As a Mexican, I was raised in a society where the word Tarahumara was an insult. Now, I think it should be the other way around.
This blog post was inspired by a trip to Las Barrancas del Cobre and the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. Las Barrancas del Cobre is a series of massive canyons located in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains. The canyon system is four times larger (60,000 square kilometers) and nearly twice as deep in-depth as the infamous Grand Canyon of Colorado, USA. Yes, it’s huge, and you should go!
There is a train called Chepe that crosses the whole canyon and stops in different villages. The traditional way to plan the trip is to decide your stops and how long you want to stay there. The length of the trip is usually from 4 to 9 days, depending on how long you want to stay in the villages. The main motivation for me to visit Barrancas is the promise of the incredible one-of-a-kind views and unique nature. It’s well known that the Tarahumara communities live there, but to be honest, when planning this trip, I was not particularly interested in them.
While we were there, we took some tours to interact with the Tarahumaras and learn more about their way of thinking. More and more I was amazed by the culture. I wanted to learn more and this curiosity led me to read the book Born to Run.
What the heck is Tarahumaras?
Tarahumara or Rarámuris, as they call themselves, is an indigenous community that is located in North-West Mexico. Raramuri means foot-runner. They have a population of over 60,000 people and they are monster runners.
Part of the community is already integrated with the developed society and they live in small towns, but there are still the traditional ones. There are Tarahumaras living deep inside Las Barrancas that still harvest and hunt 100% of their food. They construct their own houses and some of them live inside caves. These guys are able to do persistence hunting, which is a hunting technique where you chase the animal until it dies from hyperthermia and exhaustion.
The culture is one that is very warm-hearted but at the same time very shy and introverted. They also try to isolate themselves from the western world. The Tarahumaras have a mentality for living in the moment, they seize the day and don’t think much about the future. On one side it is an enjoyable perspective for living life, but that also affects their progress.
They are peaceful and prefer to try to avoid conflict. If you begin arguing with one of them they will more likely quickly back away than get involved with you.
To the Tarahumara, asking direct questions is a show of force, a demand for possession inside their head. (McDougall, 28)
Strangers are the reason why Tarahumaras are hidden in the mountains. The lands of the Tarahumaras can only be inherited, not sold. The government of Mexico did this to avoid people trying to take advantage of them and their passive nature.
They also do not celebrate birthdays. They don’t care about their age, when you ask a Tarahumara how old they are they will tell you the age they feel, not the years that have passed. There is a story of a guy who remembered the Mexican revolution (1917) but he claimed that he was only 65 years old. When they get registered in the governmental offices, the workers need to guess the age of the Tarahumaras based on their appearance.
On one of the tours, we visited a Tarahumaras village. Our guide was a local that had been living there all his life and was close with the Tarahumaras. He told us that the Tarahumaras organize races. The races can be up to 200 km long and all run in the mountains. I got chills just from hearing that they run 200 km in the mountains. I lost my breath walking 1 km up-the-hill.
I haven’t seen or heard of any Tarahumara running in the Olympics, so I thought that maybe they were just amateur runners. I believed professional runners, not me, could beat them. But in reality, there would be no chance. According to our guide, a number of professional runners from different parts of the world had come to run in Las Barrancas, but they have never won a Tarahumara race. Yes, professional ultramarathoners are defeated by the Tarahumara who dress in sandals, skirts, and long-sleeve tops.
In the book Born to Run, they tell a story about a group of professional runners (the best ones at that time) that went to Barrancas and got a wake-up call. I don’t want to ruin it with any spoilers, so if you are interested I really recommend reading the book.
These people are strong, patient, cooperative, dedicated, and persistent, which makes them great runners. They are pretty much the closest thing to superhuman I have ever heard about.
OK, so they are tremendous runners, why don’t they compete in international races?
The short answer is that they don’t know how to do it. The best Tarahumara runners are the ones that live deep in Barrancas del Cobre, so it’s really hard to reach them. They are very introverted, conservative, and most importantly, they don’t care about fame. Plus, they think that you must come from the devil. Even if you manage to speak their language, make them trust you, and can convince one of them to get inside a plane to compete in an international race, it doesn’t mean that they will win. The whole change of environment will affect their performance. They are not used to adapting to anything new. Even changing their diet would affect them. They have a very healthy diet based on grains and fruits.
But when the Tarahumaras are in their local surroundings they are unstoppable. They are not distracted by the media and they know the route, so there are no surprises for them. Most importantly, they can run with joy.
In the Tarahumara races everyone participates, kids, old grandmas (who say they are only 20 years old), pregnant women, you name it. In Batopilas, a small town in Chihuahua, there was a race in which second place went to a woman who had given birth just a few days before the race. During the winners’ ceremony, they gave her the kid so she could feed it milk. These races are parties where the whole village participates, they don’t do it to get fit or to prove anything, it’s just to have fun.
This doesn’t mean that there are no Tarahumaras competing. Fortunately, after many years, there are a couple of examples of young Tarahumaras that go out of Barrancas and kick some ass, like Lorena Ramirez. Also, to witness the full unique endurance of a Tarahumara, the races that they have to participate in need to be more than 100 km.
They believe that they are creations of God and the Devil made the white man (non-Indians or chavochi as they call us). They have this idea that the white people are corrupted by the devil and they live in sin. It sounds a little bit harsh, but it’s understandable considering everything that their culture has faced. They have always been a peaceful community and they have been killed, persecuted, and humiliated by the white people. But, instead of fighting back, they run away.
During the Conquest of America, the Spanish army set out to destroy their communities and the Tarahumaras had to flee and hide to the mountains in the North West of Mexico. The Spanish people were not interested in that area so the Tarahumara community was safe.
During the wild west, cowboys were getting money for every “Apache” (native Americans from the United States) they killed. What some people were doing was going to Mexico, killing Tarahumaras, and claiming they were “Apache” to get the money.
Nowadays, centuries later, they are still discriminated against and abused. In that sense, it’s understandable why they believe white people come from the devil. They don’t easily forget what the “white men’’ did to them, but they are so peaceful that they are not looking for any kind of revenge.
Who is really the developed society?
The typical feeling towards them is pity. We see them as poor people that are miserable and unhappy, so they need to behave more like us to improve their quality of life. The truth is that they have been living for more than 100 years with the same mentality and traditions and we feel that we need to push them to live with our social and economic rules. We shouldn’t make them fit our world, we should complement both societies.
There is a lot to learn from them. They have this tradition that once every few weeks all the people from the village gather together and check on each other to make sure no one is struggling. If they see someone is struggling, that person leaves their house for a day and the neighbors and their friends then bring things to the house, such as food, furniture, etc. How cool is that? In our world, we are building walls and putting kids in cages to keep each other away, and these guys are being completely selfless with their limited belongings.
The thing that first got me interested in the Tarahumaras is that they are athletes that are even better than our professional athletes. We believe that we have a developed society and we are more advanced in every aspect to indigenous cultures, but that’s not necessarily true. Tarahumaras beat us in athleticism, kindness, and they are more vigorous. When you are deep in Las Barracas you can see the 95-year old (34 years if you ask him) man hiking 40 km from one mountain to another. He does it because he can, they live in a world of no limits for their body. There are no limits in their endurance. They don’t have a sense of how far it is, they just run with joy to wherever they need to go.
You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.
Jack Kirk a.k.a “The Dipsea Demon” (Born to Run, 202)
We should listen and learn from them. Not try to solve their problems our way.
Seeking to learn about Tarahumaras has motivated me to start running. Without expecting anything, I slowly started replacing my sport activities with running. Physically, I have never felt better in my life. My body feels lighter and I have more energy after a run. A morning run is the best way to start my day. Not only that, but this has become my meditation and therapy. It is a monologue with myself that can last for hours. When I travel to a new place, running became my best way to do sightseeing. There is no way to be in a bad mood after a run, it just doesn’t happen. As McDougall says, If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them. Without expecting anything, running gave me a lot of what I couldn’t imagine.
The Tarahumaras are able to run these extreme distances because they never forget to love to run. They are like little kids when they run, they don’t do it for any particular reason, they just enjoy it. Running was something essential that was given to them, they were running for food and they also ran for not becoming food. As the name of the book of Christopher McDougall, they were Born to Run.
Thanks to David Watson and Gabriela Kadlecova for reviewing and improving the text.