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Copper Canyon Ultramarathon: Secrets of the World’s Greatest Runners (Hint: It’s Not the Shoes)

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How about running 47 miles in shoe-melting heat with just tire rubber strapped to your feet? A top American ultramarathoner ventures deep into Mexico’s Copper Canyons to learn the secrets of the Tarahumara, the world’s greatest runners.

Text and photographs by Will Harlan

Last March, I journeyed deep into the Copper Canyons of northwest Mexico to run with the indigenous Tarahumara, widely regarded as the world’s greatest endurance athletes. Made famous recently by Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born to Run, the Tarahumara scratch a living out of barren, rocky soil, growing ancient varieties of corn and beans. Most live in caves and tiny huts scattered throughout four monstrous, river-carved chasms—each deeper than the Grand Canyon. Through steep canyons and blistering heat, they run—wearing hand-made sandals called huaraches, which consist of used tire rubber wrapped to their feet.

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How do Tarahumara run for hundreds of miles in such primitive footwear? To Nike-clad runners like myself, the answer was painfully simple: they just do it. Barefoot Tarahumara children build calluses and foot strength from an early age on the rocky, rugged canyon trails. They rarely get injured, thanks to their running lifestyle and efficient biomechanics.

The Tarahumara do not follow any training programs. They don’t time or measure their runs. They don’t taper before a race or gulp recovery drinks afterward. They are nutritionally deficient by most athletic standards. Yet they consistently dust some of the fastest runners in the world.

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Once a year, the reclusive Tarahumara descend from their cliffside caves and huts to run the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, a 47-mile footrace that attracts star athletes from around the globe. Seven-time Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run champion Scott Jurek ran the Copper Canyon Ultra in 2006—and lost—to a 26-year-old goat herder named Arnulfo.

I had been chasing Arnulfo’s legend for years. On my first trip to the canyons, I got lost searching for Arnulfo’s cave and nearly slid off a 500-foot cliff. Along the way, I drank giardia-infested water, stumbled upon several marijuana fields, and was held up at gunpoint by a drugrunner.

I realized that my best chance of meeting Arnulfo was at the ultramarathon. So last March, I headed down to the canyon town of Urique, The village was buzzing with adrenaline: race murals plastered the plaza walls and ESPN film cameras rolled nonstop.

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Despite the excitement, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was cheating: I had traveled to Urique on an air-conditioned bus, stayed in a comfy hostel, and filled my belly with carb-loaded burritos. Most of the Tarahumara had hiked dozens of miles on steep trails to get to the race, subsisting primarily on cornmeal and water. They slept in the woods outside my hostel.

So the night before the race, I wandered out to their campsite to invite them to share my room. Korima—the Tarahumara version of karma—is a spirit of selfless generosity at the heart of their culture. I was too jittery to sleep anyway, and I needed all the good korima I could get.

But my invitation didn’t seem to interest them. For several minutes, the Tarahumara sat silent and blank-faced in the glow of their campfire. Finally a short man wearing a magenta tunic and handmade beaded necklace stood and nodded. I recognized him instantly—Arnulfo. Bowl-cut black hair hung over his brown eyes, which were as deep and vast as the canyons. His legs rippled with sinew.

Arnulfo and eight other Tarahumara runners crammed into my tiny room that night: six on the floor (including me), and four in the bed with Arnulfo.

The next morning, as the first glow of sunlight painted the canyon walls orange, we made our way to the starting line. Over 200 Tarahumara runners were there, along with a dozen international runners, including Hiroki Ishikawa, one of Japan’s top trail runners.

The race began, and for the first few cautious miles, I reveled in the raw, bare beauty of the canyons. Tarahumara streamed past wearing colorful tunics and dust-caked loincloths. The frontrunners—led by Arnulfo and Hiroki—were three miles ahead of me at the halfway point.

As I ran, I noticed a startling difference between the Tarahumara and American runners like me. We were grimacing and gritting our teeth; the Tarahumara were relaxed and smiling. Like most Americans, running for me has often been a chore to check off my to-do list, or part of a prescribed plan toward a finish line goal. But the Tarahumara run because they love it—not just the beneficial effects of running, but the intoxicating experience of gliding across the warm earth, feeling the sand between their toes. Running was a path to the divine—not through folded hands, but callused feet.

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I was not Tarahumara, as much as I wanted to be. But I could still try to follow in their footsteps by running with gratitude and grace. Over the next few miles, I unclenched my jaw and even let a loose smile unfold. I tried to adopt the light, nimble Tarahumara stride. It worked: I soon found myself floating down the trail, as fluid as the Urique River beside me.

I began passing runners—even several of my Tarahumara roommates. I wasn’t running; my body was running me. My legs seemed to spin beneath me without any interference from my conscious will.

Heading into the final 11-mile loop, I surged ahead of second-place Hiroki and found myself running side-by-side with Arnulfo. I should have been elated to be challenging the world’s greatest runner. But really, we were running two separate races: I was racing for glory against other well-heeled international runners; he was running in threadbare sandals for his people and for his life.

With six miles to go, my Tarahumara-like flow was starting to dry up in the searing canyon heat. The scorched canyon floor melted the soles of my fancy shoes, and grit from the trail rubbed my blisters raw.

But my pain was temporary and small. The Tarahumara trek ultra distances nearly every day, even as drug and timber mafias rip apart their lands and lives. There is no finish line for them.

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At the final river crossing, I splashed ahead of Arnulfo. I hung on to cross the finish line first, with Arnulfo finishing only minutes behind me. Afterward, I donated my $3,000 prize to the true champion of the race. Arnulfo used it to buy goats and feed his wife and three children for a year.

The awards ceremony lasted deep into the night. The plaza overflowed with Tarahumara and spilled out into the moonlit street, where more spectators climbed atop the plaza walls to watch. Drumbeats echoed through the canyons. For now, the Running People’s pulse was still beating.

Later that evening, as we walked back to our crowded hostel, Arnulfo pulled me aside. He placed his hand across his chest, then removed his beaded necklace and placed it around my neck.

“Korima,” he said.