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The small plane banked steeply for a second pass, morning sun briefly flashing through the cockpit as we leveled off, the view below impossibly green, then revealing black and granite through gossamer cloud, as if we were the first to discover the twisting river and sheer cliffs far below. “See, it is as I told you,” exclaimed Ismael Torres, our Cessna pilot, “like God has taken a great axe and cleaved the Earth.”
Spread out before us as in an eagle’s eye were the legendary “Barrancas de Sinforosa,” a vast series of rugged canyons and ravines up to 6,000 ft. deep, whose slopes are clad in pine, live oak, cactus and sagebrush. These beautiful and sometimes forbidding environs, part of Chihuahua’s Copper Canyon area, are home to many of Mexico’s Raramuri people, known as Tarahumara, the “people with light feet.”
We have only 24 hours, and have come to the town of Guachochi to see one of the most remarkable races imaginable – a 100 km ultra-marathon. Driving straight out to the “mirador,” Sinforosa’s main lookout, our pickup truck bumps along a red-earth road past farm after farm, interspersed with stretches of fragrant pine hemmed in by stone walls, the air fresh and cool at over a mile high.
Withdrawing from the advance of the Spanish “conquistadores” to the mountains that now bear their name, the Tarahumara dispersed their communities but managed to preserve much of their ancient culture. They are mystics, healers, craftsmen, and expert farmers, blessed with legendary endurance, but it is hard-won, a survival skill developed and adapted over time. In these remote places, running between distant villages is an essential communication and transportation necessity. Many Tarahumara will join this marathon, and often win it.
An international group of competitors begin at 5:00 AM and will, for the next 8 to 10 straight hours, run the course: 11 kilometers from town to the edge of the canyon, descend 1800 meters along a rough trail, run along the river, ascend 1800 meters by the punishing “z” switchbacks, 11 kilometers into town again, then run back to the finish line at the lookout point. From this spectacular vantage point of the “mirador,”, it takes the mind and eyes much longer than usual to make their essential calculations, to readjust, and coordinate perception - the ravines of Sinforosa are very deep indeed, and stretch in every direction as far as we can see.
Guachochi is not a big town, and there is a feeling everyone knows each other. Long, low houses of cinder block, a hard afternoon light through the scrub pines, people’s broad, smiling faces – these are reminiscent of other high-altitude communities one encounters, on a farm in Qinghai, or in an Alaskan village.
And here, on the one night we could enjoy Guachochi hospitality, there were fine steaks on the grill, a “quinceanera,” a wedding, and a graduation ceremony all at the same venue, Saturday night cruising up and down Main Street, and the odd knot of foreigners and Mexicans in shorts and day-glo sneakers, with their headlights and hydration gear not knowing what to do until morning.
A chill in the air, and an alarm that comes way too soon – by 4:45 AM, we’re ready. Credentials are checked, number placards signed for, pre-race photographs of excited friends flash by in the pitch-black. Only the Tarahumara are completely calm, in their distinctive red headbands and long, angular white shirts knotted with beautiful braided belts. This event’s “huaraches,” or tire-soled sandals, are the same as everyday footwear. There are many female competitors, who will run fully covered, in colorful print dresses. Within a few minutes, and not much fanfare, the pack is gone, raising a ghostly dust trail out of town, along a route that would not be light for some time.
At hour four of the race, we were aloft, our careful timing intended to balance light and shadow, and avoid the dangerous rising thermals that would buffet a small craft as the sun warmed the air. For a photographer in search of perspective for the big picture, and the detail that makes a written story, this was a precious piece of the puzzle, the sky clear as we skimmed the clouds by cliff's edge, an advancing fog both burning off and still throwing into relief the highest peaks.
We would see this early morning the hopefulness of the runner’s descent into these canyons, but by the time we made it down to a precipitous wire bridge to photograph along the trail, there was a different feel entirely - thirty or so grimly determined runners were already passing us on the way up, having climbed more than 4,000 ft. in an arduous combination of hiking and running.
Around the 70 km. mark, the bridge was built to safely cross what would be a substantial waterfall in the wet season. Support teams here checked runner’s numbers, gave out fruit and energy bars, and attended with some seriousness to an injured participant, for his own safety ruling him out of further competition with an eight-stitch head wound.
What is most remarkable about this race is not just that people finish it, but that they do so as a matter of course. Vicente Gonzales has a patrician’s grace, a red scarf wrapped vertically around his white hair Indonesia-style. At the bridge, he checked in with a smile, had a sip or two of a traditional barley drink, then without further word, disappeared up the 4 x 4 road behind us. He is eighty years old.
On the trail further down, a faraway flash of color quickly materializes. Maria Isidora Rodriguez, a stoic expression on her face, is fully wrappped in a bright yellow Tarahumara dress, and quickly making her way through the boulders that frame the path. She has company, a man and two young boys in baseball caps and jeans. They do not have race numbers. In less than a minute, Ms. Rodriguez and her supportive family are out of sight again, bounding for all the world like deer through the foliage.
Jay Dunn, July 17, 2010