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Laura McNamara

Laura McNamara | Running Free with the Raramuri


Laura McNamara | Running Free with the Raramuri

Laura also wrote this article on Halogen 

Running with the Rarámuri of Mexico

By Laura McNamara

Raramuri Woman

They are legendary for their winged feet, but those who venture to run with the Rarámuri ultimately learn about a virtue that transcends an alleged superhuman endurance… kórima. An Ancient People Deep into the recesses of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Northwestern Mexico the valleys and peaks of the rippled earth begin to tighten. Ravines and basins contract into a gnarly maze of twisting gorges, forming a mystical natural wonder known as the Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon. This vast labyrinth of clenched crags and crests stretches for 28,000 sq. miles in an intricate web whose twisting tentacles could envelop and overwhelm the state of West Virginia. It is in this crude earth labyrinth that the Tarahumara, or Rarámuri, keep their antiquated customs and rituals alive. With ancient blood coursing through their veins, 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 compared to that of the Western world. Men dress in simple, neon-colored blouses that are cropped short and billow in the wind – the colors a vibrant contrast to the muted earth tones of the canyons. The vivid blouses are paired with coarse, plain-woven fabric skirts also worn short, dipping into defined points in front and back. The women adorn themselves in long, flowing ankle-length skirts that boast colorful and feminine floral prints. Some wear their skirts in layered ruffles; others choose to pleat their faldas. Traditionally, all 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 wild, crude terrain: to run. The Rarámuri are literally the light-footed ones, the running people. “They live closer to the Earth,” Micah True asserts. “They live closer to their memories, their cellular, muscular and natural memories. So they run.”

A Bridge Between Two Worlds

The Rarámuri have had little exposure to outside influences. Yet, for the past nine years they have been welcoming foreigners from the strange world outside of the magnificent Sierra Madre mountains for one special race each March: the Copper Canyon Ultra marathon, a challenging 50-mile running competition based at the foot of the majestic canyons in the scant, arid Mexican pueblo of Urique. Micah True is the evasive gringo from the North responsible for organizing the ultra, which winds its way through the remote, native trails of the Barrancas del Cobre, challenging participants with technical ascents and descents of more than 9,000 feet. Known as Caballo Blanco, Spanish for the White Horse, True has not only embraced the Rarámuri way of life, he has genuinely adopted it. True has chosen to spend six months out of each year living just as the Rarámuri live deep in the wild recesses of the barrancas. The remainder of the year True lives in Colorado. True’s eccentric lifestyle has earned him descriptions such as lone wanderer of the high sierras, shadowy disciple of the Tarahumara and a ghost among ghosts. Thanks to the recently published book Born to Run by Chris McDougall, the renown of the CCUM within the international running community exploded this year. An ultra that had previously drawn no more than 16 international athletes attracted 60 international competitors and 40 Mexican competitors to participate in the March 2010 race. The remainder of the 365 entrants was indigenous Rarámuri. Less than half of all entrants completed the entire course. This year’s turn out is a promising sign that the objective behind True’s motivation to host the race is gaining success. “The point of the race is to have fun and to run free and to encourage the Rarámuri people to continue their age old traditions of running free. That’s the point,” True states. Kester Wilkinson, the last participant to muster enough grit to finish the entire course, says the CCUM serves as a bridge, offering a unique opportunity to connect with an indigenous people seldom encountered. “You couldn't help but feel you were part of something special… a race and experience straddling several centuries, worlds and cultures... a sheen of fairy dust about it.”

Preserving the Rarámuri Running Tradition

As the all but inescapable influence of the modern world has finally begun to encroach upon the, until now, seemingly impenetrable depths of the Copper Canyon, preserving the running culture of the Rarámuri is a task True has taken upon himself. In Urique, the indigenous culture is fading more rapidly than in other canyon haunts. Yet, True’s ultra has created a reason for the reclusive culture to emerge from their caves and camouflaged adobe huts and once again surface in the dusty Mexican pueblo. “People tend to want what they do not have, what no longer exists… when the indigenous people disappear we wish there were more indigenous people,” True asserts. “That’s why we do this run here in Urique Canyon. Here… the traditional Rarámuri men no longer exist, so when the people see… ‘the skirted ones’ come over they’re excited.” True professes that the epic nature of the barrancas and the indigenous people that inhabit them have captured his heart. The very same attributes are also what ultimately beckon adventure-seekers of the North to trek by plane, train and bus and participate in True’s ultra marathon. “I can’t remember seeing anything quite like it anywhere in any of my other travels,” seasoned adventurer and 2010 race participant Todd Holmes muses. While the compelling component behind many elite ultras is the very nature of extreme competition, a unanimous majority of athletes involved in the CCUM all profess that this race is more about the experience, the intercultural exchange between local Rarámuri running legends and ultra runners from the modern world. “[During the race] people yell support to you in their own language, Rarámuri or Spanish,” Wilkinson recounts. “The words you couldn’t understand but the meaning was clear was lovely.”

Spreading a Rarámuri Virtue: Kórima

True, committed to preserving both the pure adventure of the CCUM experience and the unique cultural encounters inherent in the unique race, acts as a most cautious and protective caretaker, warily minding what is the remarkably preserved Rarámuri spirit, Rarámuri way of life. “I’m very guarded about that,” True admits. “Sometimes I feel like a jerk about it, but you know I am who I am and I have a lot of responsibility to keep things real. To keep this race real. To keep the message real. And I feel very responsible for that and all I can do is act out of love and have faith that good things will happen.” The message True is ‘keeping real,’ is a simple one: “Love is love and joy is joy and running is running,” True says. For True, this simple message is embodied in a most fundamental concept of the Rarámuri people: kórima. “Kórima is the circle of sharing,” True explains. “You give something without the expectation of return, just for the act of giving… to act out of love with no attachment to results. To do something for no good reason.” This concept of kórima, True adds, is what drives the growing success of the CCUM. “It’s a community effort of kórima,” Micah says. “This race is sponsored by kórima. It’s not sponsored by a corporation. It’s sponsored by a philosophy, a concept. By a word. By an idea. And that’s sharing, kórima.” Second time race participant Deborah Bezanis echoes True’s sentiment: “The people of the Sierras have shared with us their beautiful land, the privilege of running and celebrating with them, even their friendship,” Bezanis says. “They call it Korima. It’s free and its mutual.” Ultra athlete Michael Callans says this unique aspect of kórima is precisely what influenced him to participate this year: “It’s always been presented that it’s an opportunity for us to get together and learn about each other and share the experience and maybe give back to this community that’s hosting us,” Callans says. “I like the idea of it being more of a cooperation than a competition.” 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 and related organizations such as local schools and orphanages. Much of the prize money and larger quantities of corn vouchers awarded to the top 10 finishers are also commonly 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. An Unforgettable Adventure The regal rock precipice, Cerro de la Ventana, looms over Urique like a grand, earthly cathedral. The natural mausoleum of layered rock nobly entombs and celebrates a small fragment of history, one that began anywhere from 40 to 80 million years ago, amidst the surrounding time-warped Urique canyon. At the bottom of this more than 6,000 foot deep canyon, the wary, shadowed eyes of mestizo cowboys peer out from beneath the rims of their sombreros. They watch the lazy rhythm of Urique life with a keenly observant, yet seemingly unattached vigilance. Women colored in shades of Mahogany, Granadillo and Walnut make futile attempts to sweep at the unremitting veil of dust that coats the town. A stone’s throw distance from the main drag, shades of jade, teal and viridian green mix with cerulean, cobalt and Persian blues in the slack, late winter flow of the Urique River . The turquoise waters trip over salmon and Fandango colored stones and the desert arroyo seems to accomplish nothing more than exist in the dry depths of the canyons. Then, an eyebrow-raising apparition materializes. Black and sleek with chrome-colored trim and tint-obscured windows, the Escalade slowly prowls before the cheery, rainbow colored shops and restaurants that line the dusty street. The misplaced show of opulence and luxury is blaring beacon: Narcos. Drug runners. The wary eyes watch with keenly observant yet unattached vigilance. Though many visitors are slightly unnerved to realize that the realm of drugs possesses a firm presence within the recesses of the canyons, the most adventurous do not withhold from exploring beyond Urique and the marked trails of the ultra course. Wilkinson recounts one special encounter from probing yet further into the canyons: “In one cave the whole floor was littered with skeletons. The population had been wiped out in November 1918 by the Spanish flu. The cave and bodies have remained untouched since. It was an extraordinary moment in time captured and unchanged for 90 years - gives me chills writing about it.” For another participant, the race itself embodies such profound emotion: “Every athlete celebrated as one, accomplishing great personal victories each mile of the way,” Maria Walton says. “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, personally enlightening my drive to overcome every obstacle set before me.” Walton, another of the last straggling finishers whose undefeatable spirit left many the spectator emotionally moved, adds that she drew much of her drive from the indigenous women who participated: “The quiet yet determined strength and speed of the Raramuri moved me. The women, who unfortunately live in a culture of little admiration or respect, ran with such grace and elegance. Their bright, colorful dresses were flowing. Their lovely faces absolutely glowing. The communities embraced their competitive abilities, equal to the men." Bezanis says the beauty of the raw canyons is what empowered her most during the race: “Hurting just doesn’t count when the canyons become doused in the red tones of sunset," the veteran CCUM athlete rationalizes. Her sentiment helps reveal the logic behind why ultra athletes attempt such grueling feats like that of running 50 even 100 miles in one day. Nick Coury, the only non-Rarámuri athlete to finish in the top 10 of the 2010 race explains further: “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 says. “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. And 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.” Coury continues, linking the innate urge to run with the unique element offered through the CCUM of running with a exceptionally sheltered indigenous community legendary for its long-distance running talent: “There’s some primitive part of humanity that likes to run and likes to be outdoors and live and the Rarámuri kind of embody that,” Coury observes. Coury’s brother Jamil Coury, draws the same conclusion: “They are the primitive culture that’s down here doing the same thing and there’s a connection there…” Jamil Coury says. “I think it’s something that we’re attracted to and drawn to just to see and experience for ourselves.” CCUM participant Jason Rita says that regardless of the culture, those who run are motivated by the same drive: harmony between humanity and nature. “I’m always trying to get to a place where I feel like I’m totally at one with the environment,” Rita explains. “I run to feel free… where everything is working. Where the breath is working and the legs are working and everything just feels like you’re flying over the ground.” Holmes says he too is fascinated by the union of body with nature that he experiences through completing an ultra: “It just amazes me that we can get our bodies to a point where we can actually feel like we’re just doing what just seems natural…” Holmes says. “I use these as excuses to go explore different areas of the world. I’ve run all over the world, not even races, just doing long runs.” Nick Coury echoes such sentiments: “One of the things I enjoy most about the scenery of an ultra is just how much it changes when you’re running…” Coury says. “It changes so quickly that you look up to a mountain and it seems like instants later you’re up at the top of that mountain, and before you know it you’re back at the bottom again. And beyond that, just how spectacular the view is; seeing how you move is within that beauty, within that scenery is one of the things that I think that I value most about it.” Ultimately, the race is meant to memorialize what many consider to be a complete running experience; one that evokes reverent enchantment: “I embraced every magical moment as it occurred, then and there,” Walton says. “The sun warmed my heart during the day. The mountains continuously blessed my soul. My fellow athletes had strengthened my spirit. And, the moon was absolutely glowing, guiding me closer home.”