Legendary Tarahumara descend on Steamboat for Run Rabbit Run | SteamboatToday.com

Legendary Tarahumara descend on Steamboat for Run Rabbit Run

Luke Graham

Arnulfo Quimare, left, Gustavo Lozano and Miguel Lara play rarajipari on Thursday on their way down from Buffalo Pass. The game involves kicking a wooden ball and running. Quimare and Lara will compete in Friday's 100-mile Run Rabbit Run.

Tarahumara trips

— Amid a chandelier of stars and a backdrop that didn't seem so far from home, a contingent from Mexico’s remote Copper Canyon is making Summit Lake outside Steamboat Springs seem like paradise.

Spaghetti out of a Ziploc bag and corn tortillas immediately go on the grill. Wine is opened, and an 18-pack of Natural Light beer is attacked.

As one says, "Amigo, we're athletes in training. Eat up. Drink up."

The 950-mile trip from near Chihuahua, Mexico, has taken its toll. The group left Sunday and arrived Wednesday evening, days behind schedule. The van — after having troubles with the title and registration in Ciudad Juarez — lost a fuel pump the first day.

But for the seven men who trekked across the lonely deserts to get to Northwest Colorado, the inaugural Run Rabbit Run 100-miler is more than just about running.

It's about their livelihood.

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Here to race are two Tarahumara legends, Arnulfo Quimare and Miguel Lara. Both are expected to do well, if not win, Friday and Saturday's event. But it's just as much about the five others who traveled with them — four Copper Canyon tour guides and one American with wide eyes, ambitions and plans to revamp a dead economy.

The Copper Canyon "is wild," said Dave Hensleigh, who grew up in Kansas and has been leading trips for the past five years into the remote Mexican canyon the Tarahumara call home. "It has canyons bigger than the Grand Canyon. It doesn't take your breath away. It takes your soul away."

But now they're here for Quimare and Lara. Quimare was featured in the best-selling novel "Born to Run," which he hasn't read or ever seen a copy of, and Lara is a confident 22-year-old who Hensleigh proclaims is the best distance runner in the world.

"I asked (Lara) if he wanted to run in the United States, and he had a huge grin," said Gustavo Lozano, a Copper Canyon tour guide for the past 20 years. "He said he wanted to go. He loves to run. He said, 'I want to go run with the gringos.'"

A lost economy

Lozano is a lengthy man with an easy grin and a thick, full mustache. He's perhaps the only man who knows the Copper Canyon as well as the native Tarahumara. He set the course for the first famed Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon in Copper Canyon.

Business used to boom. Four years ago, 95 percent of visitors were American or Canadian. He meets most Americans at the border and then guides them to the canyon. Now, because of an economic downturn and crime in Mexico, business has changed. Just 5 percent of visitors are American. He still, however, guides from the border.

It's the same or worse for fellow guides Alfredo Murillo and brothers Tito and Mario Muñoz.

Murillo, who lives in Chihuahua, has spent his life in Mexico guiding. Because of the lost economy, he sells men's clothes at a flea market three times each week and paints cars.

He used to guide as many as 40 people each trip. Now, he's lucky if he has four.

"It's been tough," said Murillo, the oldest of the group that made the trek to Steamboat. He’s a rotund man with mocha skin, high cheeks and glasses that sit just below the bridge of his nose. "It's been real tough."

They are all here for the same reason. The Muñozes are helping sponsor the two runners. Murillo is the driver, and Lozano knows them as well as anyone. Hensleigh is the gringo.

He's a tall runner and world traveler who fell in love with the Copper Canyon and the Tarahumara half a decade ago. He also leads tours into the canyon and more times than not employs the other four to guide, drive and hopefully give an authentic Mexican experience.

"It's not the beach," said Hensleigh, who gained national notoriety by live-tweeting and walking across Ciudad Juarez — known unceremoniously as the murder capital of the world — for three days in August of last year. "It's an out-of-the-way experience. This isn't a resort. It's old Mexico."

Hensleigh is putting together the yearlong Raramuri Running Project. He hopes to bring several Tarahumara to the United States to run five or six times this year, with the Run Rabbit Run being the first. He's also hoping to get American runners to the Copper Canyon to run with the Tarahumara. He already has dates scheduled for later this year.

The thought, he said, is to make the running culture of the Tarahumara an economy of its own; to put business for people like Lozano, Murillo and the Muñoz brothers where it once was; and to give the Tarahumara more compensation than a few pesos and a bag of grain.

"There's an opportunity here to have a running industry for everyone," he said.

Love of running

Fellow campers are greeted early Thursday by a bang, bang, bang. Quimare, the Tarahumara who won the first Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon in 2006, is chopping wood to stoke the fire for instant coffee and oatmeal. The product of his chopping is uncanny, chunks of wood shaped in rectangular pieces for the fire. A stump disappears into a neat pile of roof shingles in 10 minutes.

"You have to remember, first and foremost he's a rancher," Hensleigh said. "He has a wife and four kids."

But there is the race. It's a mere 36 hours away. After slogging through maps with highlighters, Quimare and Lara appear ready.

Quimare will wear the traditional Tarahumara sandals, molded out of car tires. Lara will wear shoes.

When Quimare "runs and his sandal breaks, he takes it off and fixes it while still running barefoot," Lozano explained. "Miguel doesn't want to fix his. He doesn't want to lose time."

Everyone gathered around a map showing the vast Steamboat course. It goes this way, that way, this way and that way before going back for more.

Everyone but Quimare and Lara seemed concerned. Quimare’s expression hasn't changed, a distant look of confidence. Lara smiles and bellows chuckles that originate deep from his belly.

"I'm here for the running," Lara, 22, said through Murillo. "My main thought is to be ahead. I want to win."

They’ll be competing against some of the most accomplished ultrarunners in the world in a race that’s said to offer the largest purse of any ultramarathon.

But the biggest concern for the crew is their runners getting lost. Lara, who said he's not worried about the altitude, distance or expectations, repeatedly asked about bears. Preparations continued.

Before heading down Buffalo Pass for a warmup with Lozano, Quimare asked for motor oil and dabbed some onto his sandals.

"On long runs, he doesn't want his feet to burn," Murillo said.

The two started running down the pass playing rarajipari, a traditional Tarahumara game involving a carved wooden ball that's kicked, ran to and kicked again.

It's a sight to see. Quimare and Lara move with grace, laughing at every turn. Turn away for a second and all that's heard is the pat, pat, pat, pat of the Tarahumara's feet floating across the distance.

It's what they know and what they do.

To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229 or email lgraham@SteamboatToday.com

Run Rabbit Run race details

What: 50- and 100-mile Run Rabbit Run ultramarathon trail races

When: 50-mile race starts at 6 a.m. Saturday and has a 15-hour cutoff time for racers. The 100-mile race starts at 8 a.m. Friday for runners in the “tortoises” classification and at 1 p.m. for the “hares” classification. The cutoff time is 35 hours for tortoise racers and 30 hours for hares racers.

Course: Both races begin and end at the base of Steamboat Ski Area. For complete course descriptions, visit http://www.runrabbitrunsteamboat.com.

Details: The 50-mile race is sold out. More than 150 runners are registered for the 100-mile version. The total prize purse for the race is now at $40,000, with the bulk of it going to men’s and women’s top finishers in the hares classification. The first place man and woman in that field each will take home $10,000.

Tarahumara trips

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