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Tarahumara Feats Inspire Awe

by Victor M. Mendoza


Ken Chlouber was laboring up a dusty dirt road about 25 miles into the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon last weekend when he was passed by two other runners.

Chlouber looked over at the pair and then down at their feet, which were bare except for sandals made out of used tires, leather thongs and nails.

"Maybe I'm spending too much on shoes," Chlouber half-joked as the runners passed him.

Just after midnight Sunday, those sandal-clad feet were the first to cross the finish line of America's highest and perhaps most rugged ultramarathon, carrying with them new-found respect for their owners - two Tarahumara [Raramuri] Indians from the Copper Canyon area of northwestern Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental.

Not only did Victoriano Churro and Cerrildo Chacarito finish one-two after 20 hours, another Tarahumara [Raramuri] - Manuel Luna - was fifth. And they did it their way, on sandals they pieced together a few days earlier from tires picked up at the Leadville junkyard.

"I think this will set the ultramarathon community on its ear," smiled Kitty Williams, who, with Rick Fisher of Tucson, was primarily responsible for bringing the Tarahumaras [Raramuris] to Leadville.

The Leadville Trail 100 is considered one of the most grueling in the country because nearly all of the race is run at elevations higher than 10,000 feet and twice goes over 12,600-foot Hope Pass. Only 138 of the 294 runners who started the 11th annual race at 4 a.m. Saturday finished the course.

The Tarahumara tribe numbers about 40,000 scattered in small villages over 35,000 square miles of rugged and remote mountains and canyons. Their name for themselves is "Raramuri," which, in their language means 'foot runners'.

Running always has been a central part of the Tarahumara [Raramuri] culture because it has been the only way for them to get around. Games that involve running for long periods of time are a focus of their leisure time, but they seldom run what Americans consider a competitive road race.

Tales of tremendous running feats are attributed to the Tarahumaras [Raramuri], including running 70 miles a day, going 170 miles without stopping and running 500 miles carrying 40 pounds of mail.

Fisher guides tours of Copper Canyon, has written several books about the area, and has known the Tarahumaras [Raramuri] more than eight years. Recently, he has become more concerned that their culture is being threatened by increasing development.

Williams said the Tarahumaras [Raramuri] are running less because of the development which has brought roads closer to the tribe. Still, Luna lives in an area so remote it is a three-day trip to the nearest road.

Fisher and Williams brought six Tarahumaras [Raramuri] to run in the Leadville race partly to draw attention to their situation. They hope to stop the Copper Canyon logging because they fear it will destroy the Tarahumaras' [Raramuris] agriculture-based culture, and, along with it, their running.

"Their running has been declining because there are more roads," said Williams.

Last year, Fisher put together Team Raramuri, recruiting runners from various villages. He brought five of them to the Leadville race in 1992, but, inexperienced in competitive racing, all of them dropped out after about 30 miles. Although there are frequent aid stations on the race course, the Indians didn't take the food and drink offered because they didn't think it was for them.

This years winner, Victoriano Churro, wanted to be on the team badly enough that he apparently lied about is age, fearing they would think he was too old.

He had told them he was 38, the same age as his running mate, Chacarito.

"When he finished the race, he came to the medical tent and I heard the doctor asking him his age," race director Merilee O'Neal said.

"I heard him tell the doctor he was 55." Churro then admitted his lie to Williams and Fisher.

Churro and Chacarito, who ran in tandem nearly all the race, started out wearing running shoes they had been given.

They discarded the shoes at the May Queen aid station 13 1/2 miles into the race, opting for their sandals instead. They declined offers of rain ponchos despite periodic showers.

Their Leadville achievement has added to the Tarahumara [Raramuri] legend, with ultramarathoners talking in wonder about seeing them pass.

"When you leave the Twin Lakes aid station (at 60 1/2 miles), you have to climb a steep ridge. No one runs up the trail there; no one. says Chlouber, a state representative and one of the race organizers. "Well, they (Churro and Chacarito) just took off and ran right up it like a couple of deer. It was amazing."


The Tiger of the Sierra

The Tarahumaras are good at sports and like gambling. They have great endurance and enjoy the fun and competition of games. But of all their many games, they are fondest of foot-racing, which may also be considered a gambling game because of the attendant extravagant betting.

All the natives living in mountainous regions are good at running but it is not a sport with them as with the Tarahumaras, who are outstanding long-distance runners. Some of them have been known to run over a hundred miles without stopping, taking nothing more than pinole and water. They catch deer by running after them for days until they tire them out. The root of the name Tarahumara refers to foot running.

In 1926, three Tarahumaras gave the "civilized world" their first demonstration of their ability to run. Three of them were brought to Mexico City from the mountains of Chihuahua and were taken to Pachuca, Hidalgo, where the governor gave them letters of greeting to the head of the Federal District in Mexico City. At 3:05 A.M. on Sunday morning of August 7, they started running from the State Palace in Pachuca, followed by a Red Cross ambulance with doctors and nurses, anthropologists, and newspaper men. A huge crowd awaited them in the stadium of Mexico City and many of us went to meet them quite a distance out. One of the men dropped out after running fifty-six kilometers because of an old lesion in his knee; otherwise the doctors found him perfectly all right. The remaining two runners arrived at the stadium at 12:42 P.M., having made a distance of 100 kilometers or sixty-two miles in nine hours and thirty-seven minutes, with thirty minutes out for pinole, water and other necessities. They were in perfect condition upon their arrival and continued running around the stadium track.

The public was amazed at the prowess of the runners and even more so when the papers reported that there were better ones at home. One of them was called "The Tiger of the Sierra"; he had run for three consecutive days that same year, near Norogachic, Chihuahua, covering a distance of 300 kilometers, or 186 miles, of mountainous country.

The Tarahumaras do not measure their running time in long races by clock, but by the evolution of the heavenly bodies. For an approximate twelve-hour race, they say from sun to moon; if it continues, then it is from sun to moon to sun to moon, and so on.

Two years after the run from Pachuca, four Tarahumaras were brought to Mexico City for the National Marathon trial races for the Olympic games that were to take place in Amsterdam that year. They had been selected from thirty-five who had tried out in their own region in the mountains of Chihuahua and had made the twenty-six-mile Marathon in two hours, forty-nine minutes over broken ground. It had been difficult to get them together for the tryouts, as many would run away to hide when they saw the white men approaching their villages.

In the Mexico City trials, the four Tarahumaras easily won the first four places against thirty contestants from other sections of the country. After much persuasion Jose Torres and Aurelio Terrozas, two of the four winners, were induced to join the Mexican contingent for Amsterdam. The task of convincing them was especially difficult, as it had to be done through an interpreter. They feared they would not be safe on the wide river that took "seven suns and seven moons to cross."

The Tarahumaras, like all the other indigenous races still existing in Mexico, do not lose their dignity in the presence of the white man and his civilization. Jose and Aurelio very soon behaved as if they were accustomed to beds and other modern conveniences. In New York they were taken around to see the sights; they were impressed but said they did not like the city, because "the streets were like their ravines, the sun never hitting the bottoms."

Everyone on the ship was interested in Jose and Aurelio, the girls especially, for they were good-looking, well-built young men. In the daytime they would train and study Spanish, which their University companions were teaching them, but at night they would watch the dancers. One night Aurelio surprised their head coach, by telling him shyly that he would like to dance. Their monosyllabic conversation was somewhat as follows:

"Jefe, I want to dance."
"Yes, Aurelio, with whom?"
"Girl," he answered with an expressive look.
"Which girl?"

"Blue girl," pointing to a blonde across the room in a blue evening dress.

When Aurelio was presented to the blue girl, she accepted his invitation with delight. Aurelio was so perfectly at ease and danced so well that the other couples left them the floor, forming a circle to watch and applaud.

Jose and Aurelio lost the first places in the twenty-five mile race at Amsterdam by three minutes, the winner having made it in two hours, thirty-six minutes and some seconds. Their comment was, "Too short; too short!" Upon their return to Mexico City, Jose and Aurelio were asked what they wanted to take back with them to the mountains. After discussing the matter, according to native custom, they asked for iron plows; they had noticed in their travels that the iron ones cut deeper and turn the soil over better than the wooden plows. They also asked for oxen to pull the iron plow since it was too heavy for a man. When they were told they could have the plow and oxen and asked what else they wanted, their eyes danced with joy. Jose wanted a guitar and Aurelio a violin.


The Tarahumaras do not have to train for their races. They are always running somewhere, either between their widely scattered corn patches, or to look for a warm cave in which to spend the winter, or on some errand. Wherever there are gatherings of men, they organize races spontaneously. However, for the big races they make various preparations, and practice with a massive, wooden ball which they kick as they run.

The runners are careful not to be made the victims of black magic, at the same time employing magical devices for their own success. Sometimes a manager, who may be a shaman, goes to a burial cave with two balls to be used in the race. He takes out a bone from the right leg of the skeleton, the tibia whenever possible. Putting it on the ground, he places before it a jar of tesguino and some dishes of food. On each side of the vessels he places one of the balls; in front, a cross. The offering is to the dead person, so that he may help by weakening the opponents of the one making it. Human bones are sometimes buried along the race course, where the men of the opposing team will have to run over them, for it is believed that they produce fatigue. The man burying the bones is careful not to touch them with his fingers, lest they dry up.

Sometimes herbs are thrown into the air to weaken opponents, or some outsider may sell the Tarahumaras an expensive white powder for the purpose. However, the evil effects of anything used may be offset with counter-remedies, so in the end either side, without knowing it, has to win the race by actual running.

A shaman is always employed to prepare the runners. He rubs them with herbs and smooth stones to give strength, and makes passes over them to ward off sorcery, and the day before the races he performs a curing ceremony. He puts the water the runners will drink on a blanket under a cross; food, remedies, and various magical objects and a lighted candle at each side. The herbs are tied up in bags, as otherwise they would break away because they are so strong. The runners bring their balls and form a semi-circle around the cross. Then the shaman standing in front of them sings songs about the tail of the gray fox and others, as he blows incense over them. He also warns them not to accept food or drink from anyone but their relatives as a precaution against witchcraft. Afterwards the runners drink three times of the water and strengthening remedies, and their head runner leads them in a ceremonial circuit around the cross, going around as many times as there are circuits in the race they are to run. When the ceremony is ended, the shaman questions each one as to whether he has kept to his diet, eating only deer, rabbit, rat, turkey or chaparral-cock meats, which are considered good for winning a race. The men are also questioned as to whether they have abstained from sex. That night they all sleep together around the cross to see that nothing under it is touched. As a precaution against danger while they are asleep, an old man sleeps with them because the old see even in their sleep.

The losing side always attributes to the winning foul means, such as witchcraft or having put injurious herbs into the drinking water. Sometimes a head runner becomes nervous and feigns illness, or someone from the opposing team offers him a bribe of an animal and the race may not come off, but generally it takes place as scheduled.

There are no race tracks but the managers of both sides decide on the terrain and number of miles, which may be run in circuits or back and forth, the course being indicated on trees with crosses or other marks.

The big races are always between two localities, and as many as two hundred men, women, and children gather to bet and follow the fortunes of the runners. As cash has little value to the Tarahumaras, they bet pieces of clothing, houses, land, cattle; the poorest risking their only serapes. The wagers, amounting to thousands of pesos, are left with the managers. As soon as the excitement of the betting is over, everyone is ready to give undivided attention to the race.

The runners, wrapped in their blankets like the rest of the men, mingle with the people, but they take nothing but pinole and tepid water, and in the morning their legs are rubbed with warm water.

Near the starting point a number of stones, corresponding to the number of circuits to be run, are placed, and one is removed after each circuit. Both sides appoint men to observe that all the rules are followed. Pregnant women are kept out of the gathering, as a runner may become heavy by merely rubbing against their blankets. Also, drunks are shunned.

When everything is ready, the gobernador exhorts both sides not to cheat and not to touch the ball with their hands, else they will go to hell. Then men throw off their blankets. One man from each side throws the ball as far as he can, and all start after it. Another ball is always at hand, should the first one get lost.

The opposing sides are distinguished by headbands of different colors. The runners sometimes paint their faces and legs with white chalk and for speed adorn themselves with bird feathers, those of the macaw and peacock being preferred; they also wear deer-hoof rattles tied on a strip of leather for the same reason, as well as for the purpose of keeping themselves awake with the noise of the rattling. The men run steadily mile after mile, followed by their friends who urge them on and tell them where the ball is so that there is no time lost in looking for it. The women of the racers hold out gourds of pinole and warm water for them for rapid refreshment, and throw water over their shoulders.

When night falls, the audience scattered along the heights near the race course keep bonfires burning while the friends accompanying the runners carry resinous pine torches. As the circuits are of many miles, the silence and darkness are broken only every few hours with the passing of the racers. Some of them have to drop put. Then the excitement increases. In the end only one or two may be left. The winner receives nothing but praise, which is sweet to him when it comes from certain women. However, the winners of bets make presents to him and to his father.

Sometimes old men's races take place before the strenuous ones of the young. These receive much attention. Women also run races; their distances are shorter and their speed is less, but the betting and excitement are great. The women do not kick the ball with their toes but toss it with a two-pronged stick. Sometimes, instead of a ball, they use rings made of yucca leaves which they throw with a curved stick. They run in their ordinary long skirts, lifting them to cross a creek or waterhole.


Children's Games

Tarahumara boys - whose parents raise cattle, carve hooves of horses, burros, sheep and other animals on the ends of sticks with which they along to make tracks on the soft earth. They also carve animal heads from branches, with small twigs for horns, using those of the bull for bullfighting as they see their parents do. From pine twigs they make traps for animals, canoes, corrals with tiny animals, toy plows, wagons, and horses.

The little Tarahumara girls play at housekeeping and make mud tortillas as all the others in the country do, but they are especially clever at making charming dolls of plants and sticks, and dressing them with flowers and weeds.

Both the boys and girls enjoy imitating their elders' drinking feasts, so they pretend to serve corn beer to their dolls in cup-shaped stems of acorns until they get them gloriously drunk and make them behave as their parents do on such occasions.

The Tarahumaras play a game similar to patolli, which they call quince, or fifteen. They use four sticks of equal length, inscribed with marks for indicating their value, which serve the same purpose as dice but are thrown differently and counted in accordance with the way they fall. The one who passes first through the figures outlined by small holes wins. Quince is a popular game because it is complicated and accompanied by heavy betting. A man may go on playing it for days if he can afford it. He may lose everything he owns but he does draw the line at his wife and children. Gambling debts are paid scrupulously.

Another game requiring holes in the ground, called cuatro, or four, is also played by the Tarahumaras. In this one two players throw disks, made of old pot sherds or stones which are ground into shape, from three to four inches in diameter and one thick. The holes, just large enough to admit the disks, may be from twenty to one hundred feet apart. Two men play on each side. A disk that falls into the hole counts four points; one near it, one point. The game is played up to ten points or over.


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