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Copper Canyon Adventure and Ultramarathon

World class ultrarunner Scott Jurek running with Arnulfo a few years ago before the Copper Canyon Ultra. Source: barefootted.com

Ever since hearing about the Tarahumara from Tony Robbins at a workshop several years ago (Tony was sharing tips on fitness and endurance), I’ve dreamed about visiting the Copper Canyons of Mexico. Reading Born to Run a short while later got me really excited and upon meeting Caballo Blanco (Micah True) and Barefoot Ted in Seattle and hearing about their efforts to help the Raramuri (means “running people”…and is what the Tarahumara call themselves), I realized that the only thing stopping me from doing it was a strong commitment to do so.  So here I go, on Saturday (February 26th, 2011) I’m leaving to visit the Copper Canyons. I’ll stay there for a few days and also compete in the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, an epic 50 mile endurance run through amazing off-road terrain.

View of the Copper Canyons. Source: David B Bell

The race has been organized by Caballo for several years, and serves as a celebration of the Raramuri way of life as well as a fund raiser to support them through the Norawas De Raramuri foundation. Running comes naturally to the people that live in the canyons, as it is their primary mode of transportation between villages, given the terrain is too extreme for roads and cars. Running is also a form of play, with villages playing a “ball game” that often lasts for several days and involves kicking a small wooden ball along a dirt path, covering upwards of 100K+ at a time! Yes, all for fun. For these strong and kind people, running 50 miles really is nothing big. They run in simple sandals made from old tires, wear simple cotton clothing and having fancy in terms of energy gels, bars or camelbacks for hydration. Despite their simple approach, they are incredibly fast! For me, it will be a big mental and physical test and be the longest I’ve ever run in one stretch (when I say run I really mean jog/walk!).

The Copper Canyon Ultramarathon will feature around 20-30 “non-local” runners (mostly from the US) and over 200 Tarahumara runners. Non-local runners have all donated funds that will go back to support local villages, and every local finisher will receive 100Kg’s of corn (their primary food). The top finishers will a lot more corn (I think the winner gets 1 ton!).

Copper Canyons deep in the heart of Mexico. Source: www.graphicmaps.com

The canyons, are very remote – requiring a 3+ day journey (each way!) just to get to the start of the race. I’ll be flying into El Paso, Texas and meeting a handful of runners. After an overnight stay at a cheap motel we’ll meet a guide who is taking us via van across the border (very quickly passing through Juarez!) for a 2 1/2 day overland journey to the edge of the Copper Canyons. After a night’s stay at a hotel we will then hike around 18 miles down into the canyons, to the small village of Urique that will serve as the “race headquarters.” I’ll spend 3 days in Urique hiking the entire race course with other runners, exploring the canyons and relaxing as much as possible. I’ll be staying in some very simple dorm-style accommodations. Hiking 50 miles on rugged terrain 3 days before a race might not be the best race taper strategy, but this is more about seeing the canyons and meeting the people than racing per se 🙂 . I’ve also heard they have amazing grapefruit orchards in the canyons – if this is true I’ll be in heaven!

It’s also the case that the diet of the Tarahumara is primarily vegetarian – based on corn, chia, beans and fruits and vegetables. There is some meat in their diet, but it is limited simply due to cost and the limited land for animal farming. As a vegetarian, this is all good with me!

On March 6th, the race will begin. The course will have a lot of elevation change, I think something on the order of 8-9000 feet of climbing in total (and then descending the same). Some of the course is on old dirt roads and some is on single track. Temperatures in the canyons will be a dry 80-85 degrees during the day and as low as 45-50 in the evenings. In terms of aid station, I’m still unclear exactly what will be offered, though I’m assured there will be “enough”! I’m betting on water and fruit along the course in at least a couple of spots since the route is a figure 8 and will pass through the village a couple of times. My race strategy is to use an Amphipod waist belt to carry around 40 ounces, and an Amphipod hand bottle for another 20 ounces. I’ll carry 600 calories in energy gel (in a gel flask), a bunch of almonds, a Cliff Bar and electrolyte tablets (1 per hour at least). If the aid station situation isn’t ideal, I’ll carry another bottle.

My expectations for the race itself are simply to finish with a smile on my face. Under 10 hours would be awesome, but I recognize that it might take around 12 hours. I really don’t know what will happen to my body after 32 miles (the longest I’ve run) so it’s all uncharted territory. The only important thing as far I am concerned is to finish before dark (we start at 6am) and not get lost…navigating the trails in the dark won’t be fun (or safe).

I won’t have internet access while I’m down there, so however this adventure goes down, you’ll get an update when I return.

Hasta Luego!


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