Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Why I Ran: The 2015 Ultra Maraton de Caballo Blanco

Why I Ran.

Last year (2014) I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to Copper Canyon (Las Barrancas Del Cobre) and participate in what has come to be known as the Ultra Maraton de Caballo Blanco.  Today with help from the race organizers and the Narawas de Raramuri, the race continues to preserve the message of community, hope, peace and running free, and serves as an opportunity for international runners from around the world, and local indigenous Tarahumara, or Raramuri to share not just trails, but in the pure love and passion that we all have for running.  It has become truly one of the most unique races in the world, and has become an important economic staple for the town of Urique.  When Maria (co-RD with Josue Stephens) asked if I would return for the 13th running this year, I accepted without hesitation. 

This year I was fortunate enough to travel down to the canyons with other runners from Arizona. Rene Peinado, Erica Smith, Miguel Moreno and myself piled into Rene’s truck at 3am Tuesday morning, and headed for the canyons.  The Narawas de Raramuri have helped many Tarahumara runners to travel and race in the United States.  Because of this, all three of my fellow travelers have become close friends with not just the runners but with their families.  It was then that I realized my trip was going to be dramatically different than the previous year, where I spent most of the trip interacting with other runners mostly from the US, and staying at the camp/hostel where most visitors stay.  The Raramuri are notoriously stoic and humble people, so I was excited to have the opportunity to stay amongst them in a much more personal and authentic manner this go around. 

Las Barrancas del Cobre, and more generally, the entire Sierra Madre, with its endless wilderness, deep canyons, inaccessible terrain, indigenous peoples and variable weather, attract not only tourists, but naturally drug traffickers and cartels.  They exploit not only the terrain, but also the local indigenous and non indigenous families and children.  It is a part of their daily life here, and often have to endure extended periods of ‘lending’ their children to work the fields.  As it was explained to me, children will be abducted by the cartel, and put to work doing simple field tasks, and returned after the need for labor is reduced.  Objection in the canyon is met with violence, and resistance is easily suffocated.  It is just one example of the daily struggle that many of the local families endure.

Despite all of the violence that breeds within the canyons, the Ultra Maraton de Caballo Blanco has gone off with no major hitches in its first 12 years.  From those humble beginnings and first race with Scott Jurek, Jen Shelton, et al. Micah True’s race came to fruition.  Since then the race has grown to a now unforeseen status.  It is the largest economic week in the town and neighboring villages and is without a doubt the most internationally recognized ultra in Mexico.  The idealistic footrace that one envisions of a small, grass roots event in the middle of the Sierra Madre is no longer.  Chris McDougall’s book Born To Run 2009, let the secret out of the bag.  Every year thousands of people from around the world, mostly Mexicans from neighboring cities and states, descend upon Urique for festivities ranging from live music, live dancing, government speeches, and of course the races.  With all of these festivities, it is easy to forget, that all of it, is happening quite literally in the backyards of the cartels.  One could even argue that the cartels ALLOWS the event to take place every year, and even sees to its success. 

The Ultra Maraton de Caballo Blanco serves as a sanctuary, a beacon of peace and community that imposes itself on the canyon country every year come March.  The focus they are able to bring to the canyons transpires beyond the runners, and sends a message of hope to the families living within their depths.  In the races many roles within the community, this may be the most important; a symbolic stand against violence, within ourselves, within the canyons, and across the world. 

Our group arrived early Wednesday evening, with Miguel and Erica choosing to spend a night on the rim at ‘El Chato’s’ (Mario) camp, Rene and I descended into Urique.  The leadings up to the race went off as expected.  All of the events went off as scheduled even up to and after the children’s race come Saturday morning.  The big difference this year that I noticed compared to the previous was the talk of recent violence in the area.  Rumors had begun to leak about cartel violence in not just the area, but this time in downtown Urique.  Like many things in Mexico, this talk was hushed, swept under the rug if you will to preserve the atmosphere and preserve the race. 

It is important to note that it is extremely rare for violence in Mexico to involve foreigners.  Both local governments, and the cartels seem to mutually agree on the benefit of tourism, and would prefer to leave foreigners, especially Americans out of the mix.  This may be one of the most important if not the reason that the race has gone off every year under such a guise of tranquility and peace.  This year however, the race seems to have come at a time of high conflict between rivaling cartels.  Word in the canyon this weekend was that in the month of December alone, there were over 100 murders in the neighboring canyon within the ongoing war between the competing cartels.  It seems this information could be exaggerated as other sources cite numbers far lower.  It would seem that this year, even the race would not be enough to calm the violence.

It is extremely difficult to gauge the seriousness and magnitude of cartel violence in the Sierra Madre for a number of reasons.  The race directors and Narawas de Raramuri experienced this first hand this year.  The local governments, in attempts to put on a pretty face for tourists, tend to cover up the violence and downplay the war.  On the other hand, local rumors spread like wildfire up and down the canyon walls, and what could have been a relatively small violent act within the cartel, can be exaggerated into a massacre once it reaches the canyon rim.  Therefore any information about what took place this last weekend, should be received with a fair amount of skepticism and maturity.

I’m sure by now most of us have seen the reports of a double murder and abduction that occurred the weekend of the race.  I had heard this rumor sometime on Friday.  At the time that I heard this, it seemed apparent that many of the local figures, including Mario and his brothers, on whose property myself, Miguel, Erica, Rene and many of the now visiting Tarahumara from neighboring villages were camped, were acting a bit strange.  It had also seemed to me that whatever had happened that morning, the aggressors had made it a point to not alert any tourists and visitors.  Urique was as normal as ever Friday night, and Saturday morning continued without incident.

It is difficult to gauge exactly what happened in this initial incident but one source of information cites the following:

"Editors URIQUE.- After reporting the execution of two people about 20 miles from the county seat of Urique, yesterday morning an armed deprived of freedom the commander of the Municipal Police, Ramón Sáenz, and disarmed the agents of the corporation. While the spokesman for the prosecutor Zone West, Alexa Lara Meraz, confirmed that state agents Research Division received a report of a double homicide, the Town Clerk, Jair Jairo Rincon Band, said execution It happened last Thursday night in the area known as La Cobriza, however, the municipal official secrecy to a suspect, said he was unaware some other event occurred yesterday morning; Meanwhile, several calls from frightened citizens armed themselves and value reported that an armed group stormed the municipal seat, disarmed the officers on duty and no shot was the commander Ramón Uriah. The witnesses reported to the media that heavily armed civilians took an ambulance equipped and stole a pickup recent model citizen. Upon the occurrence of the above, dozens of Mexican Army arrived in the mountain town for constant tours pick ups and trucks. So far it is unknown whether the police command was released or is still retained. Those killed are David Israel Herrera and Isael Castillo Castillo Torres."

It was not until Saturday afternoon, after the children’s race and during packet pickup for the race on Sunday that something had obviously changed.  I obviously cannot speak for the directors of the race, but I believe they had been enduring mixed information from the local and state governments all weekend, and it had finally came to a boiling point on Saturday.  As per Maria Walton, "There have been approximately 12 murders in Urique since December. The Government officials were aware of the danger, and were not honest with sharing this information with us since we began questioning. Josue and his son witnessed the abduction of these murdered officers."  In addition to the incident that had already occurred, there were reports from locals and tourists alike of gunfire in the neighboring village of Guapalaina, some 2 or 3 miles away.  For runners that know the course of the race, this is the village that you run through on your way out to and back from Los Alisos. 

It would later come to our attention what had actually happened in Guapalina that day.  After our departure from Urique on Monday, we stopped in Creel at Rene’s Aunt and Uncle’s to say goodbye and to thank them for their hospitality.  The information that had been accepted in Creel about the incident on Saturday by many reputable figures was far worse than what any of us had imagined.  I feel the need to repeat that THIS INFORMATION IS NOT CONFIRMED, and one should take it as speculative.  Supposedly on Saturday two rivaling cartels exchanged gunfire for approximately 5 hours in the village of Guapilaina, leaving approximately 20 dead.  Four police officers were taken captive and executed.  As far as anyone knew, all deaths were fighters within the cartels, and no civilians and certainly no tourists were harmed.  Whether truth or speculative rumor, one can only imagine what was going through the minds of the race directors and local authority figures come Saturday afternoon.

I again cannot speak for the directors, and what information they had and did not have, but they without a doubt made the correct decision in cancelling the 2015 Ultra Maraton de Caballo Blanco.  I respect and support their decision 100% to not hold the race in the middle of such acts of war.  It would have been a huge mistake to ask the runners to head out onto a course where the directors could not 100% guarantee the safety of the runners.  It would be hard for me to give people like Josue, Maria, Flint, Mike, etc more respect than I already have, but they earned it on Saturday by making such a difficult decision during such a turbulent time.  This one statement from Maria sums it up perfectly.  "As Race Directors, and Parents, we could not with a clear conscience allow our runners, our family and friends participate in a running event which would clearly endanger their lives."

The announcement was made to the ‘Mas Loco’ group at Entre Amigos around 3pm, and as an act of solidarity and peace towards the community, we were asked to walk united into town to deliver the message to the community and other runners.  At 4pm on Saturday, Josue announced to the crowd that this year’s race was cancelled, and all attempts would be made to regroup and come back next year and hopefully hold the race during a time of peace.  The announcement was greeted with obvious mixed emotions from the international and Mexican runners.  It is important to understand that at this time, the majority of runners had ZERO knowledge of any violence at all that had taken place.

That evening at around 8pm another rumor had started.  The local government of Urique and the state of Chihuahua were putting the race back on.  In what can only be described as a takeover, the local authorities had decided to try and save face and hold the race in some form on Sunday.  Given the importance to the local economies that the race had become, one can understand their motives.  Police reinforcements descended into Urique, and runner’s safety was ‘guaranteed.’ 

Personally I greeted the news with skepticism.  I went down town and found Josue and confirmed that whatever race was to take place on Sunday, had absolutely no affiliation with the Ultra Maraton de Caballo Blanco, Fuego y Agua Events, Las Narawas de Raramuri or any other partnering organization.  What proceeded in the town square was a series of announcements by local authorities, greeted by hundreds of drunk locals and foreign tourists which evolved into nothing short of a civil fiasco.

A tone of conflict had been set.  It was a tone of division, of ‘us’ and ‘them.’  Runners now had to choose sides, whether to run this mock race on Sunday, or to unite as an act of peace and leave town in the morning.  That evening I found myself in the middle of meetings I felt I had no business being in.  Amongst all of the information that was most pertinent, of all the emotions, of all the politics, all the bullshit, the thing that stood out most, was that the Raramuri had stayed, and they wanted to run.  Suggestions of a ball race crept into the picture.  The Raramuri seemed to not care about the violence, the conflict, the politics.  They didn’t care about who was in control of the race.  The only thing that made sense to them, was to run.

That night after the downtown had calmed down most of us (Americans) found our way back to Entre Amigos where Maria was having a meeting with the ‘Club Mas Loco’ runners.  It was after these discussions that everyone had agreed to take a united stand to not participate in the race in the morning, and to make a stand of peace and protest the mock event on Sunday.  I sat quietly during most of this meeting, not having the courage to voice my true opinion on the matter.  I said to friends that night in the same room with everyone around that I didn’t think it made sense.  In many ways it made the most sense to run the canyons, not to run home.  I also felt committed to Maria, as she had personally invited me this year, so I decided out of respect to her and the stand that the organization was making, I would not participate in the following days' events.  I did however voice that I would be there at the start, and during the race to support the runners that did run, and to support the Raramuri.  Late into the night, I laid down with an uneasy feeling about the next morning.

Miguel woke me up.  I had slept in late and barely had time to make it to the start.  I cheered for the runners and envied in their courage to toe the line that morning.  The other thing that I had noticed was the lack of support from foreigners.  This had turned into a truly local event, and in many ways was a more authentic race than the one that was to take place being that the majority of runners were Raramuri.  A group of us went and sat down to have breakfast, and to wait for the runners' return.

It is this moment when my attitude truly began to sway.  I saw the Raramuris take off that morning just as they would in any other race, just as they have been doing for generations, and just as they will do for generations to come once all the outsiders are gone and Caballo Blanco is just a myth.  To them, it didn’t matter about the violence.  It is part of life here and something that they have to deal with day in and day out.  They will still run.  They didn’t care about the politics.  The previous night’s events were squabblings and emotions running wild.  They will still run.  They didn’t care about the corn vouchers.  They have survived long before and will survive long after the donations stop coming in.  They will still run.

That morning as we sat on the street in Urique, myself, Miguel, Erica, Dean, Dang, we watched.  We watched locals continuing their daily work.  We watched legendary runners take off in the true spirit of the canyons.  But the thing we watched the most, were tourists, with loaded backpacks, walking down the street, headed for buses and airplanes that would take them to safety.  As the Raramuri were out running their race, these lucky foreigners, left the community behind.  I know this was not the intent of anybody that left on Sunday, and I completely understand and respect their decisions to do so, but you must understand the message that it sent to the community of Urique.  For me, the metaphor was too much.  It left a feeling in my stomach that I don’t think I have ever felt before.  I felt sick. Just being a tourist in the streets that day I felt disrespectful, like I was rubbing something in that I didn’t know what.  I can only imagine how the locals felt watching these fortunate people abandon them in the bottom of the canyon.  Leaving them to deal with their own problems now.

The locals don’t have the option to flee.  This is their home.  These are their lives.  They will run in peace.  They will run in war.  They will run with us, or they will run without us.  The most important thing is TO RUN.  I could not get this message out of my head that morning.  Forget everything else, and run with the Raramuri. 

I saw Maria in the street and approached her and told her how I felt.  I told her that I loved and respected her more than she could know, but for me, the most honest and authentic thing I could do that morning was to run in Las Barrancas Del Cobre with the Raramuris.   Some two and half or three hours after the race had started, Miguel and myself stripped down in the middle of the street in downtown Urique, and with Erica accompanied by the cheers of the locals, ran to the start where they drew numbers on our legs, and started off into the canyons to run with our friends.  I found Rene who was near the bridge supporting and cheering for runners and told him that I would hope he would join.  Later I saw him on the course pacing his friend.  She wanted to drop a little over half way into the course.  Rene took it upon himself to help her get to the finish, and we celebrated when she did. Reinforced by the many people who cheered me out of the streets of Urique, I knew I had made the right decision.  My only regret was not having the courage to come to these realizations earlier.

I don’t know how far I ran that day.  I don’t know what time I ran it in.  I have no idea what place I got, or if I was even registered in the race. What I do know is that I have never run so easy, so free and light. I ran all day in the sun up and down canyons, in the middle of hundreds of Raramuri and never felt better.  All the negativities of the violence, the fighting, the dramatics, the politics of the preceding weekend were gone, and we were running.  This was the stand.  This was the protest.  This was the message.  We were running for peace in a place ravaged by war.  We were running for community and family.  We were running to simply run,  sharing in the true spirit of all of the runners who have ever run those canyon walls.  This was running free.

I don’t know what is going to happen to the Ultra Maraton de Caballo Blanco.  This year changed a lot of people’s outlook and feelings towards the race, and I can only hope that whatever happens down there, will continue the spirit of what Micah originally wanted for his race to be, to support the Raramuris culture, and to reinforce running free in that culture.  I know that for me, as long as I am welcomed, I will be back to see it for many years to come.

Corre libre.

“While they are at war, we come together to create peace and hope at the bottom of a deep canyon in the middle of nowhere; nowhere but beauty, to create peace and run free.  What more is there?” -  Micah True (1953-2012).