Tarahumara Indians

The Running People Rex Pace, an ultrarunner, once said, “Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy; the hard part is pushing yourself even further … past what your mind wants to let you. That’s what ultrarunning is all about; introducing you to a self you’ve never known. ” The human body can do amazing things, especially when it comes to running. Although most people think of running as a pain in the behind, a small minority are crazy about it. These people live and breathe running.

People like a Scott Jurek, or Ann Trason, well known endurance runners, can clock in more than 150 miles a week because to them, running is not just a sport, but a lifestyle. Because of these people, ultrarunning was born and has taken its hold. All over the country, races anywhere from 50 to 300 miles long are taking place, and only the best runners complete them. That is, the runners who want to be known. However, there is a group of people who have been called “the finest natural distance runners in the world”, yet barely anyone has heard of them.

These very shy and isolated people are known as the Tarahumara Indians, and they are incredible endurance runners. This is evident in the way they live and how they incorporate running as a part of their lifestyle. The Tarahumara Indians also call themselves the Raramuri, which translates to mean foot runner. These Indians live in the Sierra Madre of Mexico, in “small isolated clusters with most of the population concentrated in the…Copper Canyons” (Beauregard). The Copper Canyons consists of five canyons, three of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon.

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Family and running are probably the two most important things to a Tarahumara Indian. Speaking of running, the incredible endurance of these Indians may be, in part, due to their healthy diet. The main staple food is corn. Almost everything the Tarahumara eat contains corn, such as their favorite: Pinole. Pinole is basically corn ground to a powder and then toasted. A few other common foods would be squash, beans, chili, wild greens, and handmade tortillas. Meat is only eaten on special occasions because animals are usually kept for farming purposes only.

The Tarahumara eat “approximately 10% protein, 10% fat and 80% complex carbohydrates” (Lutz 31). This ratio keeps the Tarahumara fueled with energy all day long, and helps them stay fit by consuming so little fat. Although the “Tarahumara diet is very simple…nutritionists agree that it is very healthy” (Kennedy, 20) and is linked to why the Tarahumara are such great distance runners. They also have a special drink that can only classify as the best energy drink around.

Made with only the seeds of the chia plant, water, and a little lime juice, this drink, which they call iskiate, can energize a person for the entire day. The chia seeds are tiny, but are “superpacked with omega-3s, omega-6s, protein, calcium, iron, zinc, fiber, and antioxidants… [and aid in] building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease” (McDougall, 44). Their diet keeps these Indians strong, fit, and always ready to run. For the Tarahumara, running is simply a part of daily life.

In some ways, their running abilities are due to the biggest social event in their culture: the rarajipari. The rarajipari, or foot throwing game, is a competition between the male adults of two neighboring villages that involves running along a set race course while “throwing” a wooden, baseball sized ball with the foot. The first team to cross the finish line with the ball wins. A game that lasts for two days “is not unusual… and many [courses] are 60 to 90 miles long” (Kennedy, 92) or longer. The runners do not get breaks, but must constantly be alert at all times as to where the ball is, and no hands are allowed.

In the beginning of a race, “spectators frequently run along with the runners… [and] a great deal of fun is generated” (Lutz, 26). The game is taught to kids at an early age, and is the only sport the Tarahumara play. Competitions happen very often because “the rarajipari [is] the heart and soul of Tarahumara culture” (McDougall, 41). This game is part of the reason the Tarahumara are such great endurance runners, and without it they would not be the same people. However the rarajipari is not the only way the Tarahumara incorporate running into their lifestyle. The Indians run almost everywhere they go, apparently because they like to” (Lutz 33). There are almost no roads in the Sierra Madre, and most paths are rugged, steep and narrow. For this reason, foot travel is the preferred mode of transportation by the Tarahumara to get from point A to point B. If point B happens to be another village, it is most likely more than 50 miles away, so the Indians must be in amazing physical condition. It would not be uncommon for a Tarahumara to “run 200 miles over a period of three days and nights” (Lutz 22).

Since they tend to move around according to the season, the family’s “ small plots of land are frequently miles from where the family lives, [so] every member of the family must be able to travel long distances in order to perform his everyday tasks” (Lutz 33). Also, when the Tarahumara go out hunting, they do not use traditional hunting techniques because they do not have guns or other weapons. Instead, “in order to catch such wild animals as deer, wild turkeys, and rabbits, the Tarahumara simply chase after the animal until the animal drops from exhaustion” (Beauregard).

This is, again, an example of their super endurance and incorporation of running in their lives. When these amazing runners became known, a man named Rick Fisher, a wilderness photographer, decided it would be great publicity to sponsor an all-Tarahumara team and sign them up for the Leadville 100 mile race in Leadville, Colorado. Leadville happens to be the highest city in North America, and so the “Leadville Trail 100 boils down to nearly four full marathons, half of them in the dark, with twin twenty-six-hundred-foot climbs smack in the middle” (McDougall, 57).

Basically, the trail is a nightmare, and only about 50% of the participants ever finish. So Mr. Fisher trekked into the Copper Canyons to find his all-star team, promised their village a pile of corn, and in 1993, Victoriano Churro, Cerrildo Chacarito, Manuel Luna and Felipe Torres ran the Leadville 100. About half way through the ultra-marathon “even the best ultrarunners…are heads down and digging deep… [but] by mile 60, the Tarahumara were flying” (McDougall, 65). Victoriano, Cerrildo, and Manuel had swiftly crept up and passed all the other runners.

In the end, Victoriano came in first, Cerrildo in second, and Manuel came in fifth because of a broken sandal. “The first non-Tarahumara finisher was nearly a full hour behind Victoriano… [and the Indians] had done serious damage to the record book” (McDougall, 65). Having never trained for or run the Leadville 100 before, the Tarahumara team managed to grab three of the top five spots because of their amazing endurance. Later, in 2008, the Tarahumara participated in another ultra-marathon. However, this race had never been run before, and will never be run again.

Put together by a man who calls himself Caballo Blanco, a very good friend of the Tarahumara people, this race took place in Urique, Mexico, heart of the Tarahumara country. The start and finish line was the village of the Urique Tarahumara. Caballo Blanco had “laid out a diabolical course; [they would] be climbing and descending sixty-five hundred feet in fifty miles” (McDougall, 258) and the entire course had been planned “in a Y pattern, with the starting line dead in the center” (McDougall, 262).

There were a total of 25 participants: 20 Tarahumara, including the legendary Arnulfo and Silvino, and 5 Americans, including Scott Jurek, one of the best ultra-marathoners in the world. When the race started, the Urique group bounded out with a burst of speed to lead the pack. However, it became suspicious when,“in the space of just four miles, the Urique crew had opened up a four minute lead… [and so] they were disqualified” (McDougall, 262) for cheating. With the Urique out, Silvino and Arnulfo took the lead, with Scott Jurek right on their heels.

In the end Arnulfo took the gold, Scott the silver, and Silvino the bronze. The last racer to finish, Christopher McDougall, crossed the finish line 12 hours after the race began, “meaning that Scott and Arnulfo could have run the course all over again and still have beaten [him]” (McDougall, 273). Most of the Tarahumara who competed finished the race within 6 or 7 hours, again displaying their incredible endurance. When it comes to the test, these Indians sure know how to take the gold. Completely isolated in the Sierra Madre from the rest of the world, these Indians and their abilities were unknown for a very long time.

Many people still have never heard of them, but if they did, they would surely be blown away and inspired. The Tarahumara are the best endurance runners out there and completely by accident. Due to the simplicity of their lives, a very healthy diet, and the importance that running has in their lifestyle, the Tarahumara have every right to call themselves the Raramui, or running people. These Indians are an inspiration to me, and probably to many other runners out there. Hopefully one day I can be half as good an athlete as they are.

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