Tucked away in the high and remote regions of Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains is an indigenous tribe of about fifty-thousand people - the Tarahumaras. Civilization all but ignored them, partly because of their location and also because that is how they like it. They have few modern conveniences and usually travel barefoot for hours between villages, often kicking a ball along the way. In fact, their endurance in running barefoot for hours at a time is legendary throughout Mexico.
In 1928, the Mexican Olympic Committee decided to enter two Tarahumaras in the marathon race, the grueling race of over 26 miles which is the signature ending of the modern Olympics. Over the years, the best marathoners are those with extraordinary stamina who can sustain the required fast pace for over two hours. It seemed like a match made in heaven for the Mexican Committee. Two Tarahumaras were sent to Amsterdam for the 1928 Olympics. On the final day the two took off with the rest of the runners while their Mexican trainers crossed their fingers in anticipation.
But things didn’t exactly turn out the way the trainers had hoped. It seems that they forgot to tell the Tarahumaras that the race was only 42 kilometers long. When they finally appeared in the stadium and crossed the finish line in 32nd and 35th place respectively they kept on running not realizing that the race was over. When the officials finally caught up with them to stop running, they pleaded, “too short, too short,” Alas, rules are rules and the officials could do very little for them.
You see, the Tarahumaras are quite unique in many ways. They’ve had little contact with modern civilization over the centuries, and their main method of transportation has stayed the same throughout their existence. To get anywhere they run. Not only do they run, they most often run barefoot. In fact, they run barefoot for up to 24 or 36 hours nonstop, covering distances of up to 300 kilometers, all the while kicking a little ball in front of them. But the truly amazing thing about this tribe is that they can accomplish all this at altitudes of 2,000 meters or more.
Their legendary endurance was first noticed by the Mexican government in the 19th Century where they were often used to deliver mail to remote locations. Word of their abilities soon got out and in the 1920s the organizers of a 42-kilometer marathon race being held in Kansas, California, invited them to join in. The Tarahumaras responded by sending three women from their tribe. The organizers were obviously confused and sent a message to the governor of the tribe to inquire why he would only send women. He responded telling them that a race of only 42 kilometers was a sissy race for women only.
To be sure, the Tarahumara have been asked to enter many different races. One of the most grueling races around is the 100-mile long Leadville Race to the Sky which is run annually in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. When they were first asked to participate in the race they found out what culture shock really meant. The Tarahumara hadn’t raced in a foreign country except for their Olympic experiences and there were ill-prepared for the differences that a planned tournament would provide. When they first made their appearance in 1992, they were completely clueless about the various amenities provided along the way. They would stop at strategically located water stations and wait to be served food. As night fell they were given flashlights along with all the other racers. But they had only seen torches up to that point, so they merely pointed the flashlight straight up in the sky and moved on.
But by 1994, their presence at Leadville was well established. They had placed first, second and fifth in 1993, and everyone wondered if there even existed another person on Earth who could challenge them at all. That clarion call was answered by Ann Trason, a thirty-three year old from the San Francisco Bay Area of California. She had been entering these ultralong distance races since 1985 and had become a legend defeating nearly everyone around. Just a few months prior she had finished second in the grueling Western States 100-mile race in California, setting a woman’s world’s record in the process.
At 4:00 am that morning, the Tarahumaras, Ann Trason, and over 300 other runners took off in the pitch dark of the night on their 30-hour, 100-mile race from an altitude of over 12,000 feet. After fifteen miles or so, the first runners started passing the May Queen stations. To be sure Ann Trason was among the first leaders to pass. The Tarahumaras were still way back in the pack. But as they started reaching the station, they performed a very strange act. Upon reaching May Queen, each Tarahumara would sit down and take off their running shoe, donated by the Rockport company, and either put on their old sandals, or go barefoot.
At the Outward Bound aid station, 23 miles into the race, two Tarahumaras, Juan Herrera and Martimano Cervantes, had joined the lead pack with Ann and another, Sandoval. They were all within four minutes of each other. By the time they reached the next stop at Twin Lakes, some 16 miles later, Trason was in the lead, but the story she told about how she got the lead shocked everyone. She said that both Herrera and Cervantes had passed her on a downhill slope, but that Herrera suddenly decelerated, then stopped and turned around and just stared at her. She got up the courage to do her own sprint and passed them both, but she still couldn’t believe the strange encounter.
At the halfway point sits the ghost town of Winfield. A medical station was set up to handle those who couldn’t go any more, but even those who could still race had a chance to rest a bit, realize they’ve already made it halfway, and then imagine in horror that they now have to return over the same path back to Leadville at altitudes that reach well over 3,000 meters. But the good news was that she was now seven minutes ahead of Herrera.
On the way back, she would increase her lead. By the time she reached Outward Bound, her lead had grown to eighteen minutes. Though Trason was showing signs of fatigue, it was pretty much certain that anyone who held an eighteen-minute lead at the 72nd mile had pretty much locked the race away. What could possibly happen in the final 28 miles?
But by the time the runners reached the last stop, May Queen, Herrera not only caught up with her, he had a six-minute lead on her. Trason had lost all of her fire, and she needed to be coaxed over the last few miles. His pace over the final 13 miles of the race was estimated to be about 7 minutes per mile. Herrera reached the line in 17:30:42, the fastest time in the event's 12-year history. Once he won the race, Herrera simply went off to bed and to sleep. When Ann Trason arrived at 18:16:26, she had beaten the previous woman’s record by an astounding two hours and 37 minutes, yet she felt like she had let everyone down.
The Tarahumara were to be given a second chance at the Olympics. In 1968 in Mexico City, they again raced in the marathon. And the results were just as predictable. Apparently, in races under 100 miles, the Tarahumara aren’t necessarily the fastest around, but if the Olympics ever start a race of 100-miles long or longer, watch out.