Running for Life - Page 2
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.”