In March of 2011 I ventured to the Copper Canyons of north-central Mexico to participate in one of the most challenging and unique foot races around – 50+ miles through the rugged and blisteringly hot canyons of Mexico – alongside some of the most talented runners on earth, the Tarahumara (properly known as “Raramuri” or “running people”) who are indigenous to this region.
Have you read the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall? I did the same race featured in that book, just a few years later.
I’ll never forget this race and running alongside people wearing simple clothing and cotton skirts, with nothing but homemade sandals on their feet. They often carried no food or water despite the scorching temperatures – only taking in what was offering alongside the trail at the infrequent aid stations. All the while, I was decked out in highly technical running gear and carrying ample calories in energy gels and a boatload of electrolyte tablets.
Quite a lot of time has elapsed since this run, but it has had a lasting and profound impact on me. I can rarely go out for a run nowadays without reflecting on what I learned about running and life while suffering in that hot and dry canyon-land several years ago.
Running is not about exercise for the Tarahumara, it is a way of life and a way expressing joy and having fun. It is also necessary for their very survival in the harsh landscape of central Mexico. I now run more for the joy of it than to set a PR or win a prize. I pay more attention to my surrounds and often stop to smell the proverbial roses, or dip my feet into a river, lake or stream in the middle of a “workout”.
I’m reposting my race report to this blog (it was originally posted on another older blog I had) in the hopes that it inspires you to get outside and enjoy your exercise and the art of moving your body.
Mexico is also a beautiful place, and I urge you to get off the beaten path and explore. There is much beauty to be had outside of the fancy resort towns.
Born to Run: The 2011 Copper Canyon Ultramarathon and My Run with the Tarahumara
I shouldn’t call this a race report since the objective was less about racing and more about experiencing the culture and the beauty of the Copper Canyon region of Mexico. Arriving at the starting point of the race involved 2 flights, a 2+ day ride in a van and an 18 mile rugged and hot hike down into the canyon town of Urique. The days prior to the race were filled with intense hikes and general overload of the senses with a new language (Spanish) new food (quintessential mexican) and new people (both Urique locals and Tarahumara Indians). I ended up finishing the event, which was my goal. It took me 12.5 hours, far longer than I hoped – but I don’t care too much about that. Crazy and unexpected things can happen after pushing the human body for many hours.
I had an amazing time and plan on returning next year. If you are at all considering doing an ultramarathon or even visiting the Copper Canyons – I highly recommend it. I felt totally safe the entire time, and see that much of what I had read in the news about violence and killings and foreign travelers being at risk was overblown. Do your homework before going, but also recognize that the popular media is really good at creating attention grabbing headlines that aren’t always indicative of reality.
Day 1: There are many ways to get to Urique Canyon. My method was definitely not the fastest, but it was cost-effective, safe and made for a good chance to meet other interesting people. I flew into El Paso and stayed overnight at a Motel 6 with another racer that I met online. The hotel was clean and safe, and 12 of us were all meeting here to board a van driven by Doug “Diego” Rhodes, who operated a hotel near Urique and served as a guide to visiting gringos. The next morning we awoke to the sight of a large white van parked outside. We immediately wandered out to meet our fellow adventurers. It was exciting to meet the people we would be spending the 10 days with! Everyone was super cool, including a large contingent from Seattle, two people from Ohio, one from California, three from Utah and one from new Mexico. Amazingly, it turned out that 4 people in the van were vegan!
Day 2: We headed south and immediately crossed the border uneventfully (there is rarely much traffic heading south, but always traffic coming back to the US). Heading through Juarez was not a big deal. It’s been tagged as “the most dangerous city in the world” by popular media but it seemed just fine. We past plenty of trucks filled with armed guards, Humvees and dudes with machines guns on the streets (military) – but I didn’t see this as much different from other places I’ve been to in South America (Lima or Quito in particular). Diego made sure we moved swiftly through the city.
We departed Juarez after a quick stop to exchange money and continued heading south through a flat and windy desert, stopping in the small town of Cuatemoc for the night. The next day we continued driving to Diego’s hotel…which is more like a ranch. It’s in a beautiful part of the country, with rolling hills pierced by rocky cliffs, pine tree forests, bright blue skies all the time and an elevation of 6000 feet. Here we met Caballo Blanco himself! Caballo is the race director and all around supporter of the Raramuri people (also know as Tarahumara, Raramuri is their traditional name), he would be our guide into the canyon and make sure everything was cool leading up to the race. He is an incredibly genuine and nice dude.
Day 3: The next day we had an off-day, and we welcomed some additional travelers joining us at the ranch. All-told, 27 gringos’ met up at Diego’s place! In the morning I led a yoga class to help get us loosened up. Various groups spent then spent the day exploring. My group went on an adventure that had us hiking and scrambling up the side of a mountain near the ranch. We hit the summit where there was a large flat plateau and started running! We explored a bit and eventually spotted a trail that descended the other side of the mountain toward a small town. We took the trail and made it down into the town, and returned back to Doug’s place via a dirt road. In the afternoon. A few of us went out on another hike to visit Tarahumara burial caves, complete with lots of human bones.
Day 4: After lots of food and a night’s rest, we prepared for our departure to Urique, which required an 18 mile hike up and over a mountain ridge, and down-down-down 5000 feet into the heart of the Copper Canyon. Our luggage would meet us in Urique via van. All 27 of us loaded up on tons of water and food and proceeded on the hike. It was gorgeous, one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done. We spotted hawks, buzzards and wandered close to some “grow fields” if you know what I mean. The temperature rose sharply through the hike – well into the 90’s. The trail was at times steep and made of loose slippery rock pieces and dirt. The adventure had begun!
After 13 miles we hit a part of the trail where Caballo let us loose to run the rest of the way into town if we wanted. It was another 5 miles or so, and a bunch of us took off. It was a tough run for me. I was super dehydrated from the heat and my legs had absolutely no energy. I trotted along slowly and eventually made it into town. The first night I stayed at Entre Amigos, run by a gringo named Keith, with about 10 other racers. It was a gorgeous property full of tropical fruit trees bursting with fresh fruit (papayas, grape fruits, oranges, lemons, limes) and a super huge garden that all guests were allowed to raid at will. He had a bunk house with dorm style beds and a few double-bed room. He also had a bunch of campsites. I opted for a campsite, and since I didn’t have a tent, I just slept with my sleeping bag on top of a tarp under the shade of a mango tree and the stars! We had free use of the kitchen – and cooked out own dinner of fresh beets and kale from garden, with rice, salsa, tomatoes, avocados and tortillas we picked up from a small store in town.
Days 5-6: My friend Jim from New Mexico and I opted to move into a clean and simple hotel room right in the heart of town. Staying at Keith’s was nice but we realize that sleeping on the floor would get old after a few more nights. We got a room with two double beds and a private bathroom at what was dubbed “the nicest hotel in Urique” for 300 pesos per night (less than 30 dollars).
The next two days featured hikes of the entire course, led by Caballo. You might be thinking…”Hey, isn’t it crazy to hike the entire course in the days before running 50 miles?” The answer is absolutely yes!!! Which is why I chose not to do the hikes :). Others did do the hikes, covering 18 miles one day (first major loop of the course) and 22 miles another day (second major loop of the course). The last 10 miles were a repeat of part the first loop and they skipped that. A second reason why I didn’t do the hikes is that I was feeling incredibly sick the day after our hike into Urique. I was massively dehydrated and had a raging headache most of the night. I opted to lay-low and rehydrated. I went out for a 20 minute run in the heat to help acclimatize on each day instead. After a couple of days I felt back to normal.
Day 7: Rest, eat, sleep! This was a true day off. The town was buzzing with energy as Raramuri hiked in from all over the canyon. More gringo’s arrived and it was fun just walking around town and meeting people. I led a little impromptu yoga class in the town square which was fun. We had an audience of Raramuri watching us!
The course featured three loops of 18, 22 and 10 miles – that all begin and end right in the heart of town. In terms of course severity – the overall conditions made it by far the most challenging terrain I have ever run on. Technical trails. Rocky dirty roads that made it tough to run fast even on the flats or downhills. Searing heat (it was over 90 degrees for most of the course, and probably hit 100 in certain spots). Some crazy long and steep climbing. That said, many other gringos who were veteran racers of 100 and 50 mile ultras said the course wasn’t that bad as far as 50-milers go, and that the total elevation change wasn’t super hard (9,000 ft total climbing). It’s all in the eye of the beholder I guess :).
Loop 1: The 18 mile loop had a 10 mile out of back along a dirt road (note: all dirty roads here are riddled with rocks, they aren’t nice and smooth roads like we have in the USA!). This stretch had a bunch of “death hills” (as Caballo likes to call them). The next 3-5 miles was an epic climb on technical single-track up a mountain followed by a winding and long descent on a dirt road back into town.
Loop 2: The 22 mile loop to Los Alisos features a long flat 6 mile stretch on dirt roads before climbing brutally up the side of a mountain for several miles. This part of the course is very hot and exposed with little shade. After hitting an aid station 11 miles in, you turn around and run back!
Loop 3: The final 10 mile repeats the out and back “death hills” from the first loop.
The weather for the entire week of the race was hotter than normal, and race day looked to be the same. Hydration would be super important.
My gear was as follows:
- Lululemon lightweight top
- Lululemon running/yoga shorts (they have a liner….eliminates chaffing)
- Bodyglide – use all over or suffer!
- Headsweats visor
- Amphipod 22oz handheld bottle
- Amphipod waist belt with 2 x 10oz bottles and pouch for food/electrolyte tabs
- Hammer gel flask – holds 500 calories of gel
- Inov-8 Roclite 295 trail shoes
- Ironman triathlon socks
- Medical tape (I tape my pinky and big toes to prevent blisters)
- Orange flavored Hammer gel bottle (big one) – use this to refill gel flask after each loop
- Nuun electrolyte tablets – 9 tablets
- Hammer Endurolytes tablets – 10 tablets
- Cliff Shot Bloks – two packages
- Cliff Bars – a couple in my drop bag just in case
During the race I planned to consume 250 calories per hour and I came in just under that in actuality. I took in 2500 calories total during race day, which was OK given that I was moving so slow for the last 10 miles. I was never really hungry during the race, and afterwards I was so tired I skipped dinner and fell asleep at 7:30pm! Not being hungry is a sign that I took in enough calories, though I was probably under hydrated a little.
I carried 40 ounces of water with me (handheld bottle and waist belt), with 1 Nuun tablet in the handheld bottle and the other bottles just plain. I carried Nuun with me and dropped 1 tablet in my handheld each time I refilled it (about 1 time per hour). I took 6 Endurolytes during the race – at random times and gave some tabs out to Raramuri that I saw cramping. A key strategy for me was to dump at least 10 ounces of water on my head and back every hour if possible. When I saw an aid station, I immediately emptied my bottled on myself before refilling. This strategy totally saved me from imploding due to the heat.
My calorie consumption was as follows
- Loop 1 – 18 miles – 500 calories of gel, 200 calories of shot blocks, a ~3 banana halves, 5-6 orange quarters and 2 cups of pinole (ground corn mixed with water) at aid stations
- Loop 2 – 22 miles – ditto
- Loop 3 – 10 miles – 500 calories gel, 1 banana and 2 pieces of orange
My feet had zero blisters, which other folks found hard to believe while chatting afterwards. I’ve always had pretty resilient feet and been blister free for most of my running life. Also, the Inov-8 Roclite shoes are incredible and wrapping my toes in tape (it stayed on for the first 35 miles) helped for sure.
Guadaloupe Coronado and the Big Climb (~18 miles) aka “if you aren’t awake you will be now!”
Mile 1: The race start was 6:45am. The Raramuri are known for going out incredibly fast. It was crazy to see about 100 people take off sprinting as if they were running a 5K! The experienced runners (Raramuri included) stayed in the mid pack and waiting for the carnage to take place during the first major climb. I went out nice and easy as we cruised the flat paved road through town and onto a very rocky dirt road with mild rollers for the first mile.
Miles 2-5: We hit some major hills. Caballo calls them “death hills”. They aren’t that bad by themselves, but in cumulative they will crush you. At this point in the race I start walking anything that even smells like a hill! Some folks try to run even the long hills…I don’t know what they are thinking! The weather stays pretty cool and there are quite a few aid stations…about 1 every 2 miles or so.
Mile 6-8: We hit a turnaround point and retrace out steps. I notice that a lot of the locals are cutting the course! They are taking small trails that veer off the road and re-join the road later on. They aren’t saving that much time…maybe a quarter-mile at most, so I ignore it. The way I see it, I get to use my technical gear and they get to use home field advantage of local trails 🙂 .
I really begin to feel that this course if harder than I thought. The footing is tough even on the dirt road, with tons of large and small rocks and sections with soft dirt/sand. It’s super tiring on my feet and lower legs. I start to get concerned about my ability to finish.
Miles 9-13: Turning off the dirt road, the technical single-track and climbing begins. I walk a ton of this…since we climb for what seems like forever. A bunch of people pass me…and then the field thins out a bit. There are no aid stations on the climb. I’m glad I brought both a water bottle in my hand and two 10 ounces bottles in my waist belt. I am pretty sure I’m not going to finish this race…I am just not in good enough shape and my legs are dead.
Miles 13-15: Finally…an aid station! I grab some oranges and some strange “bags” filled with water. They are like the milk bags we used in school, only filled with water or a Mexican sports drink called “Zuca.” I grab one bag and bite the end, squeezing the water in my mouth. I grab a few more and squeeze them into my water bottles. I grab a few oranges and a cup of pinole. Wow, that pinole is good stuff! The route descents down a twisting dirt road. At times the road is too steep for me to run comfortably, so I sadly walk parts of the downhill.
Mile 16: I round a corner and smell like someone is smoking a joint…a big a strong one. I look to the right and left and see no one in the fields. I keep running downhill and catch up to two young kids (they may have been Raramuri or local Urique boys, not sure) who have been racing since the start, they were about 1/2 mile ahead of me most of the race running in jeans, cotton t-shirts and sandals! They looked like they were 12 years old at most. I then notice they are passing a joint back and forth…I laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of being out-run by two young kids in jeans and flip-flops smoking a joint. I can’t make that up if I tried.
Miles 17-18: Reality sets in about how hard this course is. Caballo Blanco passes me with a big smile on his face and some words of encouragement. He is running light and smooth. I am assuming at this point that I am not finishing the race. My legs are totally trashed half-way down the descent and my feet really are super tired from all the rocks. Regardless, I need to run back to town so I continue on and feel better as we enter back into town to complete this big loop. I head to my drop-bag and refill my Hammer Gel flask and grab some more Nuun and Endurolytes. I decide to start the next loop and see what happens.
Los Olisos Out and Back Loop (~22 miles) aka “a run through the blast furnace”
Miles 19-25: I feel very good during the flat to slightly rolling stretch through the Urique river valley. I pass quite a few people, including a few “gringo’s” that were starting to feel the heat as the temperatures were climbing into the 90’s by now. There were several places to take aid and I enjoyed some banana pieces at each along with 2-3 orange wedges and a cup of pinole. I ran about 80% of this stretch, only walking a few of the bigger hills.
Miles 26-29: After crossing a suspension footbridge I begin the climb to the grapefruit orchards of Los Olisos. The temperature is climbing rapidly and I estimate that is hits at least 100 in this part of the course. The landscape turns into a moonscape devoid of much vegetation as I climb the steep trails. Footing is tough and the trail is narrow. I really struggle just to hike this section. Runners are going both directions on this trail and there are steep drop-offs at some points. I dumb water on my head all the time to stay cool. I’m diligent about taking Endurolyte tablets or dropping Nuun in my bottles. I pass out Endurolytes to a Raramuri who appears to be cramping badly. He is very thankful.
At one point I hit a steep and narrow part of the trail with a cliff on one side and a rock wall on the other. I’m trying to go one direction and runners are coming back at me in the other direction….and a Burro is also trying to navigate the trail amidst all the chaos. I go spread eagle against the cliff until the Burro saunters by and I continue on. Only in Mexico!
Miles 30-33: Hitting the turn-around point I am totally out of water. I ran out long ago and am very dehydrated. I drop some iodine tablets (thanks Mark!) into my bottles and refills at the one aid station (the water was from a nearby spring since they couldn’t carry bottled or bagged water up this trail). I laugh at the sight of the station being manned by a couple big security dudes carrying M16’s! I devour some oranges and carry on back down the mountain slowly. I am super tired and still worried about just finishing. Looking around though, I am inspired by the Raramuri, persisting with little gear or fuel – I keep moving on.
Miles 34-40: Completing the descent I retraced the flat section back to Urique, which is suddenly much tougher than on the way out! My feet are incredibly tired and I run about 50% of this section. I can’t believe that I am walking flat and even some downhill sections but nothing I can do about that. The weather is burning hot. I dump water on my head to keep cool at every chance I get. I run the last mile back into town and hit my drop bag for a refill of Hammer Gel and water. Looking at my watch I realize that no matter what I will finish this course, even if I have to crawl. I have enough time even if I end up needing to walk the last part of the course.
Guadaloupe Coronado Out and Back Loop (~11 miles) aka “death hills”
Miles 41-45: I run out-of-town for a few miles. I see people running the opposite direction towards the finish line. These folks are completing in about 9-10 hours. I’m very jealous! I see some friends and that is cool. Once I hit the first small climb I start walking again, and find running next to impossible. Ever little hill has become a death hill. Caballo was right!
Miles 46-50: It takes absolutely forever to get the turnaround point. All my energy goes into maintaining forward motion and the sun starts to go down and the weather cools. There are fewer people out on the course so there is less to distract me. I’m walking and walking slow. No more power hiking. I try running occasionally and it’s super painful. My friend Bookis rolls up next to me and that motivates me to jog again. We stay together through the turnaround, where I take aid. I tell Bookis (he ran the entire race in Luna sandals!)to not hang with me since I’m not capable of running any more. I continue walking most of the next few miles, and the darkness comes quickly. By mile 49 it is almost pitch black, with just the stars and moon out. I hit a dirt road and occasional trucks passing by force to move to the edge of the road to avoid becoming roadkill. They help to light my way. At one point I almost impale myself on a bull cow that happened to be standing in the middle of the dirt road…lucky for me I heard its “moo” in time!
Mile 50-51: I see the lights of Urique and run back into town. I actually feel a lot better now. Amazing how seeing the finish provides a great burst of energy! There were tons of people in the village, and they were having a finish/awards ceremony on a stage in the town square. There was no post-race tent or food stuff given out. In fact, when I finished it took a few seconds to even find one of the race volunteers to tell him I finished! Surprisingly, instead of him telling me my time he asked me what my time was! I was too tired to talk so showed him my watch, he wrote it down and said good job. 12:32:01. Several hours longer than I thought it would take, but no matter, I finished! I saw some other gringo friends: some recently finished and laying on the sidewalk in recovery while others had been done for hours. I gave some high five’s, took a photo and stumbled about 100 yards back to my hotel room, where my roommate was resting (he got food poisoning and didn’t race).
The Long Journey Home
The morning after the race we said goodbye to friends departing via bus, and then piled into our van for the long and hair-raising climb out of Urique Canyon via a 90 minute twisting dirt road winding its way up the mountainsides. We had an overnight stop in the small Mexican town of Cuatemoc before continuing on to El Paso. My flight home became more interesting when I missed my connection in Denver (after sprinting across the entire terminal!), resulting in another overnight stay! I finally arrive back home safe and sound.
This Copper Canyon experience is one I’ll never forget. I will definitely be back!