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.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in our July 2003 issue.
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?