Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon
- Overall Event: 4.25
- Organization: 4.0
- Aid Stations: 2.0
- Scenic Beauty: 4.25
- Overall Difficulty: 4.0
- Steepness: 4.25
- Technicality: 3.5
It was my girlfriend Yami who first told me about the book, “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. I had read a short story about the mythical Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara super athletes in some magazine but the story had only vaguely stuck with me. I remember that it seemed so far out; some crazy white dude running through the mountains and the question…was he real? Yami explained about this book telling the story of Caballo and the Tarahumara. She was telling me because of a book signing by the author at a Barnes and Noble; she wanted a group of us to go.
At the time, I was coaching a fun group of runners and a small band of us made our way to the signing. After the talk and book signing I was hooked and proceeded to devour the book. Shortly after finishing the book Yami suggested I sign up for the ultra. At the time, it didn’t register as something to seriously consider, but then a couple of months passed and she mentioned it again. It all kinda clicked; Yami’s hometown of Chihuahua was on the to Urique and suddenly I saw obtainable this could be. The race itself is a 50 mile ultra marathon with about 18,000 feet of elevation change and temperatures that easily get up to 100 degrees.
I proceeded to digest as much of Caballo Blanco’s website as I could, trying to understand the process of entering. After applying, being accepted and paying my donation, all I had left to do was train and run the race. All the other stuff such as language and travel would be smooth sailing with Yami around.
When it came time to travel to Urique, what I thought was going to be a slam dunk was anything but. Yami could not get the days off she requested so instead of kicking back and going with the flow, I know I had to be involved with my travels. Many racers chose to fly to El Paso and get shuttled in by Doug Diego (Mexican American canyon rim hotel owner) or fly to the east coast for a vacation and take the train over. I instead chose to drive from Dallas to Presidio Tx. Presidio is a small border town and I was fortunate enough to have a relative of a relative help me across. He got me checked into Mexico and onto a bus for the short two hour trip to Chihuahua (Yami’s hometown). From there her friends, all of which speak English, shuttled me around and gave me shelter until I boarded the train the next morning.
The same train runs from Chihuahua Mexico to the west coast town of Los Mochis, back and forth. El Chepe, as the train is called, crosses some of the most remote areas of northern Mexico. This remote area is the the Sierra Madres and somewhere at the bottom of that remote area was where I was heading… the town of Urique.
Once on board the train, I knew my stop was Bahuichivo; a town along the rim of the canyon with the easiest access to Urique. I was told I would find a bus waiting there when I arrived which would take me down to Urique, 6000 feet below. This ride would go approximately 20 miles and take 2.5 hours; this says a lot about the conditions of the road.
Once I got off the train the bus was nowhere to be found. Ah, Mexico, where time is conceptual and relative. Thankfully, the driver for Doug Diego’s hotel was picking up others and let me know the bus had already departed. My initial reaction was to hitch a ride into the canyon but he suggested the better/safer bet was a dorm room at the hotel. For $20 it made financial sense…I was never too worried about my safety. There were 2 brothers already in the van (the Curry brothers) who would eventually finish seventh and eighth in the race. A final person showed up, Shaun, who would become my roommate for a few days. Shaun entered on a lark; he was working a couple of canyon’s over on a mining project and had read the book. Someone in camp told him the race would be in a few weeks; he entered never having run more than 10 miles. Great guy who sees the big picture in everything, someone who wants to understand people, places, things and most of all, wants to do well for the world.
Doug Diego’s hotel was a great choice; most of the American runners had assembled there. I was able to meet some of the folks I’d be racing including Barefoot Ted (famous from Born to Run). Ted was pretty close to how the book described him. LOTS of energy. I also got to meet the mythical Caballo Blanco…Yes, he is real. He’s a down to earth dude who’s only agenda is to help the Tarahumara Indians.
Dinner was followed by a few words from Caballo and more socializing before nights end. The next day was our 18 mile hike down to the bottom of the canyon. Doug Diego shuttled our bags down in a van so the hike turned out to be a great time. We got to know each other, stopped for water at cisterns and marched quietly past marijuana fields. Along the way I met a 52 year old gentlemen dressed in tie-dye ,Patrick, who could power hike uphill faster than I could run. I also met an amazingly adventurous New Zealander, Paul, who had recently broken out a tooth in a freak hammer accident. Paul could also miraculously revive himself after runs with lots of beer.
Once in town, Shaun and I agreed to share a room until Yami arrived. We rented an absolute flea bag of a place; the door locked via a latch and pad lock. My favorite part was the key’s chain had an 8 ball at the end. This was the room I thought I had reserved; a day later we figured out this was the father’s hotel and the son’s hotel (both gentlemen have the same name) was across the street. We promptly moved hotels because the son’s hotel was 10 times better. The only downside was I no longer got to see the goat being butchered in the morning.
The next two days were for orientation hikes. There are a lot of roads that make up the course along with many trails. The orientation hikes helped you to get to know your turns and the terrain.
As for me, I got sick from something and skipped most of the hiking. Some folks choose not to hike as well, and other than the feeling crappy, I got to enjoy mingling with the cast of characters that had assembled. There was certainly a diverse crowd and everyone was great fun.
The town of Urique itself is owned and controlled by Mexicans, not the Tarahumara Indians. I didn’t enjoy this at all. Our understanding, and confirmed by our observations, is the town does not support the Tarahumara in any way. The town embraces the race because they gain from it and not an altruistic venture on the towns part. Caballo on the other hand is very altruistic.
The night before the race the town held a large celebration in the middle town square. There was head table and many Mexican dance performances. Huge numbers of Tarahumara gathered and watched; not a single piece of entertainment involving or symbolizing the Tarahumara was performed. You just have to put up with the politics. News reporters and awareness about the Indians is what is most important and the race does accomplish this. Besides the awareness for their plight, foreign finishers donate the corn they win back to the Indians. Also, any Tarahumara who finishes gets their own supply of corn.
Yami arrived the night before the race. Her Dad had driven her there from Chihuahua. He has a small compact car which he drove down dirt roads that break even the largest trucks. He’s fearless. Everyone wanted to know why I spoke such poor Spanish when I was dating a Mexican. Once Yami arrived everyone understood. She’s so good at the language there’s no need for me to try. I think everyone’s Spanish got worse after Yami arrived; we all turned to her for our communication needs. For example, she was our tour guide for the bus ride home; we passed questions off to her, she relayed the answers and everyone got to exactly where they needed to go. Another example related our meals. We had been eating mostly quesadillas when not eating with Caballo. She arrived and we found out the restaurant, which had no menus, offered burgers, chicken, breakfast food, you name it. Good Times!
Come race morning the weather was great. In addition to cooler temps, the first part course was generally in the shade. Keeping the heat a bay is very important in a place which quickly reaches 100. Along the course the climbs were tough as well as the descents. The smell of the marijuana was strong in some places. At our first water stop I was suspect of the water they were handing out. My understanding was it was going to be bottled water but instead I found water in small plastic bags and couldn’t determine it’s source. Not a big deal unless you get the not so friendly bacteria. Later I found one stop filling their 5 gallon (bottled water) jug with the local water. I watched as they poured from the well to fill the jug. I was so beat down that I preceded to drink away. Ah, Mexico… they will get it done even if the execution is a little off track.
Some of the roads had steep climbs and the trails certainly did. There were a few technical areas on the back side of the race and we found trails which were very dangerous if you made a wrong move. The heat and climbs took their toll on everyone. Paul had passed out at the top of a climb and was revived with grapefruit, water and tortillas… no beer around I guess. Later he showed me another missing tooth; lost after biting into a grapefruit.
I eventually called it a day around mile 35. I didn’t have to DNF but I had lost all control of my legs from cramping. In hindsight, I should have drank more water, taken more salt, slowed down and finished the walk into town. From there I could have rested, ate more and drank. Eventually I would have been able to walk the last 10 miles. This is the race where I learned about choices. The bright side was I got to watch all the winners come through. Finishers had definitely gotten a beat down. Not a lot of blood but just extreme exhaustion from the course and heat.
A Tarahumara won the men’s race and a Mexican woman won on the female side.
The morning after the race we all headed out. Yami and I got separated onto two different buses. My bus broke down but I caught a ride in Doug Diego’s van and actually made it into town ahead of the public transportation. The remaining bus rides continued to be kidney pounding until we caught a motor coach at the interstate.
Caballo and Doug Diego do everything they can to make it as simple on us Americans as they can. And they do as good a job as can be done. Doug will grab you from El Paso, get you checked into Mexico, stop to exchange money, sight-see, put you up in his nice hotel and feed you. Caballo will hike you down into town safely and you’ll find adequate places to stay. There are a couple of restaurants to select from and 4 or 5 small places to shop. The hardest part is the language barrier but that only comes into play at the restaurants and stores. If you follow the Caballo program and sign on with Doug then the hardest thing you’ll have to do is not get sick and run the race.
Most importantly, keeping the recognition on the plight of the Tarahumara is the mission.