“I should worry about all kinds of things, but, you know what they say about stress”- Archer
This was it, this was the race, the experience that I wanted to have ever since plowing through Born to Run. The Copper Canyons, Caballo Blanco, if not the origins, then the tradition of running that stretched back through history. This is what got me interested in running after so many years. This is what helped me changed my form and embrace the joy of running distance. This was the dream race.
The planning for this trip happened months in advance: Fly into Chihuahua, take the train the next day to Bahuichivo, get a “ride” from there into Urique in the Copper Canyons. Have a day or so to experience the Copper Canyons, see and hopefully meet the Tarahumara, run the race and then reverse it back to Chihuahua. Simple.
When I plan, I usually try to see the worse case scenario, mentally prepare for it, and if it happens, be able to react with something thought out rather than “in the moment”. Case in point- a train strike threatened to skewer part 2 of our trip down. No problem, a ride in a van was arranged from Chihuahua to Urique roundtrip. Same price. Done.
I prepare for a race no differently, which is why I usually end up with too much food or way more water than I need to get to the next aid station. If I fail, it won’t be because of lack of planning.
I met Shalini at the airport in St. Louis, we picked up Jason, Francisco and Don at DFW and flew down to Chihuahua. David came in later that night. We ate street tacos, Don found some beer and we settled in at our hotel. No hay problema.
As I’ve gained more running experience, two of the things I find myself doing are a form of compartmentalization and risk assessment. By compartmentalizing a run into smaller timeframes, I avoid the stress of contemplating the entire distance or time I might be out there. I try to “live in the moment”, enjoy what’s around me and keep thoughts of “you still have 30 miles to go!” at bay. At the same time, I’m constantly assessing risks: footing, temperature, aches and pains, mental state, distance left, etc., which can sometimes break down those carefully constructed walls. If I don’t get them back up in time: DNF. Luckily, this has only happened rarely.
Thursday morning, the van arrives 30 minutes late because our driver was asleep (ok, at least he won’t be over-tired for the 9 hour ride). We pile in with everyone plus two more- Carlos and the driver’s two teenagers, and head out. The sun chases us west as we take intermittent stops for local food and sights. We pass a police checkpoint with half the officers wearing balaclavas. When we ask why, it’s explained that they don’t want the cartels to know their identities. A little concerning, but it’s said so nonchalantly, it’s easy to dismiss as “you’re in Mexico, this is how things are”. About an hour later we’re passed by a truck with teens in the back carrying automatic rifles. Explanation, with a shrug, is they’re “probably cartel”. They wave, smiling to us as they go past, no big deal, not a threat to us. Put it in the worry about it later box. Like the odd part of a dream, quickly forgotten.
As we get closer to the Canyons, paved roads give way to intermittent dirt and gravel, which then start to give way to intermittent paved roads. The jarring and the views take our breath away.We stop at an overlook and get our first glimpse of Urique. Surrounded by harsh yet vibrant mountains, full of pine, oak and cactus, the mining town looks a quiet refuge next to a winding river. The descent into the canyon is heart-stopping at times. Narrow dirt roads, no shoulder, no guard rails. Just clear air and fathoms of drop. After what feels like hours we touch bottom, roll into Urique, try to figure out which hotel we’ve booked, sort it out and establish our turf. We’re in single rooms, sparse but clean accommodations, right on the main drag (aka the only drag).
We see Josue, the race director, finally get to meet the living legend Maria ‘Mariposa’, walk around town and get dinner. We see a few of the local police. They all have semiautomatics, but nothing different than we’ve already seen. Few runners are around, and we try to anticipate how full the town will be with everyone there. The Tarahumara are scheduled to start arriving tomorrow, and will camp just outside of town. The next day we’re scheduled to go out on a 10-mile out and back section of the course. We may do part of it, we may do it all. We still have a few days until the race.
At this point, you may be wondering why we got there so early. Part of it was to have some time to fully experience the Copper Canyons, but part of it, for me goes back to my planning. I didn’t know how long it would take to get there. If everything went smoothly (as it did) we’d be there early (and we were). If something happened (train strike, van break down, etc.), I wanted enough cushion built in to figure something out and still get there for the race. No need so far. And if you’re not wondering, quit reading this section and get back to the main part.
Friday morning, we dive into chorizo and huevos rancheros to fuel our run/hike (hike/run?) out to Guadalupe Coronado and the old mission church. Bright blue sky, great group of people, it was a beautiful 10 mile out and back. Things were happening back in town and beyond, but we were enjoying the morning. We weren’t looking for them, so we weren’t seeing signs of trouble.
Now, a lot has been written about the cartels and what was happening in and around Urique. If you haven’t read it, the NY Times article is about as good as any. It affected us, but we weren’t involved in any of it. Almost like a bad accident you drive by on a highway. You’re aware of it, but no one you know was involved, so you note it, maybe say a prayer, and move on.
What we were involved in was helping how we could. That, for me, revolved around the kids’ races.
The day before the big race, the tradition is to have kids races at a 1k, 2k and 3k distance, depending on age. The morning started with “shirt and supplies” pick up where each kid received a race shirt and a bag full of school supplies from the Norawas de Raramuri organization and supplemented by what the runners themselves contributed. It was organized chaos as we handed out shirts and then got the kids ready for the run. I had brought with me a Superman costume with the thought that I would bring some levity to the run and maybe entertain a few people. With (very little) prodding, I wore it during the kids races and was rewarded by smiles, “thumbs ups” and high fives all morning.
The first race was the really little ones and I was still handing out shirts when it kicked off. So, in race parlay, that was my first DNS (Did not Start) of the day J. I made it out for the 7 and 8 year old 2k race, and after a blistering start, decided my best use would be giving encouragement to the kids that were pacing themselves. Within 200 feet of the start, one local child had blown out his sandal. He was hopping on one foot, still moving forward, while he fixed his sandal. This went on for about 100 feet or so, then he had it fixed, popped it on his foot and quickly left me behind. I caught up with another young man who was from Mexico. He had come down with his father (who was running the 50 mile race) and he was maintaining the steadiest pace I’ve ever seen in someone so young. The patience alone to maintain that pace while kids are sprinting and walking ahead of him amazed me. I stayed with him the rest of the way, and he ended up passing a group of about 10 kids that had employed the sprint/walk technique. The older kids race was getting ready to start, though, so I didn’t finish with him, but turned around and headed back out to the start (so, a DNF in the 2k race…)
(Video Courtesy of Rob DeCou!) For the older kids, I knew I had no chance, so I lined up slightly in front of them for a photo opp and, as you can see in the video, my lead lasted about 3-4 steps. I did find myself with a young Tarahumara boy who ran for a while, but then started walking. It was obvious he wasn’t feeling well, and in my best grunting and pointing Spanish/Tarahumaran, figured out he had an upset stomach. We walked most of the 3k and as the faster runners came around to lap us, I turned around to watch the runners. I turned back and he was gone, fading into the crowd. Didn’t finish that race either, so another DNF for the 3k. :)
On that morning, in those moments, I found the dream. The joy on the kids’ faces from picking up shirts, to getting their bags, to the run made our race somewhat irrelevant. We were witness to the simple pleasures that we often take for granted and the pure reason for running.
As it turns out, it was a good thing I found it then because later that day, we were told the race was being cancelled for security reasons: basically a mass DNS. Some of the pieces from the previous days started to fall into place, but we were still a step removed.
We had arranged for our van to pick us up the next day (quickest they could get down) so the only thing we could do was wait. We spent time wandering around the town in a bit of a fog, but determined to make the most of the time we had left. We spoke with and had our pictures taken with Tarahumara legends Manuel Luna and Arnulfo (which made it like most Saturdays). We had dinner with the race director, Josue, and were starting to settle down.
Then, in the middle of dinner, the mayor of Urique announced the race was back on. He had called in the army and they would be there in the morning to ensure security. It, of course, would now be unsanctioned, as the race directors have the final say, but it did lead to a bit of confusion and while some runners chose to run the next day, we decided not to. During the night, trucks owned by soldiers and federal police started arriving in town so that by the morning, Urique was transformed. Men with automatic weapons seemed to be everywhere. It was time to leave.
We piled into the van and the car with six others and made the 9 hour journey back to Chihuahua, passing a few additional army trucks headed into the valley As we couldn’t make it out the next day, some of us ran a commemorative run in a park in Chihuahua. Finally flew out on Tuesday, home in a flash.
So, like a dream it was over too quickly, and like a dream, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. We were exposed to the bright and dark sides of a culture and way of life. We didn’t look death in the eye, but we saw his shadow. We did, however, help the Norawas de Raramuri help a lot of people with food vouchers, clothes and school supplies. And we got to experience, through the children, the pure joy of running.