Chasing the spirit of Caballo Blanco in the bottom of a Mexican canyon

C

If you’re going through hell, keep going” Winston Churchill.


“Wait, why exactly are you doing this again?”, came the Nagging Voice, who sometimes joins me on my more adventurous runs.

I’d been running for more than seven hours under a merciless sun pelting down on me, amid a harsh landscape of gleaming rocks, dirt, and cactuses. I was thirsty, sunburned and tired…and I had at least four more hours ahead of me. 

Río Urique // Urique river. Attribution: panza.rayada, WikiMedia Commons.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, went the rocky gravel under my shoes.

I tried to drown out the Nagging Voice with silly running mantras: Slow down, it’s not a marathon; it’s an ultramarathon. It doesn’t matter if you’re feeling good or bad, it will soon go away. 

And the cliché that worked best: I don’t have to run, I get to run.

If I temporarily stepped into hell –my chapped lips; the annoying little pebble and/or toenail that often falls off during ultras; the damned blister throbbing on my right foot– I was soon yanked back to reality. I was in the remote Copper Canyons in Mexico, running the race of my dreams: the 80km Ultra Maratón Caballo Blanco chronicled in the bestselling book Born to Run

I was doing it relatively pain free (relative being, well, relative), alongside some of the most determined runners in the world, sharing the trail with children as young as 11 to great-grandparents deep into their sixties and seventies. Unlike me, the local runners weren’t wearing fancy trail shoes and hydration packs. Nor were they pacing themselves using running apps and heart rate monitors. Youngsters simply ran in blue jeans, women in bright and billowing dresses, and men in traditional skirts. Most of them were wearing sandals made from leather straps and old car tyres. It was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before.

But, wait. How exactly did I end up here?


Baby, we were born to run

Back in 2009, Chris McDougal’s must-read Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen became an international bestseller and helped launch an (ultra) running boom. 

The book chronicles the author’s quest to run better, by consulting some of the best experts in the field. The heart of the story, though, is a little-known Mexican tribe known as the Tarahumara (in Spanish) or Rarámuri ( in their own language), known for their running prowess, as well as the mysterious American gringo, known as el Caballo Blanco (the White Horse, in Spanish), who had been living for years in a small hut in their midst. Caballo Blanco’s dream is to organise a race pitting top American ultrarunners against the locals in the unforgiving Copper Canyons of Chihuahua, Mexico.

This year marked the 18th Caballo Blanco race, and almost two decades after it all started, the Copper Canyons is still the only place in the world where you can run with one of the last ultrarunning tribes on earth.


The Rarámuri

According to etymologists, the word “Rarámuri” means “those who run fast” or “the light-footed ones” in their native tongue, a hint at how culturally ingrained running is. 

The Rarámuri tend to walk or run where they need to go, whether that’s over to the neighbour’s or to a neighbouring town. There are many accounts of Rarámuri running down wild turkeys and deer in persistence chases, the exhausted animals simply collapsing, sapped of the energy needed to escape. 

But ultrarunning isn’t just for practical meal sourcing, it’s also seen as fun. For example, after a ceremony known as a tesgüinada, villagers often challenge each other in a ball-chasing race, called rarajipari, where runners go back and forth over a stretch of land. Races can last for a few hours, or 24, or 48 hours (!) – whatever had been decided during the boozy ceremony the night before. 

There are also reports of runners challenging each other to footraces of over 450km and, according to one historian, a Rarámuri champion once ran 700km – that’s more than sixteen marathons back-to-back.

Not only do many Rarámuri run the way their ancestors did, they still eat and live in much the same way too. They mostly practice a traditional lifestyle, growing maize and beans, raising goats and cows, some inhabiting natural shelters like caves, others migrating to different pastures each year. 

But recent years have brought the double-edged sword of modernisation. Development brings access to the outside world, even if that world is only a few hundred kilometres away, but it also upends a way of life that many feel is worth preserving.

Paved roads certainly roll in more tourist dollars and better access to proper education and healthcare. But it also helps the likes of Nestlé and Coca Cola cart in truckloads of processed food to a population who never before had access to these treats. 

A 1970s study of Rarámuri men found an absence of anyone being overweight, zero counts of high cholesterol, no cardiovascular disease or reports of stroke, almost unheard-of low rates of cancer, and absolutely no reports of diabetes. Predictably, the list of health ailments have been steadily charting upwards in tandem with the recent changes in diet, mobility, and lifestyle.

But there’s a fine line in this narrative. As outsiders, we need to be careful not to perpetuate the romanticised stereotype of the noble savage, for whom “traditional ways of life” must be preserved and development must be denied. (“Oh, you just don’t know how good you have it, trust us, we do”).

For hundreds of years the Rarámuri have survived (and quite literally outran) outside invaders: Hernán Cortés and the relentless Spanish conquistadores; missionaries spreading scripture and the Spanish flu; Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. I’m not a gambling man, but my money is on the Rarámuri for making it through the modern invasion of paved roads, oily potato chips, Maruchan instant noodles, and Tecate beer just fine. 

I saw a small example of this evolution this year. The legendary local runner, Arnulfo Quimare, won the premiere Caballo Blanco race in his homemade huarache sandals, wearing a traditional white skirt and his bright red tunic. He “trained” simply by walking and running everywhere he needed to go and living a traditional lifestyle on a small plot of farmland, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. This year, the 29-year-old Miguel Lara local (who apparently prefers hitching rides between places) won the race, but in modern running shoes and quick-dry athletic garments, supposedly training the way most modern athletes do. 

Sure, we were born to run, but we were also born to adapt, Rarámuri or otherwise. 


That’s how it starts

A decade ago, when I first read Born to Run, I was fat (lugging around an extra 23 kilograms), I was sad (Weltschmerz in German, due the mismatch between the actual state of the world and my lofty expectations of it), and I was very fond of beer (which hasn’t changed much, but hey, now I’m running!). 

But the book’s theme of finding the deep, pure joy of running resonated with me – and so, for the first time in my life, I really began to run. 

While running, your brain gets blasted with endorphins, a natural feel-good opioid that also gets released during sex and laughter, and endocanabinoids, a naturally synthesised version of THC (the calming ingredient in marijuana), so I quickly returned to my normal bubbly (and less blubbery) self. It became enough of a routine that I felt a little gross when I skipped a run, sort of the way you’d feel after not showering for a few days. And, over the years, this routine became a (mostly) healthy addiction, with me leaving soft footprints wherever I traveled. 

Fast forward a decade and in 2019 my partner and I took a road trip through Mexico, fell in love with the country and decided to move to the bustling capital. Mexico City lies at 2,240 metres above sea level and is surrounded by hills and mountains, crisscrossed with trails that can reach an elevation of over 5,000 metres. Chapultepec Park, the centrally located Lungs of The City, spans over 686 hectares, twice the size of New York’s Central Park. Once you make peace with the altitude, the smog, and the traffic, it is an amazing place to lace up your tekkies and head out the door for some high-altitude training. Mexicans are, like South Africans, a rather stubborn lot –who also don’t know how or when to give up– which means the amateur ultrarunning scene is flourishing here in my new home, just like it is back in my old one.

In late February 2020, I took a flight to Chihuahua –the name shared by Mexico’s smallest breed of dog, the largest state, and that state’s capital city– and from there drove a rental car into the wild Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyons). It felt like stepping into a spaghetti Western movie set, complete with sun-aged men in cowboy hats and boots, cattle ranchers on horseback, fire red sunsets, and endless stars stretched wide over the cold desert sky. 

The canyons consist of 65,000 square kilometres of untamed wilderness –able to swallow the country of Eswatini almost four times over– and are both deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon north of the border. 

Over the millennia, streams flowing from the higher pine forests have carved out an enormous tangled labyrinth, cutting down thousands of metres into the vertical cliff face and volcanic rock of the Sierra Madre mountain range.

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Increíble vista 😍 #OthersideChihuahua

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The view as you head down into the canyon, near Urique, where the Caballo Blanco race is held each year.

The last stretch of the drive was particularly jaw-dropping. I wound my way down the narrow dirt road, making sure to stay mountainside on the scary landslip-prone hairpin turns. Many drivers have miscalculated life by a few centimetres, and I wasn’t going to join their fate in my tiny Chevrolet Beat. The temperature climbed at the same quick rate I was losing altitude, and I quickly had to switch to shorts on the side of the road. Whereas I experienced a maximum temperature of -1 °C one day on the canyon rim, it was a balmy 30 °C at the bottom (and the mercury often rises above 40 °C later in summer).


Urique

On the canyon floor lies Urique, a former mining village now famous (to the crazy ultrarunning lot) for hosting the annual Caballo Blanco race. The last census shows a population of just over 1,100 people, which more than doubles during the race weekend. The town is flanked by a river on the one side and the canyon on the other, with the main street only stretching about 400 metres in either direction. In other words: Mexico’s Fochville, just smaller. 

Today, the area is known for the stark landscape, the impossibly tough runners, and the nearby marijuana and poppy fields. There is a street, right as you enter town, that was widened a few years ago to facilitate easier transport of “medical supplies” by small airplanes (but certainly handy for all sorts of air freight). Sadly, officials had to cancel the race in 2015 due to flaring drug violence in the area, but things have long since returned to normal. You definitely won’t see any narco activity, unless you are very determined to seek it out. 

So despite some local oddities, like the informal-looking police force/neighbourhood watch with semi automatic assault rifles waving you in with a smile as you arrive, the place really is charming and very safe. You’re far more likely to choke while wolfing down another delicious taco, or hurting your ankle on an uneven stretch of road, than you are to get hurt by the cartels, who prefer to keep themselves and their activities far out of view.

As I pulled up the handbrake on the weekend of the race, there was an incredible buzz around, with excited locals welcoming runners from all over Mexico and the world. Spare rooms were converted into makeshift hotel rooms, friendly faces selling spicy homemade snacks and ice cold beer right from their living rooms, and music coming from all directions. The weekend was full of activities, with the kids’ Caballitos race on Friday, the inaugural half-marathon on Saturday, and the 40 and 80km races on Sunday.

For three days, music and the booming voices of the energetic announcers blasted from the central plaza. Whether you’re a light sleeper or not: pack earplugs.

Urique announcement
Lace up your sandals and join us!

It’s not only those from far away who cause this influx. The town ballooned in size mostly due to visiting Rarámuri runners from other parts of the canyons. Some of them arrived in rickety old yellow American school buses, some standing upright on the back of bakkies, others walking (some more than 40 kilometres–yes, before the 80km race. The majority slept in makeshift shelters or outside on mats. 

Note to self: if you’re complaining about the bumpy road in your air conditioned car or the noise from mariachi bands that penetrate the walls of your private room as you try to nap, I suggest you try walking a marathon, sleeping on the ground, running 80km on rocky terrain in sandals and then walking home again with a big bag of beans on your shoulders. 


There were cash incentives for the top runners (or a bicycle, if you’re the fastest of the young caballitos). Runners receive bracelets at various checkpoints and the Rarámuri get to swap these bracelets in for money, bags of maize and beans at the end.

The celebrations included the Carrera de los Caballitos race, where youngsters aged three and up received school supplies, clothes, and a medal for participating.

The runners were also an interesting lot – an amiable group of running misfits who had made their way to Urique from across the world. There was the dreadlocked Brit who trained on a treadmill in prison after getting busted for dealing contraband. The guy who cycled and jogged over 2000km from Boulder, Colorado, raising donations for the Rarámuri children in the process. The Native American artist who spent two days in the sun, painting a stunning mural on the side of a building in the plaza. The group of Americans who crammed in a van, shoulder-to-shoulder, and drove all the way from Texas in a day (and even crazier: starting their 15-hour return journey the morning after the race). The volunteers who collected hundreds of old medals back home to hand out to the young caballitos. Other proselytes of the jolly Hash House Harriers, the international drinking club with a running problem. The Mexicans, who had a lot more culturally in common with me and the other foreigners than with the Rarámuri. And the shy, gentle Rarámuri, who don’t fake-smile on photos, but radiate a calm and happiness while running that is hard to explain.

We swapped stories next to the river and over games of pool; we had many laughs over cold Tecate beer and fiery sotol liquor, the no-nonsense northern neighbour to Mexico’s more famous tequila and mezcal. 

Strangers pulled up chairs to join me for a coffee and a chat in English, so that you won’t have to eat your breakfast alone, poor guy; aunties handing out extra helpings of food, because you’ll need more power for your run, sweetheart.

Rumour also had it that the legend himself, Arnulfo Quimare, was going to make an appearance to participate in the race he won almost two decades ago.

We were 30 foreign runners registered for the 80km race; about double that amount if you included the two shorter events. Each country received a special mention during the pre-race event –the entire town crammed into the plaza, obviously– and a small cheer erupted after Sudáfrica was mentioned. (The organizers told me I was probably the first ever participant from South Africa, and likely the first ever participant from the African continent). Despite my double black belt in cynicism and apathy, it absolutely tugged at my heartstrings when I saw the South African flag strung up in this desolate, tiny little town.


Race day

I almost fell out of bed, my heart jumping out of my chest, when I heard the announcer shouting over the sound system at 4:30am. Oh shit! I missed the gun! Three seconds later relief came in the form of my alarm going off, telling me I had a peaceful hour left to get ready and that they were thankfully only doing a sound check. 

Stepping into the dark street, the townsfolk were already crowding around the starting line, as a local band played chirpy tunes with drums, fiddles, and flutes from the stage. I exchanged nervous chatter and hugs with those around me. The announcer made a short speech and the local gun-slinging guardias cleared the dogs and spectators from the street. At the very last minute someone ran out and saved the pup sniffing around our ankles from being trampled on by all the runners. The adorably cheery, omnipresent mutt we dubbed “The Mayor” earlier that weekend was shut behind a shop door and we were ready.

 “Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, uno!”, and we were off!

None of the Rarámuri ran with headlamps or water bottles. The occasional youngster instead passed me with a much more useful handheld radio, about the size of a school lunchbox, booming ballads as they went up the hills. For the first hour, I ran behind a woman who was doing the race completely barefoot.

Later the sun brightened up the pinkish morning sky; slowly, slowly and then all at once, as it exploded from the canyon rim. Everything lit up and came into perfect focus: the green forest up high, the rolling bushy hills, the river slithering over the rocky bottom. 

At the checkpoints, we had our choice of local fuel: bananas, oranges, or bean-filled tortillas. To rehydrate, we could pick between water, an electrolyte mix, or pinole – a nutrient and vitamin dense mix of ground mielie-meal, seeds and spices stirred into water. A power-pap smoothie.

The race follows a Y-shape, meaning the villagers can cheer the runners on as they start, pass through (twice), and end the race. It’s also convenient for grabbing a fresh pair of socks from your room or a cold drink from a shopkeeper. The medical volunteers had short queues at the resting chairs with free leg massages on offer, which sounded incomprehensibly painful to me at that time. As my friend says: “no pain, no pain”, so I just hobbled along.

My heart was pumping blood at an average of 135 beats per minute, according to my heart rate monitor. Like the beat to good electronica at an MDMA-enhanced music festival; maybe a little fast, but oddly bearable for hours on end once that (runner’s) high kicks in. My body burned through roughly 6,500 calories (more than 27,000 kJ), which I stoked with a whole litre of salted caramel flavoured running goo, eight granola bars, a big pack of Pandita gummy bears, four bean-filled tortilla wraps and endless banana halves, orange wedges, and cups of earthy pinole.

It took me 11 hours and 36 minutes before I finally crossed the finishing line, almost twice as long as it took the winner, Miguel Lara. Still, I was happy with a respectable middle-of-pack ending, and it was much more preferable than the hundreds who had to terminate their runs due to fatigue or pain or who simply didn’t make the cut-off times. “Oh, but we’re endurance runners, so it’s a good thing to be slower!” someone enlightened me. “It just means we get to endure the elements for longer”.

Caballo Blanco’s surviving partner, Mariposa (the Butterfly), put a medal over my neck and we snapped a selfie after a sweaty hug – the #2 on my bib being the same number Caballo always used to give her. 

Someone handed me an ice cold Tecate, and then another and another, as we were cheering the other finishers on, many making it back only in the dark of night. Despite our best efforts to celebrate all night long, most of us were in bed by 10pm, pillows under our bruised feet, smiles on our faces, and memories seared forever in our minds.


As I hobbled over to my car the next day, to make the bumpy drive back to Chihuahua, I noticed that my one tyre needed some air. After getting directions (“left here, then right after the runway and across from the market lives the guy with the compressor”), I pulled into the mechanic’s yard. 

As he was inspecting my tyres, a bakkie stopped right behind us, flashing his headlights once. I quickly shuffled to move my car; I only needed to move forward two metres to let the other guy in. “No, dear. He can wait. You’re our guest” the proprietor’s wife said with the warmest smile. Awkwardly I shrugged it off, but hopped in to move my car as soon as the mechanic grumbled off, looking for a different pressure gauge in his shop. And out of the bakkie car stepped none other than the legend! “Espere, es Arnulfo?” (Wait! Is that Arnulfo?) I whispered to the lady, like a kid seeing his sports hero in person. “Sí, amor, es Arnulfo!”.

The overexcited author with Arnulfo Quimare, winner of the first race

To give you an idea: imagine parking like an absolute idiot in the hometown of, say, Chester Williams or Hussain Bolt, blocking their car from entering a parking lot and the locals going “No. He can wait, dear. You’re our guest”.

Oh, Urique, I’ll see you again next year!


About, references and further reading

Micah True (a.k.a. Caballo Blanco), passed away from heart failure while out on a trail run in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico in 2012. You can find his surviving run, spirit, and friends, each year in the town of Urique, Mexico. https://www.facebook.com/ultracaballoblanco/

Werner van Rooyen spends most of his time in Mexico City, where he is slowly eating his way through all the taquerias. He still considers Cape Town home. https://www.wernervanrooyen.com

Traveling into the Copper Canyons requires patience, a sense of humour, and a vehicle with good clearance (unless it is a rental car with full insurance – they go absolutely everywhere).

About the author

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (from eight nerds in a drafty office to hundreds spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently a full-time nomad, learning, running and doing research, mostly in Latin America.

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About me

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (from eight nerds in a drafty office to hundreds spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently a full-time nomad, learning, running and doing research, mostly in Latin America.