by Cheryl Yanek
This is no secret: the 2015 Ultra Caballo Blanco 50 Miler was cancelled. When the announcement was made, tears were shed, everyone looked disappointed, but most of us agreed with the decisions of the race director. We accepted it; there was nothing else to do. There were violent interactions with drug cartels, and the safety of the runners could potentially be compromised. Rumors flew, and very few even now know the full story. We know a few things: there was violence. There were murders, kidnappings, and disbarment of police. Some runners heard gunshots.
But we also knew something else: peace was more important.
It wouldn’t be safe for us to run.
While the cartels’ goals are not necessarily to kill ultrarunners, who knew if what would happen if we got caught in cross-fire? How could we run a race that was about peace and community and love and connecting across cultures when the threat of violence was in the air?
I was sad, and yes, I wish the circumstances were different so I could have run 50 miles with the Rarámuri, on the course that Micah True (Caballo Blanco’s real name) had created, in the gorgeous canyons. My grandmother died three weeks exactly before the event; I planned on running with her rosary beads, and leaving them in Micah’s shrine. I would be running in her honor. It would also be my first race after a recent issue with Morton’s Neuroma, and I was joyful to run on gorgeous trails, practicing my Spanish with other competitors, fueling on pinole and burritos and grapefruit.
Or anyway, that was the plan.
Like most ultrarunners, I had read Born to Run shortly after it came out. It sounded like an amazing destination race, gorgeous, an adventure. I didn’t love everything about the book, and knew that there were controversial elements. The mentions of barefoot running inspired me; I began running in Vibrams a few times a week, and found they helped my form, though I only stuck with short runs in them. I met Jen Shelton at a race and found her to be one of the friendliest, most generous people I ever met. I thought heading to the Copper Canyon would definitely be something I’d do at some point, but other races, and lack of vacation time, kept preventing me. Finally, peer pressure, the desire to return to Mexico (to see friends and improve my Spanish-speaking skills), and the urge to do an awesome race had me hovering over the register button on Ultrasignup.
I struggled with the decision to go. The race wasn’t cheap, but it was a good cause: a fundraiser for the Rarámuri. I’d also need the funds to get to Mexico, and it required about two days of travel on either end just to get to the race. I was struggling with Morton’s Neuroma, unsure if I should even go, when my grandmother became ill. She only suffered for five days in the hospital before passing away. While she was sick and immediately after, the last thing I could think of was an ultramarathon thousands of miles away. I hid myself away from my friends, only seeing my family, crying several times a day, working at home to avoid conversations with coworkers about losing my grandmother. I messaged one of the runners, Darkling, who was a friend of mine and two-time racer at the ultramarathon in the canyons. I worried I’d DNF at the race, and feel like a failure. Why travel all that distance if I wouldn’t even finish?
He assured me I would be fine. “Best therapy I can think of: remember there are Rarámuri women who never even train for this race, who go in with no idea how much of it they can complete, who just try to finish as many loops as they can because each loop means another food voucher for their family. Many gringos also go in not expecting to finish. They just want the experience of being there and running with the Rarámuri. By the end of the week, the run feels like the cherry on top rather than the main dish.”
I didn’t realize how right he really was.
After spending four days with friends in Mexico City, I hopped on a plane up to Chihuahua. I slept less than five hours before a van picked me up (The train was not running; I had been planning on taking the gorgeous 8 ½ hour train ride, followed by a 3 hour drive down the twisty, steep, rocky dirt roads into the canyon.). It was over 10 hours in a van, punctuated by stops to purchase tequila and its close relative, sotol; take photos of the amazing vistas; buy delicious gorditas stuffed with beans and cheese and squash blossom cooked on fires on top of garbage cans; and visits to tiny little shrines built into the sides of mountains. Our van began smelling like burnt rubber as we got closer to the town of Urique, and we had to periodically stop so the van could cool off. We used the time to stretch instead of worry that our van would tumble off the side of the road at some point. Why bother worrying about things you can’t control?
I arrived several days before the race, as most racers do. Unlike other ultras where you arrive late in the afternoon the night before the race, spend time futzing with your race supplies and attire in a soulless chain hotel room, and leave shortly after that shower or a painful night in your hotel room, most runners arrive several days in advance. Hike/runs of the course are planned Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and the kid’s race is on Saturday. Runners spend their time in between volunteering to help with preparations for the race, cooking in the hostel Entre Amigos, or mainly, just hanging out. There is little wifi in Urique, and most people are not glued to their phones like they are back home. People are interacting. They’re in the present moment. It kind of reminds you how life could be. The occasional call home was witnessed in shady spot, with someone saying, “Yes, Mom, I’m okay. Really. It’s totally safe. You wouldn’t believe how gorgeous it is. How are the cats?”
Upon arriving at Entre Amigos, I dumped my bag on my bed in my hostel room, and my roommate told me that everyone was going to dinner at Mama Tita’s at six. The famous Mama Tita’s….I had read about it in Born to Run, and one of the runners in my van couldn’t stop raving about it.
When we arrived there, I finally met Maria Walton, one of the RDs (and also known as Micah’s girlfriend). She gave me an amazing hug, and everyone began exchanging names and stories. I had never felt so welcomed and at ease; several hours earlier, I knew none of these people. Now, we were having intimate conversations about what sacrifices we made to get to the race, foot fungus issues (that wasn’t my confession, and I’ll protect the identity of the runner whose it was!), and training secrets. Runners proudly wore shirts and buffs that said, “Club Mas Locos,” and I felt like I was finally part of a club that understood me. The craziest ones. That’s who we were.
The dinner turned into an informal meeting, with Maria giving us information on the agenda for the next few days (which periodically changed, because, as we’d often say, “It’s Mexico time!”). After, we headed back to Entre Amigos, where we watched Run Free. There was something really intimate about seeing a documentary where many of the characters were in the room with me; you could feel how much it meant to them. These weren’t just people; they were fellow runners who I’d hike with, chat with, and laugh with over the next few days.
I spent the next few days hiking the course. We met people who loved Micah, checked out the trails he spent his time on (which was also the course), went swimming in the river, ate the sweetest, most delicious grapefruits right from the tree. We tripped on rocks, laughed, took photos. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever run in my life. It was one of the places you want to bottle up and experience again and again. The majority of the time, we’d be the only ones on the trail, passing an occasional local farmer and maybe their mule. I felt at peace. The sadness that had been permeating my life since my grandmother’s death had gone.
We spent our time in between hikes wandering around the town, eating delicious avocados, picking veggies in the garden, making communal meals with the garden bounty at Entre Amigos, sharing beers and tequila and sotol and stories, rubbing the magic cream (the Rarámuri used it, so it must work miracles, we thought) into our aches and pains. In town, old men would come up to me, “Va a correr domingo?” “Si! Quiero correr contigo!”
We sat around doing absolutely nothing but talking.
It felt like something we should be doing every day.
We were building community, and best of all, even as we prepped for a fifty miler, we relaxed.
Saturday morning. The kid’s race. Everyone told me it would be my highlight of the week, and they were right. We were told it started at 8 a.m. We were rather surprised when as we walked down the street after 7:30, the kids’ race approached us. (“How is Mexico time early this time?” complained one of the ultrarunners to me.)
When I saw a friend, Ryan, running with the kids, I jumped in and ran with him. We cheered on the kids as we ran, shouting words of encouragement. Whenever a child would stop to walk, I’d say, “Vamanos!” “Puedes hacerlo!” “Rapido, rapido!” The kids would immediately begin running. It was really awesome to see such immediate impact. The kids were exhilarating and enthusiastic, and it was contagious; my face hurt from smiling. When they finished, they were enthralled at the medals placed around their neck, confused when volunteers first strung it around their necks. They received breakfast and school supplies after running, so each kid really felt like a star.
I “paced” in two more of the kids’ races, cheering on those who were struggling, encouraging those who were surging ahead. I was impressed at how fast they ran. One of the other ultrarunners, Nick, tweaked something in his back and was worried about his race the following day.
The remained of the day was to rest before the race. I browsed the grocery store, trying to figure out what would be good pre-race food. I bought ripe avocadoes and sweet potatoes and eggs. I stretched while drinking a large bottle of water. I hoped my foot would hold up.
As Paul and I were walking back from a carb-filled lunch at Mama Tita’s, one of the runners said, “3 p.m. Meeting at Entre Amigos. It’s about the race, and you’ll want to be there.”
The message was cryptic, and I wasn’t sure what was going on. I drank more water and stretched. At 3:00, a large group of people were gathered in a sitting area outside the kitchen at Entre Amigo. I clutched my water bottle and I noticed how serious Maria and two board members of Norawas de Rarámuri (the organization that put on the race), Flint and Michael, looked. There were tears in Maria’s eyes.
“We will not perform this act of clarity, peace, and truth in times of war…” “This is a message of peace that we won’t tolerate the act of violence in peace….”“…Life is like that – you ask a lot of questions and you don’t get answers…” “You are now messengers ….Will you talk about friendship, reaching out to humans, love, peace, clarity – the choice is yours to make?”
The race was cancelled. Tears in the corners of our eyes. I was stunned. We all traveled so far.
But there was nothing we could do. Nothing that would be safe. Immediately, I trusted in the decisions of the RDs; clearly this was a tough decision they had made, and it was the best one.
Everyone began discussing plans for leaving. Rides were arranged. The trains would be running. We were encouraged to leave early in the morning.
We headed to another meeting downtown. It was really sad to see so many amazing runners from all over the world – all of whom wouldn’t be running. People began drinking beers: “Well, now I don’t have to worry about not drinking because I’m not running.”
The night turned into a party instead of a pre-race early night. People shared the last of their food, their beers, and loud laughs and conversations dominated the night. Yes, we couldn’t run, but that didn’t mean we had to be miserable.
At some point, the news came in that the government called the race back on. Confused, I asked Maria what this meant. The government was sanctioning it; not Maria and Josue and Norawas de Rarámuri. They were doing a modified course; there would be some sort of protection from police or military. I shuddered; it did not sound like a safe race. I was leaving; safety first. My heart felt heavy; I was not doing what I came here to do, but you can’t always do what you plan on doing.
In the morning, we walked to meet our ride. As another runner and I headed down the street, we saw people assembling; a small group, primarily Rarámuri and Mexican national runners. There were a few international runners, and I wondered what they were doing? Was I overcautious because I knew so much about the drug war and violence from my Mexican friends and a research report that I had written about Mexico? I shook my head. I’d rather be overcautious and not run a race, than run a race and have my life at risk. I also didn’t like the idea of running an ultramarathon with armed protection around; yes, it’s for my protection, but it would remind me that there is a war going on – and I want to be running in peace, through peace.
The runners took off. No one cheered. No one booed. It was bizarre to watch them running, pulling away. That was the race we were supposed to run.
I got into the car with two ultrarunners. We headed off into the canyons. I spent the next 9 hours laughing, talking, and connecting with two amazing runners. Okay, so we weren’t running, but we were still bonding in that same way like you do on the trail. We were messengers, Flint told us – which is what Micah had told him when he was alive. We were messengers of love and peace and friendship and fun.
Yes, we weren’t running, but that didn’t mean we hadn’t run an ultramarathon in our hearts.
A week of hiking, and friendships, and running, and cheering on children, and talking with Rarámuri and Mexicans about the race and running, and getting too much sun, sharing stories, sharing lives, sharing what we loved. Yes, we didn’t run a race, but we had traveled somewhere far – just not necessarily 50 miles on our feet.
And it was rewarding in its own way.