Photo: Scott Jurek and Arnulfo Quimare run side-by-side through the Copper Canyons of Mexico. Photo by Luis Escobar.\n\n\n\nWhat I Learned from the Tarahumara's Most Famous Runner \n\n\n\nI first met Tarahumara runner Arnulfo Quimare in 2005 right after he crossed the finish line in the Ultramarat\u00f3n Caballo Branco (80K) in Urique, Mexico. He had just won first place by outlasting American runner Scott Jurek. We sat on a bench outside Mama Tita\u2019s restaurant in the center of town right after the race. He appeared bien tranquilo in body and soul. He hocked up a few spitballs and sipped water; a sheen of white dust powdered his hair and face, otherwise he seemed little worse for the wear. \n\n\n\nFor over 7 hours he had run up and down river bluffs on dirt-packed roads; had skirted the edges of towering cliffs and had descended on rock-strewn trails where one misstep means serious injury, possibly death. In the second half of the race, the sun seethed into the canyon like the glow of a branding iron.\n\n\n\nI stared at his feet clad in huaraches (sandals), rivulets of cracks in thick callous.\n\n\n\n\u201cAren't you exhausted?\u201d I begged. \t\n\n\n\n\u201cOnly a little bit, mainly in my thighs,\u201d he shrugged, patting his legs. \u201cYou know this is a short race for Tarahumara.\u201d\n\n\n\n\u201cShort race? But you just ran 80 kilometers through one of the deepest canyons in the world!\u201d\n\n\n\n\u201cS\u00ed, no?\u201d He cackled, his deep-brown eyes sparkling.\n\n\n\nArnulfo shocked the international, ultra community by defeating Jurek in Urique, the story made legend by the bestselling book Born to Run by Chris McDougall. At the time of the race, Jurek had established himself as one of the premier ultra runners in the world by winning numerous prestigious races, setting records in most of them including Western States (7 times), the Spartathlon in Greece, a 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta (3), the Hard Rock Hundred Mile Endurance Run (2) and the Badwater Ultramarathon (2). \n\n\n\nConversely, Arnulfo had only run (and won) two western-style ultra marathons in his life at the Ultramaraton de Los Canyones in Guachochi. He was more accustomed to racing while flinging a wooden ball with his foot as he ran in rarajipari, the ancient, traditional race of Tarahumara, that often covers distances of 100-150 kilometers. He had reigned as the champion of rarajipari in the Sierra Madre since he had turned 18, but western-style ultra marathons were totally new concepts. \n\n\n\nWhen Jurek arrived in Urique he had followed an intense training regimen and practiced an extreme vegan diet. He had worked with professional trainers and medical specialists. He toed the starting line wearing the best running shoes money could buy and carried a pouch around his waist with power bars and a Camelbak water container. Like all the foreigners, he warmed up extensively before the race. \n\n\n\n Arnulfo wore simple sandals made of tire rubber soles, tied to his ankles with leather straps, a white loincloth and a colorful, blousy top. He leaned against the wall of a building awaiting the call for the start of the race, joking and laughing with his friends. He never warmed up. He had not spent any time preparing for the race, no formal training whatsoever, and had lived on a simple diet of beans, corn and chiles that he had grown in his fields. \n\n\n\nThe reigning world champion ultra marathoner ventured into the Sierra Madre to test his mettle against the king of the indigenous runners. Jurek later told me he was shocked that in the end he could not catch Arnulfo.\n\n\n\nHow is it possible that Tarahumara like Arnulfo, without any form of standard training regimen, can compete with world class distance runners, run 100 miles while flinging a wooden ball with his foot, even run deer to exhaustion? How can they stay so conditioned that they can walk 12 hours from the bottom of one canyon, cross the mountaintops and drop into another canyon to compete against well-trained athletes, and the next day win the top prizes by outrunning everyone?\n\n\n\nA few years later, I had the opportunity to ask Arnulfo these questions.\n\n\n\nWe stood beside a fire at his home in Soriachique at the top of the mountains above Urique on a cold, windy morning in January. I was dressed in blue jeans, thermal underwear, sweater and a winter coat; still I huddled close to the fire to stave off the shivers. Arnulfo wore only a light jacket and a baseball cap, his legs beneath his loincloth skirt and his feet in huaraches bare to the wintry air. Silent and reverent we fixed our gaze on the tip of the sun peering into the canyon, casting waves of sublime colors across the rocky peaks.\n\n\n\n \u201cArnulfo, what is it that makes Tarahumara such extraordinary runners?\u201d\n\n\n\n\u201cQuien sabe? (Who knows?) Just because we are Tarahumara, I guess.\u201d He grinned.\n\n\n\n\u201cOf course, but why are you so motivated to run rarajipari races and compete in ultra marathons like the ones in Urique, Guachochi and other parts of Mexico?\u201d\n\n\n\nHe nudged a log to the center of the fire with the tip of his toe and stared at the flames like a diviner searching for the truest answer.\n\n\n\n \u201cI love to run and my ability to run is God's gift,\u201d he mused. \u201cAnd running always helps me remember who I am as a human.\u201d He shook his fist to enunciate the surety of his claims. \n\n\n\n\u201cWhen we run and dance we give thanks to God.\u201d He hesitated while he tossed a handful of wood chips into the fire pit.\n\n\n\n\u201cAnd we win prize money!\u201d He added with a big grin.\n\n\n\nI stared at his sandals that he had made from a slither of tire rubber and white leather straps that he had looped between his toes and had wrapped around his ankles.\n\n\n\nArnulfo Quimare (left) and Silvino Cubesare (center) rest after completing a 50-mile ball-kicking race.\n\n\n\n\u201cWhy don\u2019t you run in shoes like the gringos?\u201d\n\n\n\n\u201cBecause with my huaraches I can better feel the ground and the movement of the rocks with my feet.\u201d\n\n\n\nI understood. I had walked thousands of miles on the same canyon trails as Arnulfo and on paths through the North Carolina mountains wearing sandals. I wanted my bare feet as close to direct contact with earth and rocks as possible. The canyon trails demand that one walk lightly over the rocky paths with agility and flexibility. In some places the paths are smooth, hard packed dirt, a joy to glide across but the majority of the trails are filled with unstable rocks. Without constant mindfulness the trails can be treacherous.\n\n\n\n\u201cDo you ever run barefoot as some outsiders have claimed?\u201d\n\n\n\n\u201cClaro que no,\u201d he laughed like he was unsure of my gringo sanity. His land is studded with a million thorns and sharp-edged stones, with scarred feet, gnarled toes and cracked nails bearing witness.\n\n\n\n\u201cWould you like to run, or even live in another country like the United States or in a city like Chihuahua so you would have more opportunity to compete in races?\n\n\n\n\u201cNo."\n\n\n\n\u201cWhy?"\n\n\n\n\u201cToo many people in the city. Too much noise and the air smells bad.\u201d He scanned the few simple homes spread along the perimeter of the canyon's rim and the rolling fields dotted with cows and goats. \u201cI prefer to stay here in the canyons and live a normal life.\u201d\n\n\n\nI asked him one more important question. I wanted to settle once and for all the running habits of Tarahumara athletes and correct the common misperceptions of outsiders.\n\n\n\n\u201cDo you train for the races like the international and national runners?"\n\n\n\n\u201cNo."\n\n\n\n\u201cNot at all?"\n\n\n\n\u201cSolamente corro en carreras\u2026o cuando me asusto,\u201d he cackled. He said he only runs when he competes in races, or when he\u2019s scared. \n\n\n\n\u201cYou don\u2019t prepare for the races at all?\u201d I wanted to make sure I had heard him correctly. \n\n\n\n\u201cNo. Nada.\u201d Period.\n\n\n\nIn his inimitable manner, Arnulfo exploded the popular myth that Tarahumara run all the time. They do run, walk, and trek everywhere they go, but they train for races very little. They don\u2019t have the caloric luxuries of training hard year-round; most of their running is to get somewhere. Yet, when Arnulfo and other Tarahumara do race, they run a very long way and with an deeply rooted passion, even reverence, for the joy of being in motion.