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Six Racers Are Running for Their Lives


Tarahumara Indians enter 100-mile contest to call attention to the plight of their people in rural Mexico.

For six Tarahumara Indians, members of a tribe of legendary long-distance runners from northern Mexico, Saturday's 100-mile endurance race in the Angeles National Forest isn't just another race.


It's a run to survive.


"There's very little food, there's very little water," Tarahumara runner Madero Herrera says of his tribe's predicament back home. "There's no electricity in our community. People are hungry. People are dying."

In the last several years, the Tarahumaras have been entering 100-mile races--nearly equaling the length of four 26-mile marathons--in hopes that people will hear of their tribe's plight and donate money to ease their situation in the rugged mountains of Chihuahua state.

And they run pretty well. Victoriano Churra, a Tarahumara tribesman, won the 100-mile Leadville, Colo., run in 1993. Herrera won the same race two years ago and did well in another race last year in Utah.

Saturday's 11th annual Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run, beginning in Wrightwood, will test them and 151 other entrants who will traverse trails in the local mountains that peak at altitudes of more than 9,000 feet.

If running continuously for 18 hours or more isn't enough, the runners must survive a rise in elevation of more than 3,000 feet--at a point 70 miles into the race. "That'll be a killer for some of the runners," said event organizer Ken Hamada of Arcadia.

The run ends at Johnson's Field, near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

While others train for months for such an ordeal, the Tarahumaras don't do anything special to prepare. They already run in their home territory, located near Mexico's Copper Canyon region at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. They run to get to jobs and occasionally to hunt for food.

"Sometimes they chase after deer, and eventually [the deer get] tired from all the running and then the Tarahumaras catch them," said Richard Fisher, an Arizona author who has lived with the tribe.

University of Arizona anthropology professor Thomas Weaver, an expert on the Tarahumaras, adds: "Running is part of their life. They're accustomed to running up to 150 miles at a time."

The Indians, short and slight in stature, are different in other ways from runners who tackle the 100-milers. They forego running clothes for colorful native costumes. And no Nike shoes for the Tarahumara tribesmen. Each of them wears simple huaraches, sandals with soles made from old tires and secured by straps wrapped around the ankles.

"I wouldn't know how to run [in Nikes]," Herrera, 24, said the other day during a familiarization tour of the course. "I don't even know what they feel like."

Age doesn't seem to be much of a factor either. One of the Indians entered in the Angeles Crest run, Martiniano Cerventes, is 44.

He shrugged off a question about his age.

Like other Tarahumaras, the six here for the run are shy and did not respond quickly when spoken to. When a reporter asked them questions, they first talked among themselves in Raramuri, their native tongue, before Herrera, speaking for the group, answered in Spanish.

They speak earnestly about conditions back home. They measure distances in the time it takes them to run them.

The nearest medical clinic is three hours away, Herrera says. Some of the nearest jobs are four hours away.

Fisher, who brought them to Los Angeles to compete in Saturday's run, said he was appalled by the Tarahumaras' situation and vowed to help them. A four-year drought in their region, compounded by deforestation, has cut into the supply of their staple crop, corn. Experts estimate that because of malnutrition, the tribe, once considered one of the biggest in Mexico, with about 120,000 people, has dwindled into the hundreds in some villages where thousands once lived.

"Their situation is quite extreme," Weaver said. They subsist by growing corn and harvesting lumber in protected Indian areas. But outsiders have gone into the area to illegally cut down trees, deepening the area's deforestation and the tribe's problems.

Some say the Tarahumaras are ignored by Mexican officials. "They have been long neglected by the government," says Ramon Ruiz, a retired professor of history at UC San Diego.

Some government relief programs to help the tribe were ineffective, Weaver said, because they concentrate on readily accessible areas. The Tarahumaras live in inaccessible areas where there is no electricity, roads or telephones.

Fisher's group, Wilderness Research Expeditions, a nonprofit corporation (Box 86492, Tucson, AZ 85754), has distributed about 60 tons of food to help the tribe since 1993.

But he says that isn't enough.

So he and other like-minded individuals pool their resources to pay the $145 entry fee for each runner and to provide for food and other expenses.

While in Los Angeles, the six tribesmen are staying with local families. Fisher, who uses an aged van to drive the Tarahumaras around town, got special U.S. permission to have the Indians here for the race.

In fact, Fisher is a one-man public relations machine who can get under the skin of some racing enthusiasts. Some race directors, while admiring the Indians' running skills and deploring their predicament, think Fisher's tactics are troubling.

At the 100-miler last year in Utah, the Tarahumaras did not pay their entry fees and ran anyway, enraging local organizers. When Herrera came in first, beating the officially sanctioned winner, hard feelings developed over who really won the event.

After all, the 100-mile runners point out, they are a special breed, too.

"They're a different mind-set," says Hamada, the Angeles Crest race director and veteran of several 100-milers himself. "They're not interested in T-shirts or running in [5-kilometer or 10-kilometer] races. They want things done right because all they do is run and nothing else."

Veterans scoff at Fisher's prediction that a Tarahumara could break the Angeles Crest course record of 17 hours, 35 minutes, currently held by Jim O'Brien, a track coach at Arcadia High School. "We'll see about that," one local runner said.

Hamada is more diplomatic.

"It's fine with me" if the Tarahumaras dramatize their plight by competing in Saturday's event, he said. "They're certainly capable of winning the race."


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