I would be on my way back from the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon right now if life had not interfered. As it was, I had a little road trip adventure and got enough of a taste that it’s definitely on the schedule again next year.
I flew down to Phoenix where I was to rendezvous with a group of runners for a road trip. Our crew turned out to be an interesting cross section of ultra running. On one side we had Mark and Alexa. Young, fairly new to the sport, and very competitive; they had just returned from a six-day race in Costa Rica where they’d both finished in the money. On the other side was Chris, who’s been running ultras since long before they were called ultras and finished more than most of us had heard of. In between were the Coury brothers. Grizzled veterans but still only in their early 20’s, they embody the future of a sport once dominated by retirees. Not only were they highly competitive, both having won races and run a hundred miles in less than 18 hours, but they also organize races and their lives revolve around promoting ultra running “for as long as we can pull it off.” I was the outsider, having only competed in one official ultra, my longest runs were mainly done alone in the mountains.
I was planning on getting a hotel, as crashing at the Coury’s undergrad pad with six dudes seemed pretty hectic. Their house, however, was slightly different then the places that I hung out in college. It was more like the Real World of ultra running. I ended up staying up late talking training and nutrition theory with the brothers, who were like test pilots for the nutrient limits of the human body. Nick did his ultras sans “race food”, instead relying on things like gummy candies. This made sense, sports foods being mainly sugar, but he also eschewed salt. Salt is a coveted by endurance athletes like diamonds are to socialites. It’s the stuff dreams are made of. Yet, somehow, Nick is not only finishing, but winning races using hardly any salt. His theory is that if you don’t have salt in your daily diet you don’t need it during sports. This bucks most experts’ opinions but it’s hard to argue with his results. Jamil’s diet consists of mainly raw fruit and a little beer. It’s a recent change and he plans to put it to the test down in the canyon. In short, they are my kind of people.
In the morning our group piled into the Coury’s parents Suburban and we headed south. We took comfort in the fact that with our tinted windows we looked like drug cartel henchman. Of course, this could work against us should we look like rival henchman. It seemed that everyone we know was worried about the border except for us. Indeed, it’s been the scene of some craziness lately but I wasn’t worried. I love Mexico; the people, the food, the culture. Nothing bad can happen to me down there. Sure enough, we breezed through the border towns without a hiccup and a few hours later were tickling the northern Sierra Madre.
The next afternoon we arrived in Creel, the town where El Oso, author of Born To Run, finally tracked down Caballo Blanco. We checked in to the actual hotel/hostel where this meeting took place and went out to explore one of the trails in the book. We were now officially in Tarahumara land. Indeed, there were Raramuri everywhere.
Creel is a highland village. Situated at the top of the canyon, at nearly 3,000 meters, it’s a mountain town. The ensuing days would see us make our way down into the Barrancas del Cobre to Urique. At only a few hundred meters above sea level the scene is as different as the weather. “It’s tropical,” is how one resident of Creel put it.
We didn’t see any runners but, apparently, Creel with its hotels and El Chepe (the train) is a tourist town. The true Raramuri lived in places no roads penetrated. According to Caballo Blanco the highland Raramuri were training hard to unseat those from the deep canyon, who’d been made somewhat famous by the book and had more-or-less dominated the race. While some of us had race ambitions we were mainly there to experience the rivalry first hand, and all else that goes with it.
Unfortunately, while nothing bad happens to me in Mexico it doesn’t mean they don’t happen elsewhere. Back at home Romney was dealing with Tuco not moving, eating, or drinking. The vet wasn’t sure if he’d had a stroke or not but the day I left he’d been hiking and running like normal and now he couldn’t get up and refused to eat or drink. Since he’s very old this was inevitable but his rapid deterioration took us by surprise. There was nothing I could do but he was breathing well and wasn’t going very quickly. If he wanted to die being “the fittest animal on the planet” most of his life wasn’t doing him any favors.
Bob, who provides Tuc’s summer home, flew out to see him. I decided that if he improved at all I’d come home, too. The first note I got wasn’t too encouraging. “I think he’s over it,” it read. But a short while later he drank, and soon after that he ate some bacon, by which time I’d already plotted a course to get back. The race will be here next year. Tuc probably won’t. And even though, as my friend Binky put it, “he left it all on the floor,” I felt I should say good-bye.
Traveling out of the Copper Canyons is not simple. I tried to catch El Chepe but missed the final train of the day. Two bus rides, a taxi, and three flights later (that included a 40 minutes transfer where I had to clear customs and run across LAX through three terminals, at least putting all this race training to some use) and 25 hours later I was back with my buddy.
Postscript: Though he couldn’t get up when I got here Tuc’s been doing better each day. At first he was so uncomfortable he could only sleep a couple of hours at a time (meaning so could I), but now he’s getting up on his own and sleeping through the night. Yesterday he even ran about 50 meters. The big adios is currently on the back burner.
More than 50 gringos made the trip south, a record by far, to compete with hundreds of Raramuri. The highland Raramuri dominated the race, getting 7 of the top 10 spots. “They could compete with anyone, anywhere” – CB. Juan Quimare, relative of Arnulfo who was made famous in the book, was the top deep canyon finisher in 4th. Nick was the highest placed gringo, coming in 6th. By all accounts it was an amazing experience for everyone.
pics: thanks to brooke cantor for the pics of the canyons and the race. the other shots are our crew in creel. you can see more pics and read more about the raramuri and the canyons at his web site, http://www.norawas.org/