Eugene Buchanan: Channeling my inner Tarahumara
Blame it on the Tarahumara. Or author Christopher McDougall and his cryptic character Caballo Blanco.
How else would you explain the harebrained idea of hopping off the couch to jog the Zirkle Circle, an 11-mile, 2,400-vertical loop in the Mount Zirkle Wilderness Area connecting Gilpin and Gold lakes?
It wouldn’t be so bad if I were actually a runner, one of those sadists who pound the pavement a few times each week. But I’m not. I got one run in all summer, a pathetic attempt to keep up with my 17-year-old daughter on a paltry 3-miler.
I’m halfway through McDougall’ book, “Born to Run,” about the barefoot-bounding Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. With callouses as honed as their cardio, they regularly open a royal can of whoop-ass on Nike-footed ultra runners in such stateside events as the Leadville 100. They’ve even shown their toes at our own Run Rabbit Run 100-miler, this year slated for Sept. 16.
So, inspired by their antics and my own Doritos-eating slouchdom, I decided to walk in their shoes. Or rather, run in them. How hard could it be to whip off 11 miles?
It happened last Friday, after filling the kids’ cereal bowls with Honey Bunches of Oats and shooing them off to school. I filled my hydration pack, threw in a raincoat and some Honey Stinger chews and drove north to the Slovenia trailhead. And I hedged my bet — and heart rate — by planning to fly-fish a high alpine meadow halfway through, throwing my rod and four flies in my pack (didn’t want the weight of a fifth).
If fishing en route broke with Tarahumara tradition, so did my shoes, a pair of 16-year-old Nikes whose foam is as compressed as my 53-year-old vertebrae. I wasn’t about to take the beat-down barefoot.
A gaggle of other hikers at the trailhead dispersed by the time I gazelled out of the gate at 9:07 a.m., taking the route counter-clockwise. And then I jogged off into the great, blistering unknown.
Technically I can use the term jogging, defined as “running at a steady gentle pace, especially on a regular basis as a form of physical exercise.” The “regular basis” part didn’t apply, but it was certainly exercise and a gentle pace. Another definition calls it “running slower than 6 mph; distinguished from running by wider lateral foot-strike spacing, adding stability at slower speeds or when coordination is lacking.”
My shuffle steps were half that speed, and my lack of coordination surfaced at my first stumble from not lifting my toe high enough.
A quarter-mile in, the registration kiosk saved me; might as well fill it out, I reasoned, and write down my next of kin. My next barometer was the turn-off to Mica Lake, which seemed a lot farther than I remembered.
I banked some karma at a creek crossing a few coronaries later. Two women were wondering which way to go, and I showed them without even breaking stride. And since they saw me running, I had to keep running.
I’d planned on taking my first break at Gilpin, but I kept going, counting wind-chop breaks to break up the tedium. Eventually, I passed a group of eight in jeans, and soon, five others near the top of the ridge. Exchanging pleasantries, one asked if I was a Christian and said I could join them in a group mass when the rest of their party hiked up from the other side. I had enough foot pain without thinking about crucifixions, so I politely declined. Besides, I had fish — and my breath — to catch.
On the way down, I passed the other religious runners coming up, several actually reciting the Lord’s prayer. Had I joined in, I would have replaced Our Father with Our Faciiitis. Like the Tarahumara, one was even barefoot — a tortuous way to “forgive us our trespasses.”
After 20 minutes or so, I hit the meadow and broke out my fly rod. Total time without stopping: two and a half hours. Whoa … hadn’t done anything that long in a long time. While I only caught one fish, at one point taking off my shoes, Tarahumara-style, to ford the creek, a bigger reward was the break.
It was all downhill from there, paralleling a creek to Gold Lake, then following a root- and rock-filled trail down to the valley bottom. Breaking into my Stinger chews, I calculated that if each morsel took a quarter-mile to suck, eight would last two miles. Tonguing them between cheek and gums, I passed hikers heading down and backpackers heading up, my inner Indian fully on display. I even passed a white horse coming up, perhaps the specter of Caballo Blanco or maybe just a hallucination from my hypoxia.
Eventually, I made it back to the kiosk junction and the final stretch home — not exactly a horse returning to the barn, but I could sense the end was near. Back at my car, my watch read 2:07 p.m. — about five hours total. But an hour and 10 minutes had been spent fishing, and another 10 minutes untangling my line, so that meant three hours, 40 minutes of running. Halfway respectable, until I realized the fastest marathon was run in 2:03 — dwarfing my 20-minute miles with 4.7-minute ones.
Still, I was happy. At least until I shoe-horned myself out of the car and limped to the counter for some chocolate milk at the Clark Store, knowing my daughters’ soccer coaches recommended it for recovery. That’s when my ankles, calves and knees rebelled, letting out their own Tarahumara war cry. But at least I had one thing the Tarahumara didn’t: a hot tub waiting back home.
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