A few months back I got an email from Health Warrior asking if I would like to come to Copper Canyon Mexico, to live, run and eat with the Tarahumaras. The trip would be inspired by the book Born to Run, by Chris McDougall, in an efforts to raise awareness and money for the chia farms in Urique, Mexico. The chia seeds grown in Urique would then be used for Health Warriors new flavor – Mexican Chocolate! And a portion of the proceeds would then go to the very farm we would be visiting! I had to read the email a few times over because I was in complete shock. For more on the kickstarter read here- kickstarter.healthwarrior.com
After anticipating this trip for months, departure day finally arrived. I boarded a plane from New York to Dallas and there we met the rest of the crew who would be on the trip. Health Warrior staff, journalists, my friend Stefania who took photos along the way, the film crew and myself. We boarded the second plan to Chihuahua, Mexico. With one full day of travel behind we still had many more hours to go. The Tarahumara are not easy to get to! The next day involved a bus, a train and then another bus ride.Our guide and translator was Mickey, an American who moved to Unique and who now operates the chia farm where the Tarahumara work. Mickey basically lives like the Tarahumara nowadays. The third leg of our trip consisted of one of the most frighting car rides of my life. We went down dirt roads for two hours, over bumps and through narrow roads and at one point we were driving a straight shoot down the mountain. The driver (Titto, thank you my man!) had been doing this for years and was very confident. Me, not so much and I held on tightly to the rail in the car and watched the driver’s every move. After a full two days of travel we made it to Urique.In those first few days all my expectations flew out the window and I totally changed my perspective of everything I thought about the Tarahumara. I had expected that, for the best ultra runners in the world, they would be running lots and lots of miles every day, right? I figured they probably spent hours upon hours training and just running everywhere. Nope! One of the first things I learned about this hidden tribe is they actually don’t run at all. Mickey explained to us that they only run if they are being chased or if they are racing. Fascinating! I always believed that to be a good runner you had to run and run a lot. Later that night we learned Arnulfo (famously known in the book Born to Run as one of the best runners among the Tarahumara) actually walked for 6 hours to join us while we were in town.After walking just a few blocks to the restaurant where we would be eating I understood why “walking” kept the Tarahumara in shape to run. The terrain was completely hilly throughout. There was almost no flat ground and there were only dirt roads -the perfect set up for every runner. We walked into Mama Tita’s Restaurant where we would eat the majority of our meals. Mama Tita is the local cook for the Tarahumaras, the first thing I noticed when I walked in was the wide screen TV playing what looked like a Mexican soap opera. From the looks of the streets and homes, this TV was a bit “out of place” but we continued into the next room that had the kitchen to its left and the outdoor dining room straight ahead. The chipped paint, burn marks on the walls and vibrant orange colors brought us back to the reality of where we were. We were about to sit and have our first traditional meal that Mama Tita had prepared for us.But first I needed to get a look at the kitchen. Speaking very few words of Spanish I was able to communicate to Mama Tita that I was a chef as well. (After that we had our translator step in!) I didn’t want to intrude but as she saw me eyeing the pots she insisted I open them and try everything. I told her no “carne or leche” (“meat or dairy”) and she understood right away. She then began to explain to me that the Tarahumara don’t eat much meat either. When they do have meat it’s only for a special occasion. It is actually less then 5% of their diet. Corn and beans were the major staples at each meal…but I’ll get to that in a bit.Dinner was nothing short of spectacular – refried beans, guacamole, tortillas, salsa and chicken (no chicken for me)…Everything was so simple and yet so rich with tradition – a wonderful reminder that the simplest of foods can be extraordinary. For the Tarahumara, when it comes to produce the rule is, if they don’t grow it, they don’t eat it. And when I looked at their produce I immediately saw the difference that “homegrown” makes. Just look at these photos. I haven’t seen corn that looked like that ever.We walked back to our hotel room, up what felt like a mile-long hill. As we entered our room we were told not to leave our shoes out and to zip up our luggage. Scorpions tend to hide in warm places and unless we wanted a rude surprise when lacing up, we had to pack them away at night. The room was rustic and had that same orange paint on the wall. I slept with one eye open all night in major fear of scorpions crawling into my bed. The roosters woke us up bright and early.In the morning it was back to Mama Tita’s for another delicious meal. Breakfast was served “family style” – you bring your plate up and serve yourself.. There was eggs with peppers and onions, salsa, cactus, tobacco plant, spinach, refried beans and tortilla. This is a typical Tarahumara breakfast – a big feast to fuel a long day’s work. They eat three large meals a day and that’s it. No dessert, protein drinks, protein bars….they live a simple life. And they always sit together and enjoy their food together.As we continued to explore the city, which yesterday had felt like traveling back in time, we noticed how technology and the little aspects of modern life have seeped into village life. Coca Cola was everywhere. Which made me worry that one day these modern changes would take away from the rich culture and tradition that makes this tribe so special.
We headed over to Mickey’s farm where we would begin our first run. Arnulfo asked if we wanted to run three or six hours. And he was not joking! We all agreed on a happy medium and picked a two hour trail run. It was going to be an out-and-back so if anyone was left behind they would know their way. I reminded everyone that I get lost running in a circle and that if I wasn’t back by midnight they should come look for me! Finally we arrived at the “trail.” I had envisioned a dirt road or path lined with some rocks…after all this was the famous ultra-marathon course so it had to be safe….
Off we went on a slow jog down a road lined with rocks–exactly what I was expecting. Yes, I thought, this is so doable. Then we arrived at a huge rock that looked like an obstacle course. Arnulfo flew right over it – so gracefully with his sandals and all. Everyone else seemed to hop right over as well. The few who were behind me gave me a hand as I struggled over, stumbling on my own two feet. By now Arnulfo and the rest of the crew were out of site.
We had a security guide named Dennis with us and (thankfully) he stayed with me the whole way through the trails. I am not sure if he was as nervous as I was as he stood behind me while I stumbled and slipped on the sand. If he was, he never showed it. The trail was nothing like I envisioned. It was more of a steep uphill hike with sharp turns and lots of slippery sand. I watched Arnulfo run so gracefully and effortlessly and he never got out of breath or breathed heavily. He had a big grin on his face the whole way through. The way down was even more petrifying than the way up. Dennis held my hand (no really, he did) the whole way down. One slip on one rock and you are done. Arnulfo, on the other hand, went the same pace up as he did down. Light on his feet with just a piece of rubber separating the bottom of his foot and the ground.
After watching how Arnulfo so gracefully ran in those sandals I knew had to get a pair. I had no intentions of running in them but I needed to know what they felt like. And anyway, Arnulfo insisted we ditch our sneakers and get a pair, which he explained are even customized to your foot. Stefania and I went on a hunt to find them. We walked the streets and asked anyone we saw where we could find the sandals. Eventually we found someone who pointed us to a house and said that the man in the house was the only one who makes the sandals. Skeptical and nervous we walked in and saw only a bed and an entrance to the back. We walked through the house and found an older gentleman sitting by a table surrounded by leather goods. We told him what we needed a pair of sandals. Luckily he had two pairs left. He had us sit down and he measured our feet. He looked at me and asked if I spoke any Spanish and Stefania informed him I didn’t. He then asked if I would want to work for him during the marathon where he makes over 400 of these sandals. He also wanted to take picture with me that he could keep. At the time it felt a bit awkward but Stefania and I agreed that it must had been my blonde hair. To him I was probably exotic looking. We watched him for an hour as he cut and made these sandals using just a sharp knife. He handed us the sandals and asked for 150 pesos, the equivalent of $9.00.We then made our way to the big feast prepared for us at Mickey’s farm. We worked our new sandals on our feet as we struggled to walk over to the farm just a few blocks away. My feet started to bleed and so did Stefania’s but we were determined. The longer we wore them the more comfortable they became (kind of similar to Birkenstocks where your feet mold into them). That night we enjoyed a traditional feast with the famous Tarahumara corn-beer. Corn-beer is iconic in Born to Run. The Tarahumara drink it daily; it has just a bit of alcohol and is rich in carbs. The party would not be over until we finished the beer and a small bowl was passed around as everyone chugged a glass of the corn beer. As the night came to an end so did our journey in Urique.It was very clear to me that emulating the Tarahumara lifestyle is just not possible when you live in the modern world we live in. But I think we can all learn something from the way they live. They are happy – so much happier then most people I know who have everything they could ever imagine. In today’s world it always seems that we never have enough. The Tarahumara are warm, generous and so kind. They work hard – very hard – and they eat what they grow and don’t eat what they don’t grow. Health Warrior is giving back to this amazing tribe so that they can continue to stick to their tradition and to work hard day in and out doing jobs that require intense labor. I was sad to leave, knowing that I may never make it back to Urique but I knew I would never forget the moments I spent with the Tarahumara. They are remarkable genuine human beings who deserve to be recognized and admired. I think we can all use a lesson in gratefulness and maybe not complain when we park too far from the grocery store :).
All photos by: Stefania Curto