Caballo Blanco Ultra Marathon
Ultra runner Richard Durance journeyed to the Copper Canyons of Mexico to run the 11th Caballo Blanco ultra marathon, and the first since the death of the man who started the race and inspired a generation.
Like so many runners, I have read the book ‘Born to Run’ by Chris McDougall and was enraptured by the tale of Micah True. The accounts of the native Tarahumaran runners covering huge distances at great speeds was intriguing to me as a runner.
As a man who had lived among them for so many years, True was intrigued to see whether the best Ultra Runners from the States could compete with the locals. Ten years ago he persuaded a number of America’s finest to visit the canyon and tackle a race he designed, and the trick was then to persuade the Tarahumara to take on the challenge. In simple terms it was the offer of sacks of corn for race completion that proved the attraction. Needless to say the locals came out on top.
Fast forward ten years, during which period the event became an annual one. In 2012 there were approximately 350 participants of which 50 or so were from the States or Canada.
After True’s death in March last year, I read his obituary in the Times and only then fully appreciated the impact the book and his life had had on those around the globe for whom running is their first sporting love.
This year’s event became a memorial run, organised by his partner Maria and colleague Josue.
So, having looked for inspiration following my trips to the North Pole in 2011 and Marathon des Sables in 2012, my target became participating in the Copper Canyon Caballo Blanco Ultra on March 3rd 2013.
I set off with my running buddy from Southwell Running Club, Wayne Wilmot, and we went as the very first Brits to take part, albeit that there were a dozen of when we got there. The route took us from Heathrow to Houston to Chihuahua by plane and then a train - ‘El Chepe’ - for a further southbound eight hours. Far from a hellishly long journey, this leg this was a bonus as it features on many lists as one of the top 10 train journeys in the world.
The last leg of our mission was a bus to the village of Urique - the base for the event - which was only a further 54km downhill but took almost four hours on the dreadful and dangerous track into the canyon. We were torn between enjoying the spectacular views of a natural wonder significantly wider and deeper than the USA’s Grand Canyon and contemplating the jaw-dropping distance to the floor we saw every time we looked look down!
The build up to the event involved a couple of hikes into the mountains which were breathtaking in their beauty. The first was for Micah’s memorial service, which incorporated several Native American traditions.
An estimated 40 of us made the trek up into the mountains, where we stood in a circle as his ashes were passed around inside a spectacle case - apparently Micah regularly lost his sunglasses. Then, in keeping with a Native American custom, his running T-shirts were burnt because they will clearly be of no use in the afterlife. This was accompanied by a lament being played on a pipe which echoed and hung hauntingly over the canyon.
inally, Caballo Blanco’s ashes were scattered by Maria around the tree under which he first slept on arrival in the canyon and under which they first made love. The belief is that the nutrients support the tree whose branches provide a platform for the birds to fly up into the sky to heaven, and to Micah.
As for the actual event, there were apparently 540 starters, 400 Tarahumaras and 140 others. The course of 50 miles was effectively a cloverleaf out-and-back route along separate arms of the canyon.
The race started in the dark at 6am and the temperature rapidly rose to around 100ºC. The race was brutal. Two thirds of the field didn’t finish the course with its countless rocks, dust and ups and downs. At each turn the locals were given a wristband to be exchanged for a sack of corn by the government, who this year threw their support behind the event. Foreigners had to settle for a medal and a T-shirt.
Wayne and I finished in 13.5 hours, which was deemed to be more than acceptable all things considered. Some of the Tarahumara had walked up to 80 miles just to take part. Even a couple of legs equated to two sacks of corn, which made the journey worthwhile for them.
The stories are many and the memories of my visit to the Copper Canyon will remain for a lifetime. The event will inevitably grow in years to come and that is probably the only downside as the peace and harmony of the canyon will inevitably be steadily eroded. Still, how lucky were Wayne and I to be in Urique in March 2013.