The sun is setting on North America’s deepest canyon. The bus bounces like an old couch and moans as it dives down a dirt road steeply carved into the canyon walls, towards the small town of Urique nestled by the river at the very bottom of the world. Urique. Cecilia & I glance at each other. What really did we know about Urique? The word first appeared for me in ‘Born to Run’, a book I had read about 6 years ago at a time when the Raramuri people might as well have been a tribe of sorcerers if they could run more than 80km at a time. What indeed did we know about anything at all? Barely any information was made available to the runners before hand. Length, altitude gain, course, aid stations, number of runners, honestly, from hearing the rumours of drug-trafficking and violence, I had my doubts on whether the race was going to take place at all. We had been travelling at this point for more than 12 hours, and as we drove deeper and deeper into the canyon, the town at its foot became bathed into a darkness as obscure as our knowledge of the days to come.
The Tribes Arrive
One of the things the book does not lie about or exaggerate is the wildly eclectic group of people such an event in such a place attracts. From the very beginning we too met with our own curious characters. The bus down to Urique had been full of them. A 🇨🇦/🇺🇸 couple of Ultramarathon veterans who had come to volunteer, a loquacious Puerto Rican 🇵🇷 professional athlete recovering from injury, an adventurous Mexican 🇲🇽 father and son duo, a quiet Englishmen 🇬🇧 with dreadlocks and tattoos who told strange confusing travel tales, an elderly Raramuri woman with her eyes glued to the window, awestruck by the landscape outside, and a younger girl laughing at the jokes an older gentleman was making about how he would leave us in the dust of his leather boots come race day, and so on, and all the way to a bus driver who pointed out the green poppy plantations on the hills, and who talked about drug wars and killings as though he were talking about a stroke of bad weather, while we waited for the brakes to cool.
Friday dawned and the tribes came flooding in. Ceci & I went for an exploratory walk along what we assumed was the course. It was there that we got our first taste of the clash of cultures that makes this event such an odd occurrence. As contrastful as the sun eclipsing the moon, out there in the canyons, we saw Americans running in Americanized huaraches crossing paths with a group of Raramuris wearing running shoes or dollar-store sandals. We saw international runners running endless kilometres only 2 days before the race and Raramuri people arriving from all directions in the back of pick-up trucks, 20-25 of them per truck, their traditional clothing glowing in the noon-day sun. We laughed as we saw foreigners trying to take pictures of drunken Raramuris, we were awed into silence at hearing a 70 year old man talking of the 80km walk from his home to Urique, arriving in the night, one day before the race. The contrast was so strong that we felt disoriented and tired, we fell at once in love with the strangeness of this world and out of love for the many perversions of the human condition. The foreigners got drunk on the sheer energy of the event, the Raramuris on Tesguino & beer, and the government officials on selfies and applause.
That night before bed, I had to take a cold shower to cool down from doing nothing more than just being in Urique. I fell asleep praying for rain, and it came. Only one day too soon.
The Caballito Races
A mariachi band blaring from the stereo of an SUV at 1am will wake you up like nothing you’ll ever know, but then again, when you’ve been told by the woman you’re renting the second floor apartment from that her store is a favourite spot for Empistolados de Sinaloa (Narcos) to drive by and buy some late night booze, it’s easier to put the thought of doing something about it out of mind, and fall back asleep.
The power went out at 3am. Urique disappeared from the world. It was pouring rain outside and a fresh breeze was sweeping through the canyon. I had gotten my wish, now would it last? We woke up early to go cheer on the Raramuri children (over 1,000) running races organized by age, from 16 years old, down to the smallest running humans I had ever seen. The energy was cheerful in town, if a little tense. The kids received medals recycled and donated from hundreds of different races across the world, and a hamburger for their efforts. A few showers punctuated the day and it stayed fresh throughout. Give me snow, I thought, give me cold and I might actually win this thing!
I came to Caballo Blanco to race 80k, although beyond that, I had no clear goal. The men’s traditional clothing leaves nothing to the imagination, and if appearance counted for anything, I was going to finish dead last. The women’s clothing on the other hand, consisting of a long colourful skirt, hid everything, which lead to even more mystery and doubt. I was thoroughly intimidated. There were simply too many wiry, muscled and tanned legs in sight at all times.
According to the little information available, there were to be 961 runners towing the line the next morning, approximately 600 of which were Raramuri and the rest (according to the newspaper) were divided between Mexico 🇲🇽, USA 🇺🇸, Belgium 🇧🇪, Germany 🇩🇪, Japan 🇯🇵, Costa Rica 🇨🇷, England 🇬🇧, Canada 🇨🇦, France 🇫🇷, Australia 🇦🇺, Puerto Rico 🇵🇷 and Switzerland 🇨🇭.
Needless to say, I didn’t think much of my odds.
A race against the Raramuri sun.
Race day, 430am. The sky was star filled and clear. I forgot all about the Raramuri, about the international runners, about the distance, and set my mind upon my only real competition for the day: the sun. I set foot on the start line with only two objectives in mind: staying hydrated and putting as many miles behind me before 11am. I felt an unbelievable rush at towing the line behind 900+ runners, and every breath I took was filled with the excitement that filled the air like a vaporized stimulant that made me smile wildly, uncontrollably.
I don’t remember if there was a countdown, I don’t remember if there was a starting gun. All I remember was the sound of 600 huaraches slapping the pavement and legs running as though the posters around town had read: Caballo Blanco Half-Marathon. I hung back. And what a sight it was to see people of all ages, of all walks of life running their hearts out. That is until the sight got even more indescribable, and left me asking myself a question.
It turns out that the course follows a dirt road, the first 14 kilometres of which are riddled with Atajos, or short-cuts. The course began to resemble an ant farm with lines of runners filing through the thin short-cuts in the woods and up steep hills. It didn’t really take much time to make up my mind. I was running the Caballo Blanco 80k, representing Canada. I decided to run an honest race. At times, I found myself running completely alone, while the runners disappeared around me, until I reached the end of another short-cut and started running again with runners I had passed a fair distance ago. One short-cut was particularly advantageous. I followed the official course which took a huge turn around a few fields. Running alone on that road, as every other runner chose the shorter way, cut through me with a sting of disappointment. When I found Ceci at the first aid-station, I mispronounced Atajo and said Antojo which means ‘desire’. A little while after I left she deciphered my bad Spanish and felt disappointed as well.
Who’s to say? Maybe it was my mistake to apply my principles to a lawless race.
From the kilometre 14 onward, there were fewer opportunities to shorten the course and I made the most of it. I started picking away at the runners ahead of me, one at a time, and considerably bettered my placing. As I was nearing Urique again, I felt I had passed pretty much all those who were running with their hearts until their legs ran out, and began hunting down the real prey: those running with there legs until their hearts ran out.
Towards the end of the first marathon, the sun was broiling in earnest. Thirty + degrees Celsius and not an ounce of shade. My legs were cramping up despite my constant hydrating efforts, my hourly ingestion of salt pills and bananas. I felt a little dizzy and nauseous but decided to push through it and attack the biggest climb of the day: a near vertical sand trail up the side of a mountain. Passing an aid station, I asked a volunteer how many people were ahead, and when she told me ‘Mas o meno 40’, I thought she was joking. Then I got to count them, one by one, as they came booking down, all 37 of them. I was putting in a good effort, one of my very best since my very first ultra, yet I was a barely walking next to the energy with which the front runners were devouring the course. It seemed to me that they all looked fresh and strong. And then I understood why. As I reached the top, at the Los Alisos aid station, I turned a corner, climbed a few steps and there she was. An elderly lady offering me a refried bean taco. And for the next 45 minutes as I flew down the same trail I’d just climbed, I felt like a million bucks. I remember crossing a man I had been running with for a while laying on the ground in the shade of a rock and yelling to him as I flew past: ‘Amigo! Sirven tacos de frijoles allá arriba! Casi estas! Andale!’ I was super excited about the tacos.
On the way back to Urique, the cramps came back in earnest and I was out of salt pills ( I ended up breathing in my last one as I tried to swallow it while running down hill, and when I finally coughed it out, it flew off the side of the canyon), so I decided to lick the sweat off my arms every time I took a sip of water. It was a quick fix, but coupled with the odd banana here and there, it kept the cramps at bay long enough for me to reach Ceci in Urique. In the 3h+ since our last encounter, she had made friends with two Raramuri girls, beautiful in there flowery dresses and timid smiles, with whom she had gone swimming in the river. All that was left was that same first 14k out and back, and the thought of running it again was a real mental challenge. Ceci handed me two bottles, one full of gatorade/chia seeds mix and the other straight up gatorade. After drinking more than 10 litres of water up to that point, I needed something a little more flavourful to encourage drinking in the last leg of the race.
The course was absolutely paved with plastic water bottles and litter. The organizers had decided to hand out 600ml at every aid station without offering any gallons to refill bottles, and to makes things worse, most Raramuris don’t run with bottles in their hand, so at every aid station, they took a sip of a 600ml bottle and ditched it on the trail or in the woods. At this point in the race, I had forgotten about the Atajos, and when I saw them and the lead men using them as they returned towards Urique, I felt pretty darn stupid to have run a Canadian race in the far reaches of Mexico. But still I could not bring myself to use them. So I followed the official course in all its detours all the way there and back to Urique. Crossing the finish line in just under 8h20 in 25th position. Crying a little as always.
Above all else, this event is truly for the wild at heart. It is a savage & lawless free for all, and I loved every minute of it!
In this most epic of adventures, I had the great fortune of being accompanied by Cecilia whose love and curiosity for her home country transformed me and helped me realize that this event first depicted in ‘Born to Run’, was indeed in the realm of the possible. Such a clash of worlds as we witnessed during this race always leaves you asking yourself tons of questions and it was a luxury to be able to discuss the complexities of the human experience with such an intuitive and knowledgeable person as she. I owe her a great deal for her help in training, her company in travelling, and her support during the race. Gracias Ceci!
Thanks for reading!
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3 Comments Add yours
Oh wow!! What an amazing story to read. Felt like I was living it. The shortcuts, the tacos, the people, the ups & downs… and the heat! Incredible storytelling, brought a tear to my eye. Hope we get to see you run one of these big crazy races one day and live it with you. Good job brother. Good job.
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Very much enjoyed your story Etienne. You captured the essence of this magical weekend. It was great meeting you & Ceci in Urique. All the best in your future endeavours.
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Thanks Deborah! It was great to share this wild week-end with you guys!