Ultra Marathon Running – Term Paper
For the people to whom running is a lifestyle, ultra marathon running seems an old phenomenon, one that has been a part of daily life since its beginnings. Running more than twenty-six miles a day seems a menial task to a Tarahumara, a daily chore, while to the Americans running next to them it is an all consu ming feat. These people, known world wide as “the running indians” have recently made their appearance in the ultra world and are showing everyone how easy run ning really is for them. As they breeze by the likes of Ann Trason and many respectable others, the questions mount. Who are they and how do they run so fast?
There are currently about 50,000 Tarahumara living in the Sierra Madre Occidental in northwestern Mexico. They live in small isolated clusters with most the population concentrated in the Barranca del Cobre, or the Copper Canyon. The Tarahumara indians are part of the Uto-Aztecan indian lineage and are closely related to the Apaches of the Southwestern United States. The area of Northwest Mexico that the Tarahumara lives in is very rugged and unforgiving. The Barranca del Cobre is a chain of five very deep canyons surrounded by very tall mountains that reach almost a mile and a half above sea level. Three of the five canyons are deeper than the Grand Canyon of the United States. The area is different though because it receives much more rainfall and is covered with more vegetation. The terrain is very rugged, so much as to lead to the fact that the area has never been thoroughly mapped or explored (Lutz 66). The area is one of th e coldest in Mexico and soil conditions are very poor. It is because of this that the Tarahumara are semi-nomadic and are cave dwellers for part of the year.
The statement that, “The Tarahumara may be the finest natural distance runners in the world”, made by University of Arizona archeologist Michael Jenk inson, offers some insight into just how good the indians are at running (Lutz 21). The Tarahumara routinely run distances only covered by only the most advanced ultramarathon runners today. To these indians, running is more than sport, running is literally life. The Tarahumara live in very rugged land and travel by wagon or horses is usually impractical. Because of this, foot travel is more often than not the best option for getting from one place to another and it is usually the quickest. While on foot, the Tarahumara do not stroll from one place to their destination, running is used to perform everyday tasks. It is not uncommon for a Tarahumara to travel between fifty and eighty miles everyday at a “race” like pace.
Tarahumara running is based on endurance not speed. This fact is exemplified by their hunting practices. In order to catch such wild animals as deer, wild turkeys, and rabbits, the Tarahumara simply chase after the animal until the animal drops from exhaustion. Their hunting practices are widely known in Mexico and ranchers have been known to hire the indians to chase down wild horses . It is also said that a Tarahumara once ran six hundred miles in five days to deliver a very important message. Their endurance and conditioning has become k nown worldwide. Says Dale Groom, M.D., “Probably not since the days of the ancient Spartans has a people achieved such a high state of physical conditioning.” (Lutz 21) This phenomenon has led to the inevitable question of, “Are the Tarahumara genetically special when it comes to running?” After many scientific tests, doctors have come to the conclusion that the Tarahumara’s endurance is based more on conditioning than on heredity. Experts believe that there are two main causes for the Tarahumara’s amazing endurance; physical conditioning and cultural importance. Diet also seems to play an important role in their running. The Tarahumara diet is practically meatless and consists mostly of complex carbohydrates. They eat approximately 10 percent proteins, 10 percent fat, and 80 percent complex carbohydrate.(Lutz 30) Balanced diet is believed to be one factor behind the Tarahumara’s resiliency. The Tarahumara take cooperative farming to the extreme and agriculture is a project for the entire village.(Welker 2) They consume livestock for meat but mostly use it as a source of fertilizer. The mainstay of the Tarahumara is corn but they also eat squash, beans and chili. They also utilize all plants of the Barranca del Cobre and have even been known to domesticate some wild plants as to make them more accessible for consumption. Pinole, a fine powder of toasted corn is the most common food. Meat is rarely eaten but on special occasions they eat goat, mice and fish. The Tarahumara method of fishing is very unusual. They throw sticks of dynamite into the water to stun the fish and then dive down to collect them. If they are hunting small game, they chase after it and then throw rocks a t it. The Tarahumara is very accurate throwers and practice from childhood. These extreme eating habits seem to contribute to lower pulse rates and blood pressure. These factors may allow them to cope with oxygen debt at high altitudes, such as a mile and a half above sea level.
Running is very important to the Tarahumara culture, although there is no formal training. Quite the opposite, the Tarahumara smoke and drink before each race. While even the children participate, it is not something taught to them. The Tarahumara call themselves “raramuri” which means fleet foot or foot runner.(Lutz 33) They take great pride in their running abilities and the best runners receive great status in society. They center the entire society around their running. Says anthropologist John Kennedy, “Running is more than a game to the Tarahumara. Though obviously a pleasant diversion, it is also an economic activity, a force for social cohesion, and a channel of aggression….If this institution were removed from Tarahumara life, the total cultural imbalance resulting would be greater than if some sporting activity were dropped from our own complex culture”.(Severance 74)
The Tarahumara culture involves two very significant features that deal with running, the rarajipari and the dowerami, which are races in which people of the same sex compete. The rarajipari is for men and is the more competitive of the two. It is a race run between two teams each of three to ten men. The intriguing thing about the race is that men on the teams kick along a wooden, baseball-shaped ball as they run. Each man takes his turn dribbling the ball in a style similar to soccer and the total distance run may be up to one hundred and fifty miles. The races take place over very rugged terrain. The courses are either not marked or marked with rocks and sticks. The races are very competitive because they are run between neighboring villages and much pride is involved. Much betting goes on and cheating often takes place. There is also a lot of ritual and superstition involved during the race and in pre-race competition. Each team has there own medicine man who is responsible for conjuring up special potions to help the runners and to cast bad luck on the opposing team. Runners smoke and drink right until the day of the race. They ritualistically drink tesguino, an alcohol made of corn the night before the race. Runners often smoke a combination of tobacco and dried bats’ blood to help them run faster and keep away the other team’s spirits. The medicine man also digs up a dead person’s shin bone, crushes it into a powder and spreads it over the race course. The man’s spirit supposedly casts bad luck on the runners from the other team. Runners are very superstitious and drop out of races from fear, but never from exhaustion. Team members also avoid contact with women for several days before the race.(Lutz 21)
The women also run a similar race called the dowerami. The difference between the two races is that women throw and catch interconnected loops while they run. Most rules still apply but the women’s race is less important to their society. Both types of races are major social events and are very fun to the Tarahumara. Everyone comes out to watch and offers food to runners.(Lutz 21)
The Tarahumara are very distinct socially as well. It has been said that the Tarahumara are a “stone age” culture. This is because their culture and society has changed very little over approximately six centuries. The Tarahumara still want nothing to do with money and material things that are not important to them. Sharing is considered very noble and land sharing is common because lands rights are hereditary. The Tarahumara are a very shy, sensitive, bashful and isolated people, even within their own household. Family members only speak to each other when absolutely necessary and women are not allowed to be seen unclothed unless they are engaged in the act of lovemaking. These traits can be seen in the way that they handle major conflicts as well. When trouble arises, the Tarahumara practices passive resistance, withdrawal, and avoidance. These practices are believed to be one of the reasons that they have survived so long. ” One reason for their survival is their traditional cold-shouldering of other races”.(Lutz 22) One example of this is illustrated in recent years. The government has been illegally taking away the Tarahumara’s land to expand logging practices. In response to this, the indians simply stand idly by and let it happen and retreat further into the Barranca del Cobre into even more harsh environmental conditions. Experts believe that this attitude results largely from past conflicts with the Spanish in the 1500′s and 1600′s in which Tarahumara resistance to attempted conquests were suppressed with the massacre and enslavery of thousands of indians (Lutz 39).
Probably the most important social event in the life of the Tarahumara, aside from running, is the tesguinado. The tesguinado is a social event that takes place following the occurrence of one indian voluntarily helping another indian in some type of project such as a fence building. The gathering is a symbol of gratitude and thanks. The social event is a party that without exception in volves consuming large amounts of an alcoholic beverage. This alcoholic beverage, which is made from corn is called tesguino. The consuming of tesguino inevitably leads to a state of intoxication which. The Tarahumara consider being into xicated a matter of pride and are not at all ashamed to be drunk. The tesguinado and tesguino are a significant part of the Tarahumara culture. Says Dick Lutz , expert on the Tarahumara, “The meaning and importance of tesguino interpenetrate all major sectors of the culture and social organization” (42). The tesguina do is also important because it allows the Tarahumara to vent violent emotions and aggressions, something that would not be ordinarily accomplished in everyday life. It is said that “90 percent of all social infractions occur at the tesguinado” (Lutz 42). Things that commonly occur are fighting, adultery and occasionally murder. Even if someone commits one of these crimes, they are unlikely to suffer any repercussions. The Tarahumara simply blame anything that happens during the tesguinado on the alcohol in the tesguino. Tesguinados are very often. This is so to the point that the indians are recovering from them for approximately one hundred days out of the year.
The roots of the Tarahumara beliefs and religion are very puzzling. In the middle 1600′s Franciscan missionaries arrived in the Copper Canyon and tried to instill Christianity as the indian’s religion. The Tarahumara never fully accepted Christianity. They believed that their own views on religion were too important to just forget. Over time, the Tarahumara have assimilated bits and pieces of both religions. It is now impossible for people to find the roots of current Tarahumara beliefs. Their most important belief that has remained unchanged over the years is that God is the sun, his wife is the moon, and the Devil is the father of all non-indians. This belief is an example of the Tarahumara extreme ethnocentrism, they believe that they are a superior race and that they are more important than other people. Another non-Christian practice is the use of peyote during religious ceremonies. Peyote is a narcotic plant found in the Copper Canyon that induces hallucinogenic effects.
The Tarahumara are not very hygienic to even modern day indigenous standards. They are not very cleanly and the washing of their clothes is usually either an annual or semiannual tradition. The Tarahumara have no regular sleeping habits and simply go to sleep whenever and wherever they are tired and feel that they need rest. The practice of childbirth is also distinct to the Tarahumara. When a woman feels that it is about time for her to deliver the baby she will go off by herself into the wilderness, brace herself between two small trees and attempts to have the baby safely. There is a very high infant mortality rate among the Tarahumara. This fact is counterbalanced by the fact that there is also a very high birth rate. The average Tarahumara woman gives birth to about ten babies hoping that three or four will survive into adulthood. Adulthood is usually short for the Tarahumara with the average life expectancy being forty-five (Lutz 50). These factors are believed to help the Tarahumara survive as a race.
Tarahumara dress is very similar to many other indigenous tribes in comparable climates. During warm times the men wear a breechcloth called a zapeta used only to cover the genitalia. The women do not expose themselves and wear long dresses decorated with very detailed patterns. Women of the same village wear dresses with similar patterns and can be identified by the patterns that they wear.
Tarahumara public racing began at the 1928 Olympic marathon. The two indians that were running were not aware of the distance and when they finished, they were not tired and said, “Too short! Too short!” (Lutz 22) The Tarahumara first appeared on the Ultramarathon circuit in 1992 at the Leadville 100-mile run in Colorado. They were brought from Mexico and funded while they were here by Rick Fisher, operator of Wilderness Research Expeditions (Ramos A1). Fisher is disliked in the Ultra community because he is thought to be loud, outspoken, and rude. It is also believed that he uses the plight of the Tarahumara simply to gain attention for himself and for his organization. In their first race, none of the Tarahumara finished. In 1993, Fisher tried again but this time he familiarized the indians with the course, the equipment and the American racing customs . In 1992 the Tarahumara had many problems. First, they were unfamiliar with the course. Second, they did not know how to use the equipment. At night, they ran with their flashlights pointing up likes the torches that they are used to. Third, at aid stations they simply stood there and therefore received little nutrition and became weak and dehydrated. In their culture is not polite just to take food. They wait until it is offered. In the 1993 Leadville they fared much better. Tarahumaras took first, second and fifth place (Williams 8). The most amazing thing about the indians was their pace. The winner was fifty-five years old and only ran the second half of the race twenty minutes slower than he ran the first! Another thing that shocks the ultra spectators is Tarahumara footwear. They wear sandals called huaraches made out of old tire tread and leather straps. A Tarahumara won Leadville again in 1994. Later that same year in Utah at the Wasatch 100-Mile run, the Tarahumara were part of a controversy. Someone did not pay their entry fees so they weren’t allowed be official runners. They ran unofficially and a Tarahumara was the first to cross the finish line. This greatly upset race officials and the second person to cross the finish line had to be declared the official winner. The latest undertaking of the Tarahumara runners was at the Angeles Crest 100-mile Endurance Run this September. They did not fare well and only one of four entrants finished, in fourth place. It is believed that they went out too fast and became dehydrated .(Nazario M3)
Within the last few years the Tarahumara have come into the public spotlight. They have recently been entering ultramarathons to call attention to the problems that their people are having in Mexico. Deforestation in the Barranca del Cobre has become one of the most pressing problems for the Tarahumara. “Construction of logging roads, coupled with the thinning of the forests has led to erosion and soil depletion, which have crippled farming and livestock grazing” ( Severance 77). The increased logging is due to two major factors. One is the completion the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad in 1962. This, along with other new logging roads has made the land that the Tarahumara lives on much more accessible to modern transportation. Another reason is that the Mexican government received a 45.5 million-dollar loan in 1989 from the World Bank for a logging and forest management project. These funds have been misused though and have been put toward just increased logging. Another problem facing the Tarahumara is the presence of drug traffickers. The Barranca del Cobre is a very productive drug growing area. Drug traffickers have been forcing the Tarahumara to grow the crops of drugs, including marijuana, heroin and opium. It is estimated that seven million pounds of marijuana and two thousand, five hundred pounds of heroin are exported each year into the United States alone. They also clear land in order to have land to grow the crops. The Tarahumara provide a cheap labor supply and if they refuse the demands of the traffickers they are killed. An average of four indians are killed per week because of their refusals. (MEXDEFOR 2) In an attempt to combat the drug problem the Mexican government has been spraying a herbicide called paraquat over the fields. Paraquat rarely affects the crops but is polluting the drinking water of the Tarahumara.
Despite all of these problems, the Tarahumara are still running and will continue to do so until their extinction. They are a very unique group of people with very different ideas about the way to live life. They are a society which many can learn from, not only in the running world but in many other areas of life. The Tarahumaras should be respected for the feats they have accomplished and be left alone to live in peace.
- Lutz, Dick and Mary. The Running Indians. Salem, Oregon: Dimi Press, 1989.
- Ramos, George. “6 Racers are Running for Their Lives”. LA Times. Sept. 25, 1996, A1.
- “Mexican Deforestation in the Sierra Madre”. http://gurukul.ucc .american.edu/ted/MEXDEFOR.HTM
- Nazario, Sonia. “100-Mile Run to Agony and Ecstacy”. LA Times. Sept. 30, 1996, M3.
- Severance, Peter. “The Legend of the Tarahumara”. Runner’s World. Dec . 1993, p. 74.
- Williams, Kitty. “The Incredible Feat (Or is it feet?) Of the Tarahumara.” Ultrarunning. October 1993, p. 8