The Tarahumara Runners Of The Copper Canyons

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

20 February 2021

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Ultra X Mexico is a unique race for a variety of reasons and none more so than it offers the opportunity to run with the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri, meaning “those who run fast”) tribe, some of the best long distance runners in the world.

In this article, we look at the history of this Mexican running tribe, made famous in Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. We will attempt to decipher how it is that these sandal wearing, loin cloth wrapped individuals can compete against the very best ultra runners on the planet, as was demonstrated in 2019 when Miguel Lara blew away pro runners Jason Schlarb and Gediminas Grinius to claim first place in the inaugural Ultra X Mexico race.

Who are the Ráramuri?

The Tarahumara (which is the name they use for themselves), are a group of indigenous people living in the northern state of Chihuahua in Mexico. They are renowned for their long-distance running ability. Originally inhabitants of much of Chihuahua, they retreated to areas like the Copper Canyon on the arrival of Spanish invaders in the 16th century. 

Estimates put the Rarámuri population at around 50,000 with the majority still practicing a traditional lifestyle, including inhabiting natural shelters (caves or cliff overhangs), using little to no technology and being totally self-sufficient. They live off locally grown crops such as corn and beans, and many also raise cattle, sheep and goats. When they head off for ultra distances it is not energy gels and electrolytes that will fuel them, but rather pinole (a maize based powder used in a variety of recipes) and tortillas!

Why are they so good at running ultra marathon distances?

Whilst very few “train” for an event in the same way that most Ultra X competitors do, their way of life means that day-to-day activities don’t involve spending eight hours a day slouching at a desk! With widely dispersed settlements, the Rarámuri have developed a tradition of long-distance running – up to 200 miles (320km) in one session over periods of several days through their homeland of rough canyon country, for inter-village communication, transportation and hunting. A 250km stage race is practically a doddle in comparison. Did I mention they generally do this at over 2,000m of altitude?

Outside of this, the long-distance running tradition also has important ceremonial and competitive aspects. Rarajipari is a traditional running game where men kick wooden balls as they run, and women use a stick and hoop. These foot throwing races are relays where the balls are kicked by the runners and relayed to the next runner while teammates run ahead to the next relay point. These races can last anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days as one team goes in each direction around a loop and they don’t finish until one has caught the other!

On top of this, the diet of the Tarahumara Indians, which consists mainly of beans and corn, provides a high intake of complex carbohydrate and is low in fat and cholesterol. This is similar in macronutrients to the famous diet of the Kenyan runners – based on simple organic staples.

What do Tarahumara runners wear?

Most will run wearing the traditional zapetas (loin cloths) and huerarches (sandals). That said, we are seeing an increasing number wearing modern trainers, but 9/10 will still go old school!

Women typically run in full traditional dress, and whilst occasionally you will see some, such as María Loreno (see below), foregoing the full length attire, a skirt and technical t-shirt is about as close to the typical ultra get-up seen in European or American ultra marathons or 100 mile races that a Tarhumara runner will get.

Which races have they competed in?

Readers of Born to Run will think that the Tarahumara Indians made their debut running in America in 1992. McDougal’s book features their 1994 race at the famous Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon in Colorado where the runners from the Canyons dominated the field.

It has been claimed that this was the first time that these indigenous people showed up to run outside their native environment. However, this is not true. The group have a long history of racing both in and outside of the Copper Canyons. As early as 1927, Austin, Texas announced plans to hold an 82-mile run from San Antonio to Austin, featuring Tarahumara Indian runners.

From 1992-98, about 35 Tarahumara entered eight ultras in America. Most of them finished in the top ten and there were four outright wins with two course records. In addition to the 100-milers at Leadville and Wasatch, they ran at the 1995 Western States 100 and 1997 Angeles Crest 100.

Who are the most famous Rarámuri ultra runners?

Miguel Lara

Miguel Lara is only young but his record as an ultramarathon runner is very impressive and has resulted in him winning recognition across the globe. He has finished first in more than 20 ultramarathons, including Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco (three years), Ultramaratón de las Canones (three years) and the Born to Run Series (three years). He participated in the Boston Marathon in 2017 and having won Ultra X Mexico in 2019 will be heading to the Ultra X World Championships in June this year. Can he be stopped?!

Tarahumara Female Runner Maria Lorena Ramirez

María Lorena Ramírez

María Lorena Ramírez won the Ultra Trail Cerro Rojo 50K in Puebla, Mexico and not long after, she became the first Tarahumara woman to compete in a European ultra – with her inaugural attempt at the Bluetrail, the second-highest race in Europe. She has a truly fascinating story and was featued in the 2019 Netflix documentary Lorena, Light-Footed Woman

Arnulfo Quimare

Arnulfo Quimare is the Tarahumara runner who defeated Scott Jurek in the 2006 race that was featured in the book Born to Run. Described in the book as “the greatest living Tarahumara runner” he is undoubtedly a true legend of the sport.

Silvino Cubesare

Silvino Cubesare is another of the famous Tarahumara long distance runners that featured in Born to Run and raced in the inaugural Ultra X Mexico event. In the Sierra Tarahumara, he is held in high esteem for his successes in Rarajipari and has serious racing pedigree having raced in Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Japan, France, Spain, Brazil, and Austria! When he is not racing he is a farmer and sandal maker.

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