Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Born to Run Ultra Marathon Experience-Race Report

The Tarahumara are a beautiful people. "The Tarahumara live in and above the canyons of northern Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental, where they retreated five centuries ago from invading Spaniards." They call themselves the "Rarámuri", which is a more respectful term for these amazing people. The Rarámuri are human just like you and me, but I believe they represent so much more - living and running free.

"They are extraordinary endurance runners, having lived for generations amid a transportation network of narrow footpaths through the canyons; Rarámuri means "foot-runner" or "he who walks well," and they've been known to irritate American ultramarathoners by beating them while wearing huarache sandals..." ("A People Apart", National Geographic, November, 2008) 

Caballo Blanco had a deep passion for running and the Rarámuri. He would have loved the Born to Run Ultra Marathons this past weekend, if he were still alive. He would have been surrounded by people he loved and the people that love him. A team of Rarámuri racers had come to run! Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett were running the 100 mile race. And El Coyote, Luis Escobar, was running the show as the Race Director. It was a reunion of the Born to Run cast! Without the spirit of Caballo Blanco, there is no "Born to Run" book or Ultra Marathon weekend. Caballo Blanco made all this happen, through his love and passion for running and the Rarámuri. There were over 550 people registered to run the Born to Run Ultra Marathons (10 mile, 50K, 100K, 100 mile). The festivities began on Friday, May 16th, and the Rarámuri were conducting a Rarajipari Bolla Race demonstration! "This will be the only acceptable time to photograph them." I was actually going to see the Rarámuri playing Rarajipari! How cool is that!

I bought a fantastic burrito lunch and took a front row seat to witness the Rarámuri play their legendary game. Volunteers were needed to join the Rarámuri in a 5-on-5 Bolla Race! How would you feel if you were given the opportunity to play basketball with Michael Jordan on a friendly 5-on-5 game? Utter shock. Joy. Honored. I quickly stood up, abandoning my lunch to join in on the race. Maria Walton and Billy Barnett were also on my team along with one of the Rarámuri. Each lap is about a quarter of a mile and we were going to complete 10 laps. Each team has a wooden ball and the Rarámuri runner holds a wooden stick (you can't use your hands). It's like racing with a soccer ball, except with a wooden ball the size of a softball. I threw all caution to the wind and played my heart out, like there was no tomorrow. It was a blast! We ended up losing, but no one cared. We were all champions. I was exhausted, but happy!

There was going to be a beer mile, led by Patrick Sweeney, an amazing ultra runner who has raced in the Copper Canyons for the past 4 years. On Thursday, Patrick set a world record for the beer half marathon! He drank 13 beers and ran 13.1 miles in 2 hours and 17 minutes, with temperatures in the mid-nineties! After the Rarajipari Bolla race, I was tired and had no intention of running the beer mile. Fortunately, Gregorio, who also participated in the bolla race convinced me to join in on the fun. I caved pretty quickly, in the spirit of stupid fun - since it was for a good cause (donations as entry fees into the beer mile). I just planned to take it easy and just have fun with it. 

There were over fifty people doing the beer mile. We were supposed to bring our own beer, but I was able to get 4 free Bud Lights to participate with. It was a lot of fun, but it got progressively hard to chug down the beer after each lap. We cheered each other on as we drank beer and ran. The winner, Nick Coury, finished in 7:26. He would go on to win the 50K the next day in 3:17. I finished my first beer mile in 10:39. It was such stupid fun! After a nice burrito dinner, I headed back to my campsite to set up my tent, prepare for my race, and get to bed at a decent time. The band, Metalachi, had begun to play, and the party had just begun for a lot of people, but I was content to call it a night.

All the ultra distances started at 6:00, and we all started on the same 10 mile loop (marked with pink ribbon), while the 10-mile runners start a bit later on a different 10 mile loop (marked with yellow ribbon). Before the start, we raise our right hands and recite Caballo Blanco's disclaimer: "If I get hurt, lost or die - it's my own damn fault."

This was a training run for me, so I just took it easy and enjoyed everything about the race. I chatted with a lot of runners and made new friends at seemingly every turn. Everyone I met this past weekend was just so damn cool! 

I finished the first 10 mile loop in 1:38:17. The second loop was a little harder, but very manageable. There was a really interesting downhill section that was a lot of fun to run down! I channeled my inner-Killian Jornet and ran down it with the joy and freedom of a little kid. I finished the 2nd 10-mile loop in 1:55:59. The first 20 miles flew by all too quickly and I felt fresh enough to hammer through the last ten, but I knew that I needed to stay conservative and keep it easy. I have a 50-mile training run on the Western States course the next week, so I could not afford to wreck myself with a fast finish.

I ran into Patrick Sweeney at mile 22, and was wondering what he was doing, going so slow! This guy won last year's 50K with a blazing time of 3:49! Apparently, the world record beer half marathon took its toll. He was having a "lazy" day - unmotivated to run fast. I hung out with Patrick for a while, slowing down just to hang out with the cool speedster who I will probably never run with again! We talked about Western States and the Rarámuri. He described the Rarajipari Race that he witnessed down in the Copper Canyons, which I found fascinating! On a 4 mile course, teams consisted of 25 players, and they would cover up to 100 kilometers, or until one team lapped the other. This eventually happened in the game Patrick witnessed after over 10 hours! I eventually took off to finish my race but I really enjoyed our conversation! 

With about 3 miles to go and a gentle downhill slope, I decided to finish strong and ran the last few miles at a comfortable 9 minute pace. I finished in 5:26:20, which is my second fastest 50K time with a relatively easy-effort, which I was happy with. With less than 7 weeks till Western States, I am in the best shape of my life. I feel so lucky and blessed lately. I'm living the dream, and loving it! 

Photo Credits to Jeff Genova, Rony Sanchez and Michele Evans for the wonderful pictures!


  1. Oh my gosh!!!! What an absolutely incredible experience!! You are running so stinkin strong! I'm so happy for you, John.

  2. Thank you John for running on our Rarajipare team! It was truly an honor sharing the Bola and trails with you. Best wishes for your upcoming races. May your spirit continue to dance and run, Happy and Free! Peace always, La Mariposa

  3. Cool experience, thanks for sharing!

  4. Looks like it was an incredible adventure! I cannot stomach the idea of a beer mile, though the thought of one after a hard race is very, very appealing :)
    You are in great shape for your race coming up. I am so happy for you! Keep up the good training and post some details for me ;) I'd love to know what you do between races.