Ultra X Mex­ico 2019: Race Director’s Report

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!)

15 Novem­ber 2019

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Read­ing Time: 11 minutes

Tak­ing on an inaug­ur­al event always rep­res­ents a massive adven­ture. Com­pet­it­ors do not know exactly what to expect, how to pre­pare for the cli­mate, ter­rain or how pre­vi­ous par­ti­cipants had found the exper­i­ence. This, com­bined with the fact that Ultra X Mex­ico had been billed as the toughest multi-stage race on the plan­et, with over 11,000 metres of climb­ing at 2,300 metres alti­tude with some extremely tech­nic­al sec­tions, meant that every­one who made the start line of this race was already doing some­thing that many would not.

Those that braved it will nev­er for­get what turned out to be a spe­cial week. This is undoubtedly going to be a buck­et list race and those that made it this time will be able to say forever: “I was there when it all began!”

Brief­ing Day

Com­pet­it­ors and crew arrived into Mex­ico in waves with the form­al launch of the event on Sunday 3rd Novem­ber in Chi­hua­hua. Some arrived sev­er­al days before to accli­mat­ise to the con­di­tions, oth­ers late the night before. After the offi­cial race wel­come, man­dat­ory kit checks took place and bibs and track­ers were alloc­ated. All com­pet­it­ors are issued with a yel­low brick track­er with SOS cap­ab­il­it­ies; this means that we always know where they are and in the case of emer­gency, they can call for help.

At 11am, a series of coaches col­lec­ted the par­ti­cipants from the hotel and star­ted the drive to the “Magic Town” of Creel which is the gate­way to the Canyons. Here, run­ners dropped bags off at the stun­ning Lake Arareco, which was to be the camp­site for the first night, before head­ing back into Creel where the State of Chi­hua­hua hos­ted a recep­tion to wel­come the inter­na­tion­al ath­letes.

At the recep­tion await­ing the run­ners were the loc­al Tarahu­mara par­ti­cipants in tra­di­tion­al dress who would be com­pet­ing in the race. The field con­tained exper­i­enced ultra run­ners from across the world as well as sev­er­al new­bies to the sport, and it was evid­ent that a few were begin­ning to size one anoth­er up.

The first stage would mark the cul­min­a­tion of months of hard work, research and pre­par­a­tion for this epic jour­ney. Com­pet­it­ors from 12 dif­fer­ent coun­tries were about to test them­selves against the greatest ultra run­ners of them all to see whom could become the King and Queen of the Cop­per Canyon.

Runners start Ultra X Mexico

Stage 1

Stage one takes com­pet­it­ors from lakeside of the beau­ti­ful Lake Arareco, past the Val­ley of the Monks, through the Indi­an vil­lage of St. Ignacio and onto the “Magic Town” of Creel, where at Check­point One run­ners are cheered through the main plaza before head­ing into the wil­der­ness and canyon coun­try. This is the closest to civil­isa­tion they will come all week.

A low fog hung over the shores of the lake mak­ing for an atmo­spher­ic start. On paper this is the easi­est day of the week; flat by com­par­is­on to the lat­ter stages (only 1,254 metres of climb­ing!) and on good run­nable trails through­out, how­ever the effects of the alti­tude were being felt by all. It is said that upon arrival at alti­tude a runner’s per­form­ance can be affected by 6–8% and many of the com­pet­it­ors were feel­ing it, with some cross­ing the fin­ish line after dark hav­ing star­ted at 0800.

The loc­al run­ners set the pace early on, the first five passing through Check­point One form­ing the lead pack, how­ever, were chased down in the lat­ter stages by exper­i­enced run­ners Gedi­m­i­nas Grini­us and Jason Sch­larb, who crossed the fin­ish line togeth­er in joint first. Miguel Luna was only 13 seconds behind in third, but at this stage we were won­der­ing wheth­er he had gone too hard too soon. The next few days would tell!

Mar­ina Ranger led the women’s race from the off, build­ing a healthy lead over fel­low Brit and first time ultra run­ner Carly Stretton and Japan­ese run­ner Say­uri Iman­ishi. It was great to see the major­ity of com­pet­it­ors mak­ing it through the first day, but if any­one needed a remind­er of what a chal­lenge Ultra X Mex­ico was, they got it — the last run­ners home com­ing in after dark, hav­ing spent almost 11 hours out on course. It is those towards the back of the pack that often earn the most admir­a­tion. Those that are find­ing it the toughest yet refuse to give in and suc­cumb to exhaus­tion and to the ele­ments. For those at the back of the pack they knew that this week would test them to the very lim­it and they were up for the chal­lenge.

The camp­site, at Mirador de Oter­os, is at the edge of the Canyons and as well as provid­ing spec­tac­u­lar views it gives a sit­ing of what the run­ners are going to be cov­er­ing over the next few days.

Day 1 Stand­ings

1. Mar­ina Ranger 06:46:08
2. Carly Stretton 07:38:56
3. Say­uri Iman­ishi 07:49:58

1. Jason Sch­larb and Gedi­m­i­nas Grini­us 04:18:09
3. Miguel Lara 04:18:22

Stage 2

Day two starts a little earli­er than the first stage mean­ing that run­ners set off as the sun rises at 6am. This stage of Ultra X Mex­ico was a mem­or­able one for our run­ners as they ran into the spec­tac­u­lar Cop­per Canyons for the first time and got a glimpse of some of the views that make the region so fam­ous.

Fol­low­ing a climb up to Huer­a­chi they dropped down into Divisid­aro and fol­lowed the Canyon Rim through the “Adven­ture Park” trail where they are asked to cross an array of stun­ning hanging bridges on good trails before the final sec­tion of the day- a more tech­nic­al up and down before climb­ing up the Gui­taivo Canyon where the camp­site awaits.

If there had been any ques­tions over loc­al boy Miguel Lara hav­ing been pipped to the line at the end of stage one, today he was out to answer those. Lead­ing from the start he blitzed the stage and put a 30-minute lead on his rivals from day one. The per­form­ance had many in awe, includ­ing the camp­site team who had only just set up the fin­ish line.

Mar­ina Ranger con­tin­ued her strong start to the race, with Alise Miksta (on her third Ultra X of the year) prov­ing her mettle by break­ing into the top three ladies. At the oth­er end of the field it was inspir­ing to see com­pet­it­ors who had pulled out of yes­ter­day back in the race push­ing through till the end, with sev­er­al out there for over 10 hours. Japan­ese hus­band and wife, Say­uri and Kat­suya Iman­ishi seemed intent on doing the whole race togeth­er spend­ing the major­ity of the second day side by side.

Day 2 Stand­ings

1. Mar­ina Ranger 06:43:05
2. Say­uri Iman­ishi 07:39:52
3. Alise Miksta 08:15:39

1. Miguel Lara 03:44:45
2. Jason Sch­larb 04:17:40
3. Gedi­m­i­nas Grini­us 04:24:11

Stage 3

Stage 3 has com­pet­it­ors run­ning on a com­bin­a­tion of dirt road and single-track trail end­ing in the plaza of the old canyon town of Urique, the deep­est point in the Cop­per Canyons, fam­ous for being the home of Caballo Blanco, as fea­tured in the book Born to Run. Sup­posedly the “calm before the storm”, the day before the “long day” is a time to con­serve energy and not push too hard but in this race, there are no easy days.

This stage is the most tech­nic­al of the week and whilst the middle 20 km are spent on good trails around Churo, the first and last 10 km sec­tions involve some scram­bling sec­tions that only the most skil­ful moun­tain goats were able to run. Over the course of the stage, com­pet­it­ors drop almost 4,000 metres as they go from one of the highest points in the region to the low­est.

For sev­er­al of our loc­al run­ners Urique is homet­own and as such they had extra incent­ive to put in a per­form­ance and come in strong in front of the loc­al crowds. Silvino Cube­sare came in just behind Lara in second place, with Gedi­m­i­nas and Jason once again com­ing in side by side in joint third pos­i­tion. See­ing their loc­al her­oes lead­ing the stage was greeted with rap­ture by the town of Urique, with the may­or­al team out to greet all the com­pet­it­ors, and announ­cers shout­ing names out as run­ners entered the town along the closed roads into the main plaza.

Camp­ing along­side the river allowed run­ners an oppor­tun­ity to wash, cool off and relax whilst the race con­tin­ued before an even­ing of loc­al enter­tain­ment on the town bas­ket­ball court. Here, one of the most sur­real scenes of the week was cre­ated — in one corner of the court, our team of osteo­paths worked their magic on pre­par­ing the bod­ies of our battered run­ners to go into battle for the long stage the fol­low­ing morn­ing; in anoth­er, med­ics ten­ded to blistered feet and stitched up run­ner Tak­uya Waka­oka who had slipped and cut him­self dur­ing the race; whilst in the centre of the area, a group of chil­dren per­formed a tra­di­tion­al dance and a crowd of loc­als gathered around the court along­side the remain­ing com­pet­it­ors to watch the spec­tacle.

It could be said that these moments are what Ultra X events are all about- the com­ing togeth­er of people from all walks of life in some­what extreme and unusu­al con­di­tions to cre­ate some­thing spe­cial and mem­or­able.

Day 3 Stand­ings

1. Mar­ina Ranger 09:13:24
2. Say­uri Iman­ishi 10:03:00
3. Alise Miksta 10:39:49

1. Miguel Lara 05:00:00
2. Silvino Cube­sare 05:16:31
3. Jason Sch­larb and Gedi­m­i­nas Grini­us 05:19:11

Stage 4

The big one — 65 kilo­metres and 4,115 metres of elev­a­tion gain! The long stage of a multi-day race is always the defin­ing one. Races begin and end on it. Some rel­ish it, many more will fear it. For many this week, the blue arches at the end of Ultra X Mex­ico stage four were going to be some­thing else. Each and every one of the run­ners knew that this was it.

Hav­ing woken up at 0300 to start the stage in the pitch black, run­ners will set off from the main square of Urique where they fin­ished stage three just a few hours before. Guided by light sticks, the first 30 kilo­metres were spent on a sec­tion of the fam­ous Caballo Blanco ultramara­thon course, loop­ing upriver before climb­ing 600 metres in a couple of kilo­metres to the beau­ti­ful moun­tain mesa Naranjo — a lush set­tle­ment with awe­some views.

As light breaks over­head they got their first glimpse across the Urique canyon and the climb they just com­pleted. There is no time for rest­ing, how­ever. As the town wakes up, com­pet­it­ors must drop once again through the main plaza of Urique. This time they received hordes of loc­al sup­port encour­aging them onwards and upwards onto their next ascent. This starry-skied ex-min­ing vil­lage lies at the bot­tom of the deep­est of all the canyons in the region, the spec­tac­u­lar Bar­ranca de Urique, meas­ur­ing 1,870m from rim to river, and it is on the rim where the fin­ish line will await.

For those that make the 1300 cut-off through Check­point Three they have until mid­night to get to the fin­ish line. Whilst some com­pleted the stage in just sev­en hours, there were many more who were out there all day, with the last com­pet­it­or com­ing into camp 18 hours after set­ting off in the early hours of the morn­ing. He was greeted in with a hero’s wel­come and an unfor­get­table recep­tion lit by head torches and tiki lamps. Hav­ing com­pleted the stage, all who have made it know that the race is done, at least men­tally.

The battle has been won and des­pite the sore bod­ies there is a huge sense of relief in camp as there are no excuses when it comes to tomorrow’s stage (which is still almost a mara­thon) and nobody wants to leave any­thing on the course. With the stand­ings all but sown up bar­ring an excep­tion­al res­ult (the gap between first and second male being an hour, and first and second female over three), the lead­ers were relaxed and out to enjoy their final run of the week.

Day 4 Stand­ings

1. Mar­ina Ranger 11:28:20
2. Say­uri Iman­ishi 12:10:10
3. Alise Miksta 13:51:19

1. Miguel Lara 06:52:28
2. Jason Sch­larb 06:59:42
3. Gedi­m­i­nas Grini­us 07:01:55

Stage 5

Stage 5 begins with one final climb before drop­ping 1,400 metres in the final 15km via a series of switch­backs into Batopilas Canyon. Usu­ally the des­cent would be an oppor­tun­ity for the run­ners to stretch their legs and enjoy build­ing up some speed but after this week each twist means more impact on those already battered quads, so that when com­pet­it­ors reached the bot­tom to find a short sec­tion of flat single track trail along the river lead­ing them into Batopilas, where the final fin­ish line awaits, it was greeted with huge relief.

The final kilo­metre is spent weav­ing through the col­our­ful streets of the sil­ver min­ing town of Batopilas, the second “Magic Town” of the week, and as com­pet­it­ors turn the final bend they are greeted with a wave of noise, chil­dren lin­ing the streets and a fin­ish line where cold beer and real food awaits. This is #theul­traX­per­i­ence and this is the moment every­one has been wait­ing for.

Emo­tions are high amongst the com­pet­it­ors and every­one remains cheer­ing fin­ish­ers until the last are home safely. Each per­son home was wel­comed with open arms to the extent that dir­ect­ors and staff were often amongst the last to be able to con­grat­u­late those cross­ing the line and hand over their well-earned Ultra X Mex­ico medals.

Hav­ing fin­ished in the main plaza, com­pet­it­ors do not have to move, as this is also where the fin­ish­ing party is. A huge bar­be­cue is the order of the day with loc­al wheat beer brewed spe­cially for the occa­sion, an intim­ate prize giv­ing cere­mony is fol­lowed by loc­al musi­cians and dan­cers before get­ting some much-needed rest and the coach ride back to Chi­hua­hua the fol­low­ing day.

Day 5 Stand­ings

1. Mar­ina Ranger 05:35:43
2. Say­uri Iman­ishi 06:23:25
3. Alise Miksta 07:20:24

1. Miguel Lara 03:28:15
2. Silvino Cube­sare 03:44:11
3. Jason Sch­larb and Gedi­m­i­nas Grini­us 03:45:09


Ultra X Mex­ico had been billed as the toughest multi-stage race on the plan­et with the hope that those who came would respect the chal­lenge of the canyons and be well pre­pared. It was the race for the exper­i­enced ultra-run­ner who wanted to chal­lenge them­selves in the toughest con­di­tions. In hind­sight, per­haps it should have been billed as the world’s most unique ultramara­thon.

The ultrar­unning cul­ture of the loc­al area means that when par­ti­cipants arrived in Creel, leav­ing the world of Wi-Fi, email and Ins­tagram, they entered a bubble that only stage racing in such an envir­on­ment can cre­ate. The race was in fact just a vehicle in which the par­ti­cipants could immerse them­selves into the Cop­per Canyon exper­i­ence — the vil­lages, people, and the joy of run­ning on some of the world’s best trails.

Run­ning along­side the Rarámuri, who gave their all every single day des­pite not hav­ing all the advant­ages of tech­no­logy, nutri­tion­al sci­ence or routine train­ing provided a price­less exper­i­ence. A lot of emphas­is on races such as these can be put on the route, the dis­tance and the elev­a­tion, but it is often for­got­ten that the most import­ant part of these events is spend­ing qual­ity time togeth­er with oth­ers in a magic­al out­door place.

As Caballo Blanco says in the fam­ous book Born to Run “we run not to beat each oth­er, but to be with each oth­er”. This race cer­tainly backed this up and the memor­ies formed last week, and friend­ships cre­ated while in the Cop­per Canyon will be price­less and last forever.

As dir­ect­or it was a pleas­ure to meet such an inspir­ing group, who all arrived as indi­vidu­als, made it through the week, and left as a fam­ily.

Well done, thank you and con­grat­u­la­tions to all.

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