Run Like the Rarámuri: Grueling UltraMarathon Helps Tarahumara Indians Through Turmoil


Every March runners from across the world trek to the Copper Canyon in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico for a grueling endurance test–the UltraMarathon. The canyon is home to the Tarahumara Indians, also known as Rarámuri, who are renowned for their long-distance running ability and the basis of Christopher McDougall’s famous 2009 book Born to Run.

The UltraMarathon course follows a combination dirt road and single track trail beginning and ending in the plaza of the old town of Urique, running on rolling dirt road up and down the Urique river with diversions on single track trail up and down beautiful, lush arroyos. Described this way, the race sounds like a pleasant sightseeing jog. But that isn’t the case. Some might even say you need to be a little crazy to enter.

Runners must conquer a 50-mile race through the unforgiving terrain of the Copper Canyon, a remote and harsh landscape. The race consists of a 21-plus-mile loop up-river, followed by another 18-plus-mile loop down-river, then continues up-river again on rough dirt road out and back to the Tarahumara village of Guadalupe Coronado for another 10 miles, before ending in the plaza of the town of Urique. The estimated total climb is 9,300 feet, nearly two miles, in the deep canyon, with equal descent.

Ready to sign up?

Race director Micah True, famously depicted as extreme runner Caballo Blanco in Born to Run, gives the “ground rules” for the race on his website

No set entry fee---[a donation]. No [Limited] aid ---[actually , there is now plenty of aid!]. No course markings [There will be some at key junctions and we will all pre-walk the course the Thursday and Friday prior to the weekend]. No awards [but self-satisfaction]--The Rarámuri will win prize money, corn and beans. No commercial interests. [IF allowed, PLEASE give back and share the results with us]. No filming/photography without permission [which would require sharing the results with us and giving something back to the Rarámuri]. No wimps, whiners or weenies allowed [except the (race director)!] No expectations [but of beauty!]

Please realize that:

Here in the land of the Tarahumara ANYTHING is possible!

These days, however, that optimism is being tested. The Tarahumara are being hard-hit by one of the most severe droughts they have ever faced, which is causing food production in the region to drop to dangerously low levels. Many Tarahumara men, women, and children are now facing starvation. Record low temperatures have only made the situation worse. Relief organizations are mobilizing to provide urgently needed supplies.

One Heart World-Wide (OHW), a San Francisco based non-profit organization, is aiming to raise $20,000 to support the Tarahumara community during this critical moment. One Heart World-Wide currently works with the Tarahumara, implementing programs in maternal and child health. Because pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants are especially vulnerable to food-shortages, OHW immediately felt compelled to send aid. OHW is teaming up with FECHAC, a local partner in Mexico, who will be responsible for distributing aid to the affected families.

True sees the UltraMarathon as another way to help. In a recent interview with Running Times, he said (the race) “is an opportunity to help the Rarámuri help themselves. It's about the old traditions of farming and the old traditions of running and for them to know that people respect those things. … Using our race as the main stage--with smaller races among the villages on a regular basis, with prizes of cash and corn, to encourage the young ones to run, and others to run again, to remember and re-realize what a good and positive thing it is.”

The prizes of corn and crop seeds are particularly important this year, and are generously awarded. True’s website explains. At the awards ceremony, “the Top 10 Rarámuri [Tarahumara runners] will be handed huge cash awards and notice of the award of mixed corn and beans to the various settlements of the top 10 runners. The corn/beans awards at the 2010 race turned out to be the value of 120,000 pounds of corn! The cash awards were over $11,000 dollars. All finishers after the top 10 will be awarded 500 pounds of corn. Any stateside runner that finishes in the winnings will have the opportunity to present his/her prize as korima [a gift/sharing] however he/she wants, to be given/shared with the finishing Rarámuri or towns-people.”

This year’s race will take place March 4. A pre-race donation of $150 or more will reserve a spot for a runner, and a post-race donation is always appreciated, based on what the individual participant can afford and what the value of the experience was to the runner, notes the website. For those who mayn’t be up to tackling the full UltraMarathon, shorter runs will also be staged, including 18-, 20- and 40-milers. Participants who donate receive a special "CLUB MAS LOCO" T-shirt.

Crazy never felt so good.

For further details on the UltraMarathon, including registration forms, plus a wealth of information on Copper Canyon, Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara Indians, visit McDougall’s book on the Tarahumara Indians, Born to Run, is available at and bookshops nationwide.