Running Across Borders
One man’s attempt to bring together U.S. runners and the famed Tarahumara runners of Mexico’s Copper Canyon.
Most runners have heard of the legendary runners of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. The Rarámuri, often called Tarahumara by non-Rarámuri, have been “discovered” once a decade, it seems, and are presented as an example of running purity and excellence. Most recently, Chris McDougall’s Born to Run gave them mainstream recognition. Visit the Copper Canyon and it is indeed impressive to watch them run for miles on rocky trails in huaraches made of thin leather straps and rubber tire soles. They don’t seem to care much about the celebrity status they’ve achieved elsewhere. Their lifestyle, based largely around subsistence farming and running, continues as it has for centuries.
As much as American runners might want to share a long run with the Rarámuri, visiting them is difficult, as McDougall describes in his book. And even if you find your way into the remote canyon, meeting the notoriously shy runners isn’t easy. How would you invite yourself on a run with them or be invited into their culture? Dave Hensleigh has a plan to make this happen. Working with the Rarámuri, he has created running trips to the Copper Canyon and training camps in the U.S., the first of which took place early this summer.
Hensleigh, a tall, lanky Kansas farm boy, was a high school runner with dreams of success in the mid-1960s, but says he “didn’t accomplish much.” Running was a passion though, and he spent time every April watching the Kansas Relays at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence. The legacy of Kansas running stars like Glenn Cunningham were part of his high school history class, and he watched Billy Mills and Wes Santee compete on his black and white television. And then, he stopped running.
Running didn’t become important again until his late 30s when, frustrated with his job one night, he decided to run home in the rain.
“I ran all the way home in my penny loafers. It felt so good,” Hensleigh says.
That run reconnected him with his passion and provided him a salve for bouts of depression he’d suffered since college. It also sparked a competitor. “I run to run,” he says. “I run to best my PR. I am 63, and every year I start with fresh PR marks.”
Hensleigh first visited the Copper Canyon five years ago, after retiring as a pastor. He’d dreamt of visiting it for 40 years, since hearing his brother describe a canyon larger than the Grand Canyon. Being a runner, he’d also heard about the Canyon’s famed barefoot runners.
After spending two years getting to know people in the Copper Canyon and building up trust with the Rarámuri, he opened Authentic Copper Canyon (www.authenticcoppercanon.com), a tourism company that introduces travelers to cultural experiences in the region. Whenever Hensleigh was in the canyon with a group and could sneak in a run with the Rarámuri, he would, simply for the joy of it.
Dave Hensleigh with Miguel Lara (red shirt, right) and another Raramuri runner.
Eventually, a few Rarámuri runners built up the courage to ask Hensleigh to bring them to the United States to compete against American runners. This isn’t as simple as it sounds. Many of these runners have little to no income and have rarely left their canyon, so passports and visas were needed. Hensleigh helped the runners fill out the applications and paid all the fees.
One runner in particular, Miguel Lara, a multiyear winner of the famed Ultra Caballo Blanco race, wanted to see how he’d do in American races. Hensleigh got to work on visas and was able to bring Lara and another runner to compete in Colorado’s Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile Endurance Run in 2012.
Fred Abramowitz, the race director for Run Rabbit Run, says, “Our race entrants were excited to have the Tarahumara runners in the race. Ultrarunners are a social bunch anyway and enjoy the competition. The idea that they could run with these guys was exciting.” And, Abramowitz reports, a generous anonymous donor gave $1,000 to help with the expense of bringing the runners to the race.
Before the race, Abramowitz told Hensleigh not to expect too much from the runners. “The Rarámuri don’t train,” Abramowitz says. “They don’t have a disciplined way of training; they just kind of run.”
Hensleigh admits, “The race did not go well for our runners.”
Yes, the runners got lost, ran out of energy, and generally had a poor showing. They also discovered energy gels for the first time. But, Hensleigh says, what really disrupted their race was encountering moose and elk, large animals they’d never seen before. And then someone decided to tell the Indians about bears during their nighttime run. Nervous running followed. Asked about the race, Lara didn’t mention the animals, but admitted, “It was a difficult course and I couldn’t find the trail.” He hopes to come back to “do better.”
Hensleigh viewed the bad showing in Colorado as an opportunity. He saw how the Rarámuri could benefit from running with Americans to learn about race nutrition and strategy, but he also saw how the Americans would want to run with the Rarámuri.
“I thought people would want to experience the place where the Rarámuri live and run,” Hensleigh says. “It also occurred to me that the Rarámuri would be the ideal guides, and this would be a way for them to have a good income.”
The plan has been simple and, so far, limited. Hensleigh brings small groups of American runners to the Copper Canyon and the Rarámuri guide them on runs through the steep canyon trails. Hensleigh’s goal is to increase the number of trips in order to create a sustainable income for a struggling community. And, Hensleigh hopes, these trips might foster a cultural exchange between the Rarámuri and the Americans.
Dave Ruttum, who went on the inaugural running trip to the Copper Canyon with Hensleigh, says, “Running with the Rarámuri made me fall in love with running all over again. I was running mindlessly in the winter and not appreciating my sport. The Rarámuri run with such enthusiasm that my malaise was quickly replaced with joy.”
The Rarámuri hold central a powerful belief they call korima, which, in its simplest form, means “share with me.” The Rarámuri believe that they have a right and an obligation to help each other out, to take care of each other. Dave has used that sense of korima to build his running trips.
He also used korima when designing his next idea: training camps in the U.S. He plans to bring Rarámuri runners to the U.S. for a series of running camps designed to teach them how to train and to give U.S. runners the opportunity to run with the Rarámuri. The first running camp was based near Westcliffe, Colo., at the end of May 2013. The camp was rustic, with runners sleeping in tents without running water.
To get personalized training, the Rarámuri runners arrived a few days early. They discussed race nutrition, strategy and injury prevention with Dave James, a two-time defending USATF 100-mile national champion. The following four days, American runners ran with the Rarámuri, surrounded by the spectacular scenery of the Wet Mountain and the Sangre de Cristo Ranges. After the runs, the Rarámuri introduced a few of their traditions, from tying huaraches to playing rarahipari, a running game chasing a ball.
Reed Deardorff, who attended the 2013 camp, says, “The camp provided a small window into the lives of the Rarámuri people, which was perhaps as authentic of an experience as you could enjoy without venturing into the Copper Canyon itself.”
Deardorff summed up his experience at the camp, saying, “This camp was an incredible opportunity to connect with the Rarámuri runners and share in our common passion for running. Having the American ultramarathon champion, Dave James, alongside the Rarámuri, offered an interesting blend of perspectives from two distinct running cultures and was a fantastic opportunity to improve as a runner.”
Hensleigh hopes to build the program to include six camps around the country. The next scheduled camp will be June 5–8, 2014, in Westcliffe, Colo. The next running trip to the Copper Canyon is scheduled for Nov. 19–27, 2013. Hensleigh also puts together running trips to the canyon on a custom basis, so small groups can go on their own schedule.