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!)
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!”
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.
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 1 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 08:00.
The local runners set the pace early on, the first five passing through Checkpoint 1 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
Day two starts a little earlier than the first stage meaning that runners set off as the sun rises at 06:00. 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 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 20km are spent on good trails around Churo, the first and last 10km 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
The big one – 65km 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 03:00 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 30km 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 13:00 cut-off through Checkpoint 3 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 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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