their culture.
The town empties quickly the next morning as pickups and vans transport gringo runners to the rail station. The Tarahumara leave as quietly as they arrived heading upwards along trails towards distant ridgelines and into other canyons. We Texan spectators get ready to hike for three days to Batopilas Canyon, some 35 miles. We have a burro and mule handler coming with animals for us to put our bags on; and maybe, if needed, to ride.
Now it’s our turn to exert ourselves.
NOTE: As a noted travel writer in the Big Bend, Mr. Glendinning has written a series of articles over 10 years about the Tarahumaras, initially about his tourist visits and more recently about aid projects. We welcome your comments.
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