The reclusive Raramuri people are suddenly world-famous, thanks to Chris McDougall’s bestselling book Born to Run. The Raramuri—also called the Tarahumara—run virtually barefoot for hundreds of miles through the continent’s deepest canyons. McDougall’s book follows the Raramuri and American runners at the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, a footrace where international elite runners like Western States champ Scott Jurek race alongside the Raramuri in their native canyons.
Last February, I ran—and won—the Copper Canyon Ultra….although the real champion of the race was Arnulfo Quimare, the first Raramuri to finish. The thirty-year-old goat-herder hiked 40 miles to get to the race start and wore hand-made sandals made of used tire tread and thin leather straps. He finished only a few minutes behind me and a world-class, professional, sponsored runner from Japan.Over 225 Raramuri runners participated in the event last year.
Sharing the trail with the Raramuri was the most powerful running experience of my life. Since the race, I have dedicated my energy to helping protect the Raramuri’s ancestral land and rights—and to preserve their running heritage. A new organization called Friends of the Running-People (Norawas de Raramuri) plans to expand the number of Raramuri races in the canyons. They also will be supplying the Copper Canyon Ultra’s awards given to Raramuri participants, in the form of traditional, locally-grown maize (seed corn), dried corn for cooking, and beans, as well as substantial cash. Not only are they helping the Raramuri achieve the calories needed to continue heir running culture and sustain their small farms, but they are also fostering pride and respect among the Raramuri for their running culture.
As simple as it sounds, the race and running programs have a fundamental impact on quality of life for the Raramuri. When communities in the region see the strength and beauty of a Raramuri runner, they respond with new respect for people they have considered lower class. And when the government sees them as a cultural asset, they are less likely to neglect or pressure them in ways that place their survival in jeopardy.  Finally, but most fundamentally, when Raramuri see themselves as respected and valued, they are further encouraged to sustain their culture themselves, passing it along to the next generation.
Click here to find out more about Friends of the Running People and how you can help the world’s greatest runners stay on their feet.