The deep recesses of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Northwestern Mexico form a gnarly maze of twisting gorges known as the Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon. This vast labyrinth stretches for 28,000 square miles in an intricate web that could envelop the state of West Virginia. In this crude earth labyrinth the Tarahumara, or Rarámuri, keep their antiquated customs alive.
Much of the Rarámuri still live as their ancestors did more than 2,000 years ago in adobe huts and even caves. A reclusive, solitary people, the Rarámuri represent a very minimalist culture. Men dress in simple, neon-colored blouses paired with coarse, plain-woven fabric skirts. The women adorn themselves in long, flowing ankle-length skirts that boast colorful and feminine floral prints. On their feet, the Rarámuri use simple huaraches – sandals made from scraps of tire and cow leather.
The remarkably primitive lifestyle of the Rarámuri leaves them with only one real way to navigate their crude, wild terrain: to run. Their name literally means “the light-footed ones.”
For the past nine years the Rarámuri have been welcoming foreigners each March for one special race: the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, a challenging 50-mile running competition based at the foot of the majestic canyons in the scant Mexican pueblo of Urique. Micah True, known as Caballo Blanco, is the evasive gringo who organizes the ultra – a race that winds its way through technical ascents and descents of more than 9,000 feet.
More than 60 international competitors and 40 Mexican competitors participated in the March 2010 race. The remainder of the 365 entrants was indigenous Rarámuri. Less than half of all entrants completed the entire course.
Preserving the running culture of the Rarámuri is True’s motivation for developing the ultra. In Urique, the indigenous culture is fading more rapidly than in other canyon haunts. Yet, True’s race has created a reason for the reclusive Rarámuri to re-emerge from their caves and camouflaged adobe huts. But with this comes great responsibility. Thus, True embraces the role of a most cautious and protective caretaker of the Rarámuri spirit and way of life.
“I’m very guarded about that,” True said. “Sometimes I feel like a jerk about it, but… I have a lot of responsibility to keep things real. To keep this race real.”
For True, “keeping it real” is embodied in a most fundamental concept of the Rarámuri people: kórima.
“Kórima is the circle of sharing,” True said. “You give something without the expectation of return, just for the act of giving.”
Kórima, True added, is what drives the growing success of the CCUM.
“This race is sponsored by kórima,” Micah said. “It’s not sponsored by a corporation. It’s sponsored by a philosophy, a concept.”
The opportunity for Westerners to practice kórima is also embodied within the race. Each participant of the CCUM who completes the entire course is awarded 250 kilos of corn. It is tradition for Westerners who earn their corn voucher to offer it to the Rarámuri. Much of the prize money awarded to the top 10 finishers is also donated. This year, however, the Rarámuri took all but one of the top 10 spots – earning nearly all of the $14,000 in prize money through sheer talent.
The epic nature of the barrancas and the indigenous people that inhabit them are what ultimately beckon adventure-seekers to trek by plane, train and bus and participate in the CCUM. While the compelling component behind many elite ultras is the very nature of extreme competition, a unanimous majority of athletes involved in the CCUM profess that this race is more about the intercultural exchange.
“[During the race] people yell support to you in their own language, Rarámuri or Spanish,” runner Kester Wilkinson recounted. “The words you couldn’t understand but the meaning was clear and lovely… You couldn’t help but feel you were part of something special… a race and experience straddling several centuries, worlds and cultures.”
Wilkinson was not the only athlete to express experiencing such moving emotion: “Every athlete celebrated as one, accomplishing great personal victories each mile of the way,” Maria Walton said. “It was humbling to realize that the power of the canyons challenged the human spirit on many levels. It was a physical and spiritual awakening.”
Nick Coury, the only non-Rarámuri athlete to finish in the top 10 of the 2010 race, said: “It’s a really curious thing because when you finish these things you feel really tired, often really awful, and you’re not quite sure why you would put your body through that,” Coury said. “But I think that there’s something in the spirit that really values it, that knows that there’s more to what we can do than just sit and watch TV all day… that there’s something powerful in us. I think that running an ultra is one way of expressing that. That we can do anything we want to even if we can’t imagine it before we do it… There’s some primitive part of humanity that likes to run and likes to be outdoors and live. The Rarámuri kind of embody that.”
Photos by Laura McNamara