Cool Copper Canyon Photo
Photo by Ryan Heffernan

2010 Copper Canyon Ultramarthon Report
March 7th, 2010

David Coblentz, Los Alamos, New Mexico


The big picture sounded inviting: visit Copper Canyon, enjoy the sun in sub-tropical Mexico,  brush up on the Spanish, run with the Tarahumara, and log a nice early-season 50 mile race.  The devil always lurks in the details: three days travel, the obvious issues with running in 80-degree weather when the high in Los Alamos failed to break 40 since sometime in December, the questionable pre-race conditions of travel and strange food.  Not to mention the fact that running fast on hard-packed dirt road this early in the season isn't my favorite venue.  Add to this the prospect of chasing down (or trying to keep up with) the fabled Tarahumari runners in the likely need to defend the gringo trail running honor and the details begin to get, well, problematic.  But, devil be damned, this was the year!

We met Micah True (aka Caballo Blanco) at the Gila Bears Mountain Trail Series Run in the Gila Mountains of southern New Mexico in the spring of 2001.  Even then he had grand plans for running races with the Tarahumara of the Copper Canyon region and told us of his annual treks down to Batopilas.  He spoke eloquently of runs that would bring together the Raramuri and runners from north of the border in the spirit of friendship, cooperation and peace. It all sounded fantastic.  But with Kai only a toddler, the logistics of travel deep into Mexico was a bit too intimidating.   I would occasionally cross paths with Micah at Leadville and he would rekindle the dream with stories of the runs and races.

When tentative plans for running the Moab Red Hot 50k hit some snags, we spontaneously decided this was the year!  I dashed off an email to Micah. I was oblivious that this was also the year of THE BOOK and 70 runners had already signed up (months ago) and the race (as so many are these days) was full.   The details began to gnaw at our plans.  But not to worry, Caballo would make room and soon it became clear there would be many cancellations.  Plan "on" again!

The Book, of course, was "Born to Run", and had been read by just about everyone we knew, excerpts were appearing in Running Times, Trail Runner, the NY Times, etc. etc., and runners everywhere were ditching their shoes, chomping chia seeds and downing pinole in an attempt to find the "secret".  What would the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon be like in this fallout? Would the canyon be overrun with gringos (in bare feet) searching for the "experience"? Would the run morph into a grand media event?  Could we still find the spirit of running in the canyon that originally drew us to Micah's dream?  We would have to hope for the best and see for ourselves.

The trip would be quite an undertaking, not just a pre-race dinner and packet pick up. Our van shuttle would leave El Paso on Sunday, February 28th with the race scheduled for Sunday, March 7th.  Two days of driving on both ends, hikes on the course, settling into the canyon - this race promised to be much more than the typical dash-in-run-dash-out event.  OK, we'd been needing an extended family vacation adventure.  What better time and place for two weeks off from life in Los Alamos?  Cat-sitting arranged and the Subaru packed, we headed south to El Paso where we were to meet Diego and the van that would take us to the canyon.

The rendezvous with the other runners at the El Paso airport was a rather inauspicious beginning for the van ride.  Thunderstorms were rolling through, Stanford's plane was late, the van looked a bit, well, gritty and the tarp for the gear on the roof proved difficult to secure.  Finally we were off!  The sun sinking low in the west, we crossed into Juarez headed for a motel in Cuauhtemoc (which we could not yet even pronounce), an incomprehensible 6 hours to the south. 

The first part of the trip was full of those difficult details:  a long long time on the Pan American Highway south of Juarez, a failed attempt at finding dinner in Villa Ahumada, eventual food at a gas station in Moctezuma (Ramen Noodles, Pan Dolce, even a hot dog - definitely *not* translated as Perro Caliente!), a winding single-lane road over the Cumbres de Majalca.  But there was also the good:  full moon rising over the sand dunes south of Juarez, a bobcat spotted near the divide over Majalcas, the vast expanse of land with no city lights.  The stars.  The magic of Mexico was rising!

And it got better and better as we headed south on the second day out of Cuauhtemoc.  As we entered the foothills of the Sierra Madre south of La Junta, the Chihuahua desert gave way to our beloved Madrean Oak Woodlands.  Here was the southern extension of the sky islands - the mountains stringing off to the northwest, the migration corridors leading into SE Arizona easy to see. A singular impression: away from the cities, Mexico is incredibly beautiful.

South of Creel we entered the Barrancas del Cobre and the first view of the canyons from El Divisadero was as incredible as expected.  The sheer volume of space between us and the canyons is simply indescribable: the landscape is simply "big".  Looking down 5000+ feet to the bottom of the canyons, the runners got their first wavering of resolve - this promised to be a very tough run.  A bit of nervous laughter and joking made a few rounds through the group and then people settled into silence.  The canyons waited patiently.  Would we be up to the task?

As part of our introduction to the landscape and the trails, we were to hike from Diego's lodge at Paraiso del Oso in Cerocahui (elevation 6000 feet) down to Urique (elevation 500 feet) - 18 miles.  6 hours.  And a fine introduction it was.  The trail followed a beautiful creek for the first 4 miles before cresting the rim of the canyon and dropping through rough switch backs, then catching another beautiful drainage that lead down to the Urique River.  We came across frequent trails crossing our path - a vast network for traveling across and through the landscape.  Curiously we didn't meet any other hiker/runners.  Perhaps our loud group of 22 scared off the locals.  Not necessarily a bad thing, as we passed through several "cultivated" areas.

We arrived at the water tank at the top of the Mesa Naranjo and began the final 8 miles of the hike into Urique.  This section followed the race course and we all paid close attention.  A fantastic section of single track crossed a sycamore-filled canyon that followed an inviting creek.  This would be mile 12 to 15 on race day and if it was hot, I'd be glad to see this creek.  The pace quickened.  When we hit the final section of road, we all broke into a run.  Felt great to run after five hours of hiking.  There was a bit of testing, a bit of pushing the pace, the runner in all of us rose to the surface.  Ah, it was great to be here running the canyons through the thorn scrub, passing the occasional cordon cactus and flowering dogwood.  Incredible.

Urique at last!  Beautiful as we knew it would be. Changing but still charming. And what better way to enter the town of the race than on foot.  Just like the Tarahumara would.  We had several days to explore the town and the race course - Micah took groups out on the first loop through Guadalupe de Coronado and south on what would be the third loop to the oasis of Los Alisos (The Grapefruits).  The Tarahumara joined us on these hikes.  They were very still and quiet.  Patient, just like the canyons.

Clouds and even a bit of rain on Saturday before the race.  This would have been perfect race weather for me.  We all hoped for a repeat on Sunday.  Someone checked the weather on-line: 30% chance of rain in the morning, clearing in the afternoon.  OK.  Better than clear and 90F.

Sunday and race day at last arrived. Urique filled with runners of both worlds.  The Tarahumara, many in loin cloths and brightly colored tops, shod of course in their signature huaraches, quietly appeared in town, no bags, no packs, wearing the clothes they would wear on race day and the next.  In sharp contrast to the foreign runners worrying over warm ups, shorts, shirts, shoes, bags, bottles, gels, S-caps, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, watches, GPS, iPods, ETC. Quite a contrast.  While they were quiet and reserved, there were plenty of nods and greetings between the all the runners: "Quira!".

Unbelievably, the run started at the appointed 6:30am - in fact a few minutes early(!).  The mariachi band played, someone gave an overly long speech (in Spanish, of course), and we were off!  367 starters with about 50 somewhat timid foreigners clustered towards the back of the group. I knew the locals would go out fast, but by the time we cleared the end of town they were long gone and I found myself running at the tail end of the pack.  But I had my race plan and knew the experience would be more pleasant if I stuck with it.  I had the rough idea to finish under 10 hours with a negative split - around 9:30?  That seemed respectable.  I scheduled an hour for the 7 kilometers out to the first turn around at the church in Guadalupe de Coronado.  We hit the Urique River at a little over a mile out of town and the pack was thinning disturbingly.  There was a bridge (of sorts) over the river but we were crossing through the water - Caballo was concerned that so
many runners on the bridge would lead to a collapse.  More reality than fear judging by the numerous missing slats in the bridge and how it was swaying under the load of only a handful of spectators.

At this point I'm a bit ahead of schedule and start to get that early-in-the-race sense of euphoria and strength.  It's tempting to hammer the first big hill and close the gap with the fading front runners.  But patience wins over ego.  Besides, it is already getting a bit warm and humid and I know a slow start will be the key to smiles at the finish.  I catch up with Caballo and settle into his steady pace.  Turns out this is a great place to be in this race - runners are beginning to pass us inbound from the turn around and everyone has smiles and something to say to Caballo.  Tight and grim faces break into smiles when we pass.  I feel part of the tribe and enjoy a small glimpse of Caballo's world.  Beautiful.

At the church in the plaza of Guadalupe de Coronado we're given the first of a series of colorful wristbands that we will collect during the race.  "Que numero?" Since I wasn't about to wear the official race T-shirt (cotton over a tech shirt - shivers!) which was silk screened with my race number, I have to give it verbally: "doscientos cuarenta y nueve".  This I  mumble: so early in the race I'm still trying to figure out if that's supposed to be "doscientas" or if that was "nueva" not "nueve".  Damn gringo mind.   But, I would have plenty of practice, and by the end of the day I would be shouting it out loud and clear. 

On the way back to the river crossing the aid stations begin to run out of the sealed bags of water they've been handing to runners.  Not the kind of aid you see in the States.  Micah worries out loud about the real possibility that there won't be water available for the final and hottest loop of the day.  I don't mind the lack of pinole - wonder fuel or not, I know better than to try something new on race day.  I had planned to run with a single handle bottle so the availability of water troubles me too.  No concern for the Tarahumara - they run with nothing but a stick, apparently needing nothing else.  Whew.

We enter the single track climb up to Mesita Naranjo - ah, steep and technical single track.  Now it is feeling good.  Legs feel great on the hills and I begin to pass through the gringos and even start to reel in some of the Tarahumara.  Topping out in Naranjo the weather is getting warmer, but the long downhill stretch on double track back to Urique is a good place to throttle back and cool off a bit.  I run with a teenager from Naranjo down this section and chat (as much as I can with my Spanish) about where he is from and how the run is going for him.  Oddly, be begins to fade and surge at odd intervals - disappearing and reappearing beside me.  What's with this guy?  Is he playing with my mind? The next time he fades I quickly glance back and he's sheepishly peering out from behind the brush along a ravine crossing - getting ready to cut down an obviously locals-only trail that shortcuts the road.  Ah-ha! We share a good and genuine laugh. I begin to feel that universal connection between runners even between those whose cultural gap is vast.  This, too, is part of Micah's dream.  Nice.

Entering Urique at mile 21 I am right on schedule if a bit hot. Kristine and the kids are waiting and I'm sure they will be complimentary of my effort in the heat.  "A good thing it's such a cool day."  Huh?? I'm dying out here, it's searing.  This is COOL??  I knew then the day would be long and soon the "beast" would join me.  No sign of him yet, but I knew he was out there, somewhere.  With him would arrive the dead legs, the sore feet and that familiar slogging feeling. 

Leaving Urique for the southern loop of 18 miles out to Los Alisos, I knew the crux of the run was beginning.  The first part is a long grind out on the hard-packed road through the village of Guapalaina to the suspension bridge at Vado.  A pair of young runners pull up along side and after several attempts and gestures: "calamro - tengo calambrado" (say what?), I figure out they are asking for salt tablets to ease cramping.  Being the good gringo ambassador, I freely hand out several S-caps (would I need them later?) - they are all smiles but quickly fade back.  Not sure if they finished.  When last I saw them at the mile 30 turn around at Los Alisos they were suffering. 

I slog out the road section (feeling surprisingly strong) and hit the single track climb up to Los Alisos.  Again, as the trail steepens and gets more technical, I begin toreel in more runners.  At least the legs are feeling plenty strong.   No beast yet.  There are many stream crossings on this section and I keep a wet bandanna on my head.  It is still very hot by Los Alamos standards, but relatively cool for the canyons.  About 80F.

There was plenty of concern before the race about course markings - would it be marked?  Would turns be flagged?  No problemo.  The locals white washed nearly every tree, bush and large rock on the course out to Los Alisos.  Looking back down the climb what appeared to be a string of runners climbing was in fact white paint.  Mostly lime - should wash off after a few rains.  Actually a pretty good way to do course markings.  No clearing of flagging.  No flags eaten or stomped by marmots or elk.  Hmm.

The last long climb up to Los Alisos. I settle into a chain of Tarahumara trotting up the trail.  The pace is steady, the rhythm oddly familiar.  Chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka. Where is that memory coming from??  And then it dawns on me in a moment of connection: it's the Tarahumara dance rhythm performed the night before the race in the plaza.  Of course!  A running people would naturally incorporate that cadence into their dance.  "Guadajuko!" Cool!  

A quick pause in the beautiful oasis of Los Alisos - true to name, a grove of Grapefruit and Mango trees in a small mountain pass.  From the hike up here a few days again I know there is a spring further up the hill.  But I just fill my bottle from the water jug and hit the descent back to the river.  It's on this stretch, about mile 31 that I reel in and pass the final Tarahumara woman.  Full bright yellow dress.  Plastic (not leather) sandals.  Stick in hand.  Steadily trotting along.  With full respect and bit of guilt I flash by on a particularly steep downhill section - keeping an eye on that stick. Macho, macho.

Passing back through Guapalaina there are still plenty of spectators - the street is lined with people sitting or standing watching the race.  But little more.  Quietly watching.  No cheers (beyond the very occasional "andale") - the dogs, however, are all very willing to give chase and voice to the run!  Another aid station - "doscientos cuarenta y nueve" - I've got this down now.  Oh-oh, there's a follow up question: "De donde eres" - "where are you from" - OK, I can handle this, too: "soy de Nuevo Mexico".  Peals of laughter and the comment that all the runners today were wishing they were new Mexicans.  No, no. Really, from NEW MEXICO -- verdad, Estados Unidos!  Blank looks.  Time to move on.  This is one of those rare times I wish we lived Kansas....

I enter Urique at mile 40, 1:30pm (7 hours) right on schedule.  There are cheers - is the crowd coming alive at last?  Ah, no, the first Tarahumara is finishing the race.  Amazing.  I'm happy with how I feel, although the beast has settled in to run with me for the final ten miles.  All this hard-packed road is taking its toll on my feet.  How do these runner handle 50 miles in sandals at a pace that would place them in the elite of any race? Again, amazing. 

During the final out-and-back (10 miles) to Guadalupe de Coronado, the river crossing is welcoming and cool.  I contemplate sitting in the river for a bit, but no, it's time to get this race done.  The road climbs up from the river and rolls along to the turn around.  It was pretty easy this morning - now in the company of the beast it's slow going.  I'm still strong on the downhills and have a good walk in reserve for the uphills.  The final ten miles in any 50 seems to take forever.  A strong squall blows in crazy gusts and dust and then a few serious drops of rain.  Crazy weather this year.  More front runners pass on their way inbound to Urique, running strong - Nick Coury who would finish 6th in an impressive 7:29 passes head down against the headwind.   Most of the aid stations are empty at this point - just a jug of water, some oranges and cups of pinole on a table.  Help yourself.  It's late enough in the race that I throw my usual caution to the wind (which has died down a bit) and start to eat the oranges.  Delicious. 

The church at last and the final wrist band!  5 miles to go.  On the way back to the river I pass the outbound gringos - more than a few look like they're definitely ready to be finished.  A strong effort by all, though, I don't think there were any DNFs.

I cross the line in Urique in 9:18 - 12 minutes ahead of schedule despite what seemed to be a crawl over the final hills out and back from Guadalupe de Coronado.  Not my strongest race effort, but perhaps my smartest race plan.  I finish with a smile.  Time for that dry shirt, that cup of pinole, and a well-deserved cerveza.  And still runners are heading through Urique to start the final loop.  Lucy, of our favorite Tienda and the star point guard of the Urique women's basketball team is determined to finish.  And our new friend Kez from England passes through at 7pm for a final push.  Brilliant effort!  He will finish after the awards ceremony around 9:30pm.  

A fantastic run and adventure in the Barracas del Cobre.  To quote Caballo: "To run free in beautiful places amongst beautiful and special people is to remember who we are and from where we all come."  This is a race I won't soon forget, despite (or perhaps thanks to) the details.

****************************************************************

Final Results:

51 miles with 9,300 foot of climb/decent.

Overall top 10
  1. Jose Madero Herrera--Choguita [Guachochi]--7:12
  2. Silverio Ramirez--Tataguichi [Guachochi]--7:14
  3. Erculano Reyes --Tataguichi [Guachochi]--7:15
  4. Juan Quimare--Munerachi [Batopilas]--7:18
  5. Juan Contreras--Choguita [Guachochi]--7:22
  6. Nick Coury--Arizona [USA]--7:29
  7. Miguel Lara--Porochi [Urique]--7:48
  8. Silverio Moralos--Choguita [Guachochi]--7:50
  9. Juan Roman--Tataguichi [Guachochi]--7:51
  10. Pedro Duran--Guachochi--7:52

Women top 10

  1. Sarahi Armendariz--Paral [Chihuahua]--9:28
  2. RuthAnne Hamrick--New Mexico [USA]--9:50
  3. Elizabeth Wistrom--California [USA]--10:10
  4. Alexa Dickerson--Arizona [USA]--10:23
  5. Maria Rodriguez--Guachochi--10:50
  6. Leah Atwood--California [USA]--10:53
  7. Aurita Maldonado--New York [USA]--11:02
  8. Maria Elvira--Guachochi--11;05
  9. Virginia Mendoza--Huicorochi [Urique]--11:19
  10. Deborah Hirsch Bezanis--Illinois [USA]--11:25