Monday, 16 March 2015

Ultra Caballo Blanco 2015, MEXICO : 70km


- The race that never started due to drug cartel violence -





The Background of the Race:

Ultra Caballo Blanco is an event taking place in one of the remotest places on earth, the Copper Canyon in North Western Mexico. It was the dream of Micah True (later nicknamed ‘Caballo Blanco’ – White Horse), who had spent several years living and running with the local indigenous Tarahumara (originally known as Raramuri – The Running People), well known for their endurance capabilities. He envisioned the race as a way to support these native people (in the form of vouchers providing maize, beans, rice, flour and non-GMO seed corn) and to encourage them to have fun, run freely, and maintain their running traditions.


A group of Raramuri men in their colourful costume 

In 2009, Caballo Blanco became the central character in a book written by Christopher McDougall titled ‘Born to Run’. All of a sudden, the humble race discovered by Micah at the bottom of the canyons surged in popularity within the international and Mexican running community, attracting many runners from all over the world to brave the arduous journey to the little town of Urique, where the race is held, and to share the spirit of ‘RUN FREE’ as envisaged by its creator.

In Memory of Mich True
at the town centre of Urique

Unfortunately, in 2012, and only few days after the end of the 10th Edition of the Ultra Caballo Blanco, Micah died unexpectedly while he was out running in the wilderness of New Mexico. A report of this truly sad incident was published by the New York Times and can be viewed here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/21/sports/caballo-blancos-last-run-the-micah-true-story.html?pagewanted=all 

Despite his untimely demise, the race continued to take place annually. It was the very idea that participants of the race will help support and contribute to the welfare of the Raramuri that made me decide to register for the 13th edition of the race. I have to be very honest and clear about one thing before I continue further – I was attracted to the race solely on its social and geographical background more than anything else and of course, like many others who have read the book, I was certainly very curious to find out how true and accurate is the proclamation by the author of their “superhuman” performance in running.

The Journey:

Like we have always done with all my races around the world, our journey to the Canyon in Sierra Madre for the race was combined with a lot of sight-seeing and adventures. We first visited Baja California Sur, stopping at La Paz for some sea adventures before driving southward to visit Todos Santos and Los Cabos (Cabos San Lucas). 

After having spent a week in the region, we took a 7-hour cruise in a ferry from La Paz to cross the  Cortes Sea, where we arrived at the Topolobampo port on mainland Mexico. We then took a short taxi ride from there to Los Mochis, where we boarded the famous ‘El Chepe’ (Chihuahua Pacific Railway) train the following morning at 6am. We travelled through picturesque landscapes of fertile valleys, pine forests and high desert for the next 8 hours before we arrived at a little town called Bahuichivo. 

El Chepe train

View along our train journey

View along our train journey

View along our train journey

View along our train journey

We stayed at a fabulous ranch (Paraiso del Oso – Paradise of Bear) in Cerocahui, located in a beautiful part of the countryside with endless options for run and hikes in the nearby mountains. Diego, the owner of Oso, an American by birth who had married a local woman and stayed in the area for more than half his life, turned out to be our Guardian Angel in the Canyon for the rest of our stay, providing us with accommodation, food, transfer, advice and sharing with us his personal and regional stories about the local community there.

The beautiful Paraiso del Oso

The village of Cerocahui

Trekking at Cerocahui

Enjoying the beautiful nature of Cerocahui

Enjoying the beautiful nature of Cerocahui

The view of Yogi Bear from Diego's Paraiso del Oso (can you spot me?)

Now, can you spot me better :-)?
After 3 days in Cerocahui, we headed down for Urique, a town of 1,600 people situated at the bottom of Copper Canyon (the deepest in North America) and surrounded by imposing mountains, with a river snaking through the town centre. It took us about 2 hours of scenic drive with open view to the Canyon and the mountains before we finally arrived at this isolated place. 

The view of Urique on our way down


The Town of Urique:

Thursday, 26th February 2015

As soon as we have settled our luggage at Hotel Paraiso Escondido, we headed straight out to explore the town of Urique. From the very start of our exploration, we were struck by 2 things which we had not expected from the town - the amazing aromatic perfume emanating from the blossoms of orange trees which lined the dirt roads and the appearance of wealth, judging from the residents’ houses and big cars. Huge, polished, 4WD vehicles were parked in front of immaculately tendered houses and well-dressed children can be seen playing happily on the streets. What added to our confusion was the physical appearance of the residents – they looked completely Caucasian to us. We found ourselves asking, were we really in the Raramuri Land as depicted in the book? 

Main street of Urique

Colourful mural on one of the walls in Uriique


The river running through Urique

The scheduled itinerary as planned by the Race organizer for this evening, ie. a group dinner at Entre Amigos and a private viewing of the movie, “Run Free - The True Story of Caballo Blanco” were both cancelled. With nothing much to do, we retired for an early night.

Friday, 27th February 2015

We decided to take an early afternoon stroll along the river from the town centre up to Entre Amigos (a camping ground favoured by most international runners) and back. It was a hot afternoon and we were the only ones strolling along the deserted stretch of road, still enjoying the fragrance from the orange blossoms. While we were half-way through our walk back towards the direction of town, we were jolted by a wailing siren sound from behind us and we quickly stepped aside. An ambulance sped past us in neck-breaking speed, escorted closely by a huge 4WD vehicle with about 5 men inside, all their faces covered by balaclavas, all holding intimidating-looking riffles, jutting out from the cars’ windows!!! Being totally na├»ve (and now we know, ignorant), we thought someone important had got hurt and was therefore being rushed to the local Medical Centre by an army of protection officers. Hannisze has even joked to me that I should run after them to see whether I can in any way offer my medical services to the hurt person.

It was not until later when we related our encounter to Diego that we were informed that the balaclava-covered men that we saw were not protection officers but men from drug-related gang!! Strangely enough, even after finding out this fact, we had no fear of our safety in the town. Perhaps ignorance really is bliss. We believed that if we are not related to the business of these people in any way, no harm will befall us unless if it is a stray bullet. What would they benefit from hurting or killing us? That was precisely our thinking at that time. Simultaneously. 

Our sense of adventure led us to the discovery of another eerie fact, which at that point of time, did not dawn upon us at the slightest. Having a whole afternoon free and with nothing much to do, Hannisze came up with a brilliant idea to rent a quad bike from the owner of our lodging, in order for us to discover some parts of the route that I will be running and she will not be able to reach.

Rafael, the owner of our lodging, readily agreed and with a few simple instructions, we were off for our adventure, riding into the unknown trails of the Canyon. What a moment that was!!! We first rode up to a Raramuri village called Guadalupe and then returned to the town centre to ride up the other direction towards another village called Guapalayna. On our way there, we met, for the very first time after arriving in Urique, throngs of Raramuri people making their way for the race from their various villages.

Going through the last few tips with Rafael before setting off

Exploring Urique on a quad bike!!

Beautiful Urique

Beautiful Urique

Beautiful Urique

Raramuri families descending into Urique for the race

Beautiful Urique

Beautiful Urique

When entering Guapalayna, we found it to be eerily quiet and a very sombre and solemn mood seemed to be enveloping the whole village. No one seemed to be on the streets and Hannisze mentioned that all of them seemed to have gathered in one of the big houses there, all of them looking very sad and solemn, as if they were attending a funeral. Of course, again, this did not mean anything to us at that time…

The very quiet street of Guapalayna
Guapalayna

Guapalayna

We rode on only as far as the bridge at the far end of the village. The terrain became incredibly steep after that and although I was prepared to ascend the slope, Hannisze said that we ought to head back as she was afraid that we might not have enough gasoline, since we were not able to fill up as Rafael had advised us earlier, because the only gas station in the Urique was not opened when we stopped by.

After stopping at the bridge to take some photos, we headed back to Urique. We met more and more Raramuri on our way. Riding up and down the trails with such spectacular views at every turn made me really excited and I was really looking forward to running with the Raramuri on Sunday!! 

View from Guapalayna

Raramuri families descending into Urique for the race




View from Guapalayna

View from Guapalayna

Raramuri families arriving at Urique for the race


In the evening, Hannisze and I walked to the scheduled pre-race meal at the Las Delicias Camp. According to the organizer’s itinerary, this was supposed to be “an informal meal, a time (for international runners) to share a meal with the Raramuri.” To our disappointment, there were only a handful of international runners there when we arrived. None of them was having a meal with the Raramuri. They were standing there just looking at them eating. I proceeded to join the queue for food and had some of the bean soup which they were having. No one from the organization was there to promote any interaction between the Raramuri and us. We spoke to a few of them and left about 30 minutes after. 

The hanging bridge leading to Las Delicias Camp

The hanging bridge leading to Las Delicias Camp
Food being cooked at the camp

Me joining the queue for food

A rare smile from the Raramuri - Hannisze always has her way to make people smile :-)

Later that night, all of us gathered at the town square for the first premiere of the movie, which was cancelled yesterday. It was such a joy for us to finally meet so many people gathering together for the big day!!! At that moment, nothing seemed to be able to interrupt this bliss and moment of euphoria. We realized that we were achieving another dream of ours and soon, I will be running with the Raramuri…!


Saturday, 28th February 2015

“La Corrida de Los Caballitos’’ (The Run of the Little Horses), started in memory of Micah True, to encourage the young ones to follow in the running footsteps of their elders, was scheduled for today. The main road of Urique was literally blocked by hundreds of kids, all wearing the same blue t-shirts, waiting to compete in different distance races based on their age group. What a joy it was to watch all these kids trying to give their best – their facial expressions say it all. It was funny to watch the younger ones (who probably did not even know why they were there), being led by their parents and coaxed to run, and some being practically pulled to the finish line, almost breathless and looking bewildered!! All of them received their goodies upon completing the run - a shirt, a medal, and a bag with school supplies. It was such a joyous occasion for everyone who was there.






Me (far left), running along with the kids


The happy kids posing proud with their medals

After the Kid’s Race, we went to collect my race number (055) and t-shirt at the registration booth. All the Raramuri and foreign runners alike came out in full force and everyone looked really excited and happy to be there.

**I remember telling Hannisze that the Number 5 has always been my unlucky number and I have got not 1, but 2 of them this time!! She told me not to be so superstitious and that my number added up to 10 and therefore, was not unclucky!**




Having done that, we proceeded to the nearby Restaurant Linda to have our lunch and met Diego there. While we were busy chatting with him, a few very serious-looking people from the race organization came up to us and asked whether they could speak to Diego privately. At that time, the eatery was full with runners, Mexicans and a few foreigners like us. After a short while, Diego came back in and said ‘cancelada la carrera’ (the race got cancelled) to a group of his friends nearby.

We got a shock and I ran up to him and asked him what had happened. With a very sad face, he told me that he had just been informed by the organizer that the race on Sunday will be cancelled. The organizer was seeking his help with arrangement of transportation to evacuate all the foreign runners out from Urique the following morning and the announcement of the cancellation will be made to all of us very soon.

We could not believe our ears and we came out of the restaurant and started asking all the people we met whether they knew anything about this. We found everyone to be equally confused. Diego had told us briefly that he was informed by the organizer that it has to do with security issues due to the ongoing flights between drug-related gangs but beyond such general explanation, none of us had any idea of the extent of what had actually happened. In our minds at that time, the event that had happened must have been so serious that it had NEVER HAPPENED before in the past 12 years (when previous races had been successfully held without any untoward incident), for it to have led the organizer to come to such a drastic decision.

That evening, all the runners gathered at the town square for the scheduled Pre-Race Festival. By the look of the joyful faces among the crowd, we realized that not all of them have any idea of what was to be announced by the organizers. After a joyful start where the runners were seen holding up cards with names of their countries and states (for the Mexicans), the atmosphere turned quiet and sombre when Josue (the Race Director) finally announced the cancellation of the Ultra Caballo Blanco 2015. There were look of shock and horror on the faces of those who did not know already of this fact.


Entertainment before the announcement

The happy faces before the announcement

Representatives from Batopilas - the village where the first race started

The happy faces before the announcement

The happy faces before the announcement

Announcement of the cancellation in Spanish
The sad & shocked faces after the announcement
The sad & shocked faces after the announcement

The main reason given for the cancellation was the fact that a series of violent confrontations and fights between rival drug cartels had happened in areas surrounding Urique just days leading up to our arrival there. Due to the seriousness of these events, Josue informed us that the organizer is concerned about the security of the runners on the course tomorrow. They do not want to send runners out there when they cannot guarantee our safety, he added. He also said that all of us should evacuate from Urique the following morning by 8am. He said the organizer has arranged transportation with the local providers for this purpose and advised us to get ready to leave.

Of course Josue did not give us the gory details of the events which had happened. Perhaps there were too many incidents to tell or perhaps he did not want to scare us more. Whatever his reason(s) for not doing so, the message was clear. There was to be no race tomorrow because of security reasons. We were all to collect our medals and leave town tomorrow morning.

The same announcement made by Josue in English was later made in Spanish by the town’s Director of Tourism, Cecelia Villalobos. As she was doing so, I watched the faces of all the Raramuri runners who had gathered there. It was impossible to guess what they were feeling after hearing this unfortunate news. They looked on at Cecelia with unchanged expression. I only wish I could crawl into their minds to find out what they were really thinking.

All of us seemed to respect and accept the decision without much questioning. We did not see any confrontation. Runners queue solemnly to receive their medals systematically and the evening continued with cultural dances presentation from the local groups as if nothing had happened.





   

We left the square to go back to our room to pack our belongings for our early departure the following morning. By this time, I was feeling really very down and resigned. It did not occur to us then to find out EXACTLY what had happened in the surrounding areas. I guess it just did not matter. It was, like Josue had said, not safe and therefore, there will not be a race. Everyone was going to leave Urique tomorrow, us and the Raramuri alike.

After having packed our belongings, we ventured out sadly to look for Diego at Restaurant Linda to confirm our transportation out from Urique to Chihuahua the following morning. He told us to get our luggage ready and be there at 8am for the planned evacuation.

We were walking towards Mama Tita’s for dinner when we met Josue, who seemed to be in a hurry when he turned to say to us something to the effect of: “They have made the decision without consulting us. We did not sanction that. We have nothing to do with it.”  We were totally confused by what he had said but before we could ask him what he meant, he had walked off in a hurry. Totally uncharacteristic of the often calm, wise, and gentle Josue, we said to ourselves and thought nothing about it.

We shared a table at Mama Tita’s with some Mexican runners and started sharing our disappointment and sadness of having to leave without running the race. All we have managed to find out at that stage was, there have been some kidnappings and murders going on in the neighbouring village of Urique among the rival drug cartels. Hannisze then reminded me of the funeral we saw in Guapalayna and we began to wonder whether the deceased was involved in it. And to think that we have ignorantly ventured so far into the troubled areas with our quad bike!!

We were still in the midst of our beef spaghetti when Mama Tita’s granddaughter, Samantha, came over to inform us that she had heard that the race will go on tomorrow. We were completely shocked and speechless!! She told us that the Municipality of Urique has decided to take over the race and they had just made the announcement at the square. What Josue had said to us earlier began to make clear sense at that moment. We were so excited with the news and asked the Mexican runners at our table whether they will run it and without stopping a beat, they said in unison, “Of course!!”

Our spirits was immediately lifted. I ordered more spaghetti from Samantha. Yes, I told myself, as I pushed spoonfuls into my mouth, that I will need more pasta if there is a race for me to run tomorrow. I was so excited that I will get to run with the Raramuri that I had completely forgotten about the security issues which was raised by the organizer earlier.

We rushed to the square immediately after dinner and found that a large group of people had already gathered there. They had already heard the announcement earlier. Some of the Mexican runners were asking questions to the representatives from the Municipality on stage. We did not understand much and started asking an English-speaking Mexican nearby many questions: Whether he will run the race (Yes, definitely!!), Whether the Raramuri will run the race (Of course! That was why they were here for), Is it really safe? (Drug war has been going on here for the past 12 years and the past races went on, didn’t they?).

I was getting extremely excited by now. Why are the Raramuri not leaving Urique like the foreign runners? Why are they staying to run the race? The only realistic answer I can come up with is that they have come to run for the food vouchers. For the fastest few, they were eyeing for the prize money, which can sustain them for a long time. If they had been given their food vouchers like we foreigners had been given our medals without running the race, would they have evacuate Urique the following day like all the foreign runners? Most probably they will, I think.      

A difficult decision to make:

We found ourselves facing a totally unexpected turn of events. We have travelled so many thousands of kilometres and faced so many unpredicted travel hiccups along the way (losing  a MacAir Notebook, cancellation of our initial El Chepe train jouney - which resulted in a domino-effect chain of nightmarish last-minute changes and cancellations of our subsequent travel plans involving ferry and plane and losing nights at booked hotels) to reach Urique, in our quest to finally achieving our dream of running with the Raramuri (for me) and photographing the event (for Hannisze). Was it all never meant to be?

The main square was by then buzzing with both excitement and confusion at the same time. A representative from the Municipal has just made the announcement that they will change the course of the original Ultra Caballo Blanco to avoid running the section from Urique to the troubled areas of Los Alisos, which is the village after the steep climb which we have abandoned on our quad bike in Guapalayna just the day before??!!. To make up for the mileage (which in the end added up to 70km instead of the original 80km), we will run from Urique up to the Raramuri village of Guadalupe Coronado where we will turn around and run back down before climbing another 600m up Naranjo on the other side, descend and continue into Urique. We are to do the loops twice.

The speaker was now reassuring us that we will be safe to run because truckloads of army officers and extra policemen will be brought in before the race tomorrow to protect us. Moments of chaos followed this announcement. The American runners refused to run the altered race, a view shared by most of the international runners. Even some Mexican runners were adamant to leave next day and not run the race (Oh! I KNOW my country better than you. I WILL NOT risk my safety). Many of the Mexican runners were now raising their voices to those on stage and were arguing and asking the Municipal representatives, expressing their doubts as to  how safe it can be for a race to be held under these circumstances. 

We were informed by the representatives that only the Raramuri have decided to run the altered race. According to them, there will be around 400 of them standing at the start line tomorrow, doing what they have done all their life - RUN. 

We were faced with a very difficult situation and need to make an important decision. I completely understood and agreed with all the safety and security issues raised by the organizer and I knew that the “assurances” given by the Municipal representatives were not concrete guarantee to our safety if we choose to run. You know, it was one of those usual mumbo-jumbo talks that politicians say in order to pacify you or make you happy when in actual fact, these “assurances” were all made to protect their own interests.

I also knew that the whole town was very concerned about the reputation of the Ultra Caballo Blanco and they will fight tooth and nail for its continuity because the event and its participants bring about a big chunk of income to the town’s revenue. Everyone in town seems to benefit from this race every year. The transportation agents, restaurants, hotels, guesthouses and street vendors. Even the Raramuri venture out from their scattered villages into Urique to race, knowing that upon completing the race, they will be provided with precious vouchers for corns, beans, rice and flour, which are all crucial for their ongoing fight with bad cultivation due to drought.

Should I stay or should I go???  That was a big dilemma for me…

After weighing all the pros and cons, and after discussing at length between ourselves, we finally made the decision to stay and Hannisze supported my decision whole-heartedly to run the modified race with the Raramuri!

The race will certainly NOT be the Ultra Caballo Blanco which I had come all the way to run, but it will give me the opportunity to run TOGETHER with the Raramuri, which was the MAIN reason I registered for the Ultra Caballo Blanco in the very first place.

Obviously, even after having decided to run, I still had some concerns and reservations of how safe it was going to be for me to be out there on the course, but in the end, I told myself, “RUN FREE” means doing what I am passionate about and what I love, beyond reasons and stereotypes. If the Raramuri are running tomorrow in order to get their food vouchers and prize money, I will run with them. I will not leave them to run on their own while I evacuate from the town simply for my own safety.

The difference in opinions:

Now, this is where opinions differ and the issue of “why-i-run” and “why-i-don’t-run” become a matter of debate among some. For members of a group who called themselves the Mas Locos (Very Crazy) [a club set up for those who participated in the previous Ultra Caballo Blanco, which include all the key people from the organizer of the race and its US-based supporters], abstaining from running the race is a show of unity to protest against violence against the people of the area and the helpless Raramuri. They have been extremely critical and judgmental against those of us who ran the altered race (we have been accused of “promoting and self-glorifying” ourselves) because according to them, to run a race in such circumstances was to go against their “common values of sharing, respect, compassion and peace”.

I TOTALLY disagree with them. This group, to me, is akin to a spiritual cult-like group, who all look up to Micah’s girlfriend, Maria Walton, as their “spiritual” leader. Their Facebook (they are a Closed Group – you will need the administrator’s approval before you can be added as a member) states their tradition as this : “once you become a Mas Loco, an animal name, or a name derived from nature, is picked for you by Maria Walton”, who herself is called La Mariposa (The Butterfly). They take great pride in their values in promoting Sharing-Respect-Compassion-Peace (as if other runners in the world do not uphold these very obvious principles) and promoting the mantra ‘RUN FREE’ (again, how many runners in this world do not run free?) 

For me, (and note that I am making this decision as a mature, independent, rational, thinking adult), if gang-related criminality is trying to suppress the Raramuri and to prevent them from their only chance to be at the centre of the stage once a year by doing what they do best, ie. Running, WE, the international runners, SHOULD defend them and stay to support them, running TOGETHER with them, through the same violent and dangerous trails which they have to pass through daily in their lives for their survival.

We SHOULD show them that this peaceful event which brings together and connects thousands of people from all walks of life, from all over the world, SHOULD NOT be stopped as a means of PROTEST against any sort. As we were made to understand when the announcement was made by Josue, the Ultra Caballo Blanco 2015 has to be cancelled due solely to safety and security issues. This, coming from an organizer’s perspective is totally understandable, as their responsibilities towards the well-being of the participants are very high and the consequences of any untoward incidents, if they should happen, will totally destroy the future of the organization. 

Despite that decision, however, all of us runners will have the free will to choose whether we are to run the modified race or not once the organizer has relinquished their responsibilities through the official cancellation of the race. Under these new circumstances, if anything should happen to us while we are out there on the course, it will be our own damn fault and not the organizer’s.

Based on these thoughts, I therefore find it very amusing that some members of the Club Mas Loco had made comments on social media to explain their “noble” attitude in NOT running the modified race and declaring (clearly as an afterthought) that they did so as an act of promoting peace and protesting against violence in the area. I would have kept quiet about their self-promotion and glorification (to borrow their own words) if they had not turn around and criticized and judged all of us who stayed and ran. But they did. And they did it in a brutal way too, by leaving negative remarks not only on their personal blogs, but also on postings of happy photos of the runners who ran!! That, to me, was really unnecessary and insulting to all of us who had stayed to run.

Take note also that these very noble-sounding declarations were not given as reasons for the cancellation of the race in the first place. Read again the Bold and Underlined phrases above and tell me, how can leaving town and not running with the Raramuri help to “promote peace and protest against violence”? Haven't all the past 12 races been run exactly for the same purposes? To show solidarity with the Raramuri against their violent living conditions? 

I am a simple man. I do not proclaim to uphold certain virtues or values like some people do. I am a doctor by profession. But I am a passionate runner first and foremost. I did not come to Urique to join any spiritual group or to get an animal name. I came to Urique to run with the Raramuri. Not necessarily in a race, but just to run with them. If they run, I run. It is as simple as that. And so this was the decision I made on Saturday evening, 28th February 2015, just about 7 hours before I ran the modified race – the one which was supposed to be the 13th Edition of the Ultra Caballo Blanco. 

Sunday, 1st March 2015

The race:

After a tormented sleep, with all the kinds of thoughts storming through my mind, I was finally at the start line with about 400 Raramuri runners, some Mexicans and a handful of international runners. The race was scheduled to start at 7am and Hannisze was supposed to take photos at the start before heading off to tell our friend, Diego, that we will not be leaving town with him on that day. To our surprise, we saw him at the start line and he told us that he has had second thoughts too, and instead of leaving town with his entourage, he has decided to postpone the trip to the following day. He was so happy to see us there and was overjoyed to see that I had made the decision to run!! Diego has lived and spent a big part of his life in this area and his presence there at the start line gave me an unspoken assurance that all will be fine. 

Me & Diego
Tarahumara -vs- Hokahumara 
  
After having read previous blogs regarding how fast the Raramuri often start their race (the speed of running in a 5k race!), I was determined to take it easy and keep my own pace, even after being overtaken by dozens of them who promptly disappeared from my sight.

Before coming to Urique, I have checked the 2014 results and was surprised to find out that Carlos Sa, one of the best Ultra runners with podium wins in Badwater, Marathon des Sables, and Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, only managed to finish in the 11th position at last year’s Ultra Caballo Blanco! This has definitely brought down my own expectations and using that as a comparison benchmark, I made a target for myself and agreed that finishing at the top 20 will be a big achievement for me….!

The atmosphere at the start line was electrifying. It looked almost like a Fun Run, but I can assure you that it was not!  Due to the route changes, I was told that we ran a harder course than the original one, despite it being 10km shorter.




We left Urique and before long, were climbing up to the village of Guadalupe, where we turned around and ran back down again. On my way back, I was able to see what was happening in front of me. We then had to start up a steeper and longer climb up Naranjo on the other side and down again before running back into Urique. These loops were to be done twice before finally ending in Urique.

The original course map of the
Ultra Caballo Blanco

After the first climb to Guadalupe, I was around the 40th position. I saw dozens of Raramuri, wearing only their rubber sandals and colourful native costumes, pushing themselves beyond their limits. I observed their way of running and realised that the only chance for me to overtake some of them will be along the steep descents. Due to their precarious sandals and the rough terrains, I reckon that they will be struggling to run fast downhill, compared to the advantage I have of running in my Hoka, where I can manoeuvre over sharp rocks and loose stones with not much problem. Running back to Urique for the first time, I found myself to be around the 20th position. I was still feeling alright to push harder and hoping to overtake a few more runners ahead of me.

Coming into Urique after the first loop

Climbing up to Guadalupe for the second time, I was able to see the top runners ahead of me, and I admired and marvelled at their fast and light run. I noticed to my surprise, however, that most of the top 10 runners were running in cushioned shoes instead of sandals! After having read and heard all about the benefits of barefoot running and the "demonization" of cushioned shoes, it was indeed amusing for me to discover that some fast Raramuri runners have now been converted to using cushioned shoes instead.

Ranulfo Sanchez (the subsequent winner/also winner of 2014),
a Mexican from the state of Puebla,
being chased by a group of strong Raramuri, most of them wearing shoes  

The leading pack of Raramuri runners

One of the top 10 Raramuri runners opting for shoes

Miguel Lara, winner of 2011 and runner-up for 2013,
also opted for shoes 
Having said that, there were still many Raramuri runners ahead of me running in their homemade sandals. These sandals were basically made from tire treads base which was then kept secured to their feet by leather straps wrapped around their ankles from the base between the toe and second toe. During the race, I would see many of them stopping at the side to fix their sandals, when the leather straps had come loose or cut into their skin.

A Raramuri in sandals running ahead of the winner, Ranulfo,
in the first loop 

Another lightning-fast one in sandals

This runner encountered problem with one of his sandals during the race

...and had to stop to repair it

My other surprise during this second climb up Guadalupe was when I spotted more international runners, whom, I later discovered, had decided to join the race after it had started, despite their concerns of safety and/or their inhibitions due to the disapproval of the Mas Locos. Among the many faces, I saw Michael Versteeg, one of North America’s strong ultra runner (he finished in the 7th position at last year’s Ultra Caballo Blanco). He had written a succinct account detailing why he had decided to run the race in his beautiful blog posted only few days after the race at : http://michaelversteeg.blogspot.co.uk/search?updated-min=2015-01-01T00:00:00-08:00&updated-max=2016-01-01T00:00:00-08:00&max-results=3 

After 50km, and while I was starting the last climb (600m) to Naranjo, the heat became really strong and my quadriceps started giving me signs of fatigue. Struggling to keep up with 2 Raramuri runners only a few metres ahead of me, I started to get cramps! Forced to slow down and to walk fast instead of running, I reached the end of the climb after what seemed like ages, feeling completely drained. I spent 5 minutes resting and eating/drinking properly, while I watched more and more Raramuri runners coming and leaving.

The stretch of dirt track leading to the climb
up to Naranjo



After feeling much better, I headed back on the course and started to run fast to overtake a few more runners ahead of me. My pace got slowed down when I came across a convoy of about 10 huge 4WD vehicles transporting police/army officers who were sent to supervise the race. That was the only moment in the entire race that reminded me that we were running in a hostile environment where safety was not guaranteed and should never be taken for granted.

After another long downhill of almost 8km, I finally arrived at Urique for the finish. I was so looking forward to just collapsing on bed to rest. I have run for 6 hours and 45 minutes and my Garmin recorded a distance of 68km, with a total climb of 1900m. I finished in the 16th position and was satisfied with my performance despite all the suffering in my last climb. 





Me, Samantha & Akazihtli (Mama Tita's grand daughters)

Me & Hannisze relaxing after the finish

Me & Rene Dorantes, a strong runner from California

Later in the evening, we attended the Awards Ceremony at the main square, and there were more traditional dances and music presented to all who were there. The Municipal representatives were praising themselves (announcements were made to proclaim how well they had managed to handle the whole race).

The top 5 winners in the Men's Category. Far left is German Silva,
2-time winner of New York Marathon and a Mexican Olympian, who graciously
relinquished his winning to the Raramuri runner who finished 6th.

The top 5 winners in the Womens' Category. Second left is a runner
from Czech Republic, who graciously relinquished her winning
to be distributed among the Raramuri.

Everyone who was present seemed to be happy and judging from the atmosphere, it was as if there were no security or safety issues at all. When quizzed about this, a Mexican friend told me, this is how the local people live and deal with surrounding violence. Once the ‘storm’ dies down, everyone comes out from his/her shell, acting as if nothing has happened at all. Otherwise, they will not be able to live their lives and will be constantly in fear, mourning or depression. What kind of life will that be?  

The morning after the race : Raramuri queuing up for food

The Government Army distributing food to the Raramuri

The presence of armed security was obvious

Our van being loaded for us to leave Urique

Epilogue :

**After leaving Urique, the true extent of the atrocities which had happened there and its surrounding areas finally came to our knowledge through various reports from the local (and international) media. We have not bothered to put down all the unconfirmed statements made on social media and those told to us by the locals because that will actually lead to pages and nobody will ever dare to venture down to the Canyons again!!

* The bodies of 2 police officers were reportedly found 20km outside Urique 3 days before the race. 3 bodies were also  found in a burnt car just several miles outside Urique.

* Josue told Trailrunner.mag.com that he witnessed a truck of heavily armed men storming the local police station 2 days before the race, disarming several police officers and dragging them away. He also saw a local woman outside the station, weeping audibly, crying out, “Don’t take him! Please don’t hurt him. He’s my son.”

* A fully-equipped ambulance and a 4WD vehicle were hijacked by one of the gangs. We can confirm that we were witnesses to this event (on Friday afternoon  - 2 days before the race).

Had we known all these before the start of the race, would I still run with the Raramuri? The answer is simple: I will still run. Because at the end of the day, it all boils down to security issues and I have already decided on that - if the Raramuri run, I will run too. I do not believe that the drug gangs will randomly target runners, Raramuri and foreigners alike. They obviously knew who they were looking for.

All these drug-related violence did not just happen overnight. It has happened long before Caballo Blanco arrived at the Canyons. The races have been taking place for the last 12 years because the gangs allowed them to – make no mistake about that. They will have no reason to disrupt it this year unless someone in the organization has upset them and if we stay out of their way.

To reinforce my opinion on this, the New York Times reported on 6 March 2015 :

“It was always Caballo Blanco’s fear,” Will Harlan, the former winner of the 2009, said, referring to (Micah) True. “The year I won, the reporters asked about violence, and he said, ‘Don’t tell them that it’s scary here because then no one will come, and the Tarahumara will be left for dead in a war zone.’ ”

What made me go all the way to the Cooper Canyon to meet the Raramuri people was not the now famous book (that I have only read after booking our air tickets and paying for the race registration) and certainly not the idealised/cult "RUN FREE" message, presented by a small group of people. As a runner and a passionate traveller, I was interested to get to know the Raramuri people and to find out how true it is, this rumour regarding their “superhuman” performance in running.

Having interacted with them at the Canyons, we discovered their personality traits (extremely shy) and communication problems (most of them do not speak Spanish but only their own dialects). We also came across one of the gentlest and humblest people we have ever met, full of dignity and respect. Despite my personal belief that they have been presented in a very exaggerated way as “superhuman” when it comes to running, some of them definitely are really fast and run in a very light and natural way.

I also found out that for the majority of the Raramuri people, a fast and long walk is part of their daily life - to get somewhere, to visit family, to gather food and water. When I asked them how many hours/what is the distance they train per day, none of them can answer me. Many just told me that they walk for 7 hours or so a day. Only very few of them have the privilege to run and train for specific races like the Ultra Caballo Blanco, which offered an exorbitant prize money ranging from USD 1,500 to USD 5,000 (!!!) for the first five runners in both male and female categories separately.

Many reports on blogs and magazine articles have presented the Raramuri as runners who run races for pure joy or for other idealistic purposes like peace, harmony etc. I completely disagree with such “fantasized” projection. The Raramuri lead a very hard life in one of the most weather-unforgiving places on earth. I am certain that without the lure of food vouchers and prize money, very few of them would have walked and trekked all the way to Urique to interact with the foreigners and to run in the Ultra Caballo Blanco.

They were never bothered about competition except their favourite ball-game among their own people. If they run or walk, they do it for the same reason why some inhabitants in remote parts of Africa and Asia run or walk every day. It is a matter of survival for these people; their lifestyle and the social-geographic circumstances. We have witnessed that in many bigger towns and cities, many of the Raramuri have assimilated the modern habits in terms of diet and way of living. Modernity will one day force them to adjust in a new environment and find their new balance.



The human history has proven that nothing stay intact forever and it is a question of time before “malicious” ways of life influence and change the habit of these people. These will then force them to "disappear" or be converted into different people with different characteristics and personalities. I hope that whatever changes that will take place in the depth of the Canyons will come slow, so that there will be opportunities for more people, be they runners or non-runners, to meet these wonderful people and to remind us how pure and gentle human beings really were before so-called civilization and modernity arrived at our door steps.

**All the beautiful photos from this Blog are taken by my wife, Hannisze. More photos of other individual runners and the beautiful Raramuri people can be viewed on her Page at https://www.facebook.com/RunAndRaces 


9 comments:

  1. Nice! Thanks for share you experience!

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  2. Beautifully written! I was there and also ran. Out of all the many reports I've read, I like yours THE BEST (hands down). Thank you for taking the time and report in an objective and non-biased manner -in my very personal opinion. Chihuahua is my home state. Congratulations on having made a good choice. Great finish time too!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for your kind comment. As with all my other races, I am just speaking out my mind, without any fear or favour. I am glad to know that you made the decision to stay and run too. I think you made a good choice too!!

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  3. Argi I tremendously enjoyed your account of this trip and race. The detail and insight are fantastic and the photos from Hannisze are as brilliant as ever.

    The whole trip looks amazing: the blue skies, the mountains, the rivers and of course the Raramuri clothing. I feel that you had such an adventure and had to work so hard (through all the different trials that the journey brought) yet the reward and experience at the end of it more than made up for the difficulties. What a fantastic place to visit, to run in and to experience together.

    Your decision to run is so brave. I can't imagine being put in that position and I think my first thought would be not to race because of the danger and the uncertainty. I'm inspired that you could narrow down all the issues and worries and come to the conclusion that you love to run and running with the Raramuri was your reason for being there. I have a lot of respect for that decision and you've given me some perspective and reason to think about and understand my running.

    Finally, the insight that you provide about the Raramuri and their lives is fascinating. The book makes out that they're superhuman and yet your account seems so much more real and feasible. The Hoka versus sandal and the training versus survival brings into focus the reality of living in such a desperate place and perfectly contrasts the hardships of rural living versus racing for fun.

    Thank you and Hannisze for putting together such a detailed and beautiful report. As always I can live vicariously through your experiences and I love that!

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    1. Thanks Daniel for your very detailed comments and deep understanding of my whole experience. Combining travelling with running in different parts of this world is very familiar to both of us and you're one of the few who can appreciate the beauty from this encounter with the Raramuri. We hope to meet you again soon in one of our next adventures. Inbox me your schedule of upcoming races and who knows... you may just find this old man trying to keep up with your amazing pace!! Au revoir, mon ami !!

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  4. Hi Argi, I enjoyed reading your report and was saddened that you feel your decision was judged upon. You obviously refer - in part - to my blog post, and I want to tell you that the comments you mention were targeted at a single individual who, among other things, posted pictures of drug fields and gave very sensationalist interviews which triggered desperate messages from personal friends in the Canyons fearing for repercussions.

    Most of the posts and interviews targeted by my specific comments were since erased or removed.

    I personally will never judge your choice, or Michael Versteeg's, or anyone else's, because you have done what you felt was right. I don't have to agree with it to recognize you made a personal choice and respect it.

    I hope you bring back positive memories from the Canyons, from its people and from the travelers who go there. I'm sure our paths will cross on the trails, and hope those trails will be in the beautiful Barrancas Del Cobre.

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  5. Hi Flint,

    Thank you for taking the time to not only read my report, but to also explain about the comments you have made in your blog post. It is good to hear from you personally (and in such a clear voice) about your opinion on the runners’ choice to run the modified race.

    This, I know, is very important to some of the runners (who had run) and who want to feel welcomed in your future races, now that your organization has taken over management of the UCB.

    We have made many great friends at the Canyons, and the experience and memories we took away with us will remain as one of the highlights of our lives, despite the unfortunate turn of events. I do hope our paths will cross again on the trails and I wish you all the best in carrying on the difficult but admirable job of what Micah has started at the Canyons.

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    1. Argi, every good-willed, honest runner will always be welcome in any event Norawas de Raramuri organizes, always. We consider everyone with an open heart as a member of The Running People. This is what we share with the Raramuri and with all the other running humans of the world.

      There will be other events in the future, and these events will always be open to everyone in all equality. We exist to support and celebrate the running culture of the Raramuri, and this can be and will be done in multiple manners in the future.

      It will be great to run any - or all of those with you :)

      Kuira ba!

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