Last weekend, organizers of Mexico’s famous Caballo Blanco ultra-marathon cancelled the race for the first time in 12 years. Violence in Chihuahua, where barefoot runners endure a grueling 60-miles on dirt trails, is endangering the future of a tradition inspired by indigenous Tarahumara runners. The tribe is also in danger, suffering endemic poverty and hunger in their own homeland.
The legendary endurance of the Tarahumara was popularized in the book Born To Run, by Chris McDougall, which is now being made into a major motion picture starring Matthew McConaughey. McDougall told an autobiographical tale of his own running injuries and his quest to discover how the Tarahumara developed the ability to run for hundreds of miles without rest or injury. Along the way he met a fellow running enthusiast named Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco, who died in 2012. Last weekend’s race was named in his memory.
Even as outsiders marvel at their running abilities, the Tarahumara living in isolated communities in the Copper Canyon remain largely ignored. This has been the case for nearly a century.
The first ultra-marathon race ever recorded in Mexico was held on November 7th, 1926. Many people rose unusually early in Mexican town of Pachuca, Hidalgo on that day, with spectators lining the streets at 3:00 a.m. Three native Tarahumaras began their run to Mexico City – 60 miles (97 km) away – to the sound of exploding fireworks while the road was illuminated by the lights of cars and motorcycles. The bells in local churches rang out along the way and the runners had bells hanging from their belts in the traditional Tarahumara style, according to local newspapers from time.
One Tarahumara dropped out halfway. As the two survivors approached Mexico City, the caravan of cars following them caused a traffic jam. The Tarahumaras arrived at Mexico’s National stadium (demolished in 1949) after 9 hours and 37 minutes of running without stopping.
Tomás Zafíro and Leoncio San Miguel became national heroes, setting an unofficial world record for the unusual distance of 60 miles. The two spoke only a little Spanish and were unable to understand everything when Mexican authorities handed out the prizes: two red silk handkerchiefs, a lot of white cotton and two ploughs.
The organizer of the first ultramarathon in Mexican history was Dr. Atl, who was one of the country’s best known artists, and a precursor to the Mexican Mural Movement launched in 1922. Dr. Atl shared a romantic vision of Mexico with Diego Rivera, and the Tarahumara runners looked much like a frame of a Rivera mural.
But the organizers had several ulterior motives for using a native tribe to demonstrate Mexican stamina and athletic skills. They were hoping that 60 miles would become an Olympic distance, preferably in Amsterdam in 1928, and that the Tarahumara might win and bring honor to Mexico.
Mexico was rebuilding after the revolution and considerable strife plagued the decade ending in 1921. The two Tarahumara runners symbolized an effort to include all the indigenous groups in the country into a new proud Mexico, one in which there would be less discrimination. The Tarahumara were ideally suited to the role of athletic supermen.
The two Tarahumara who set the 1926 60-mile record did so on a road that had just opened to motorized traffic from all over the country, and their run signaled that even the poorest could be included in the modernization process. Running might also contribute to solving the country’s problems, like the illiteracy and lack of schooling that held poor local rural communities in a merciless grip.
All this would benefit the Mexican Revolution and the president, General Plutarco Elías Calles, who believed in advancement for native peoples. Three years later, he founded the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (National Revolutionary Party, or PNR) which eventually became the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI). It was no accident that the official party line was repeated as a loop for years later, even though it wasn’t necessarily inclusive as inclusive to minorities as tried to make itself seem.
Tarahumaras received a great deal of attention for several long runs at the end of the 1920s, particularly after they brought the 60 miles time down 7 hours and 30 minutes. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would not accept the proposed distance as an Olympic event, and that same year rejected the women’s marathon. José Torres, the Tarahumara runner who dropped out of the first race, represented Mexico in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and finished in a disappointing 21st place. Runners from the Tarahumara tribe, however, retained their mythical status in Mexico despite their uneven performances in the developed world.
In the early 1930s, Tarahumara runners disappeared for decades from official athletic competitions. In the 1970s, feature stories in National Geographic and Sports Illustrated renewed their renowned status as endurance athletes.
Over these last two decades, the Tarahumara runners reappeared in international races, winning several ultra-marathons along rugged trails in the mountains of the western United States, in part thanks to American runner Caballo Blanco, as Chris McDougall wrote in his book Born to Run.
This Tarahumara success in the new extreme racing circuit created renewed interest in the mythical runners who are always living in a pendulum of attention; swinging between romanticism and neglect. Sometimes, people hold them up as national symbols. Sometimes, people just forget them.
Now the question is, how will a popular movie chose to portray the Tarahumaras? Will the reality of their current situation shine through or will they only be superficially held up as a symbol?