We played, laughed, and smiled as we ran in a pack, like a tribe, down the brush and cactus lined switchbacks from the lighthouse. Below the clear blue sky, the ocean stretched out to the horizon on one side and the rolling landscape of Mazatlan stretched out on the other. Shawn was the dj to our mobile party blasting some energizing dubstep from his speaker and ipod. The sun was hot and the ocean breeze felt amazing as we raced to the bottom of the huge rocky hill protruding from the ocean that El Faro Lighthouse sits atop. Vultures and Frigate (aka Friggin) Birds circled high above us en mass.
We waved to the people who stopped to watch the strange pack of shirtless gringos running by. Once down from the hill we ran along the shoreline boardwalk. We stopped momentarily to buy fresh coconuts from a street vendor and continued on with the cheers from local school children as we ran. We ran along the boardwalk back to the beach in Old Town Mazatlan. Once we hit the beach we stripped off our clothes in mid stride and went straight for the cool waves rolling in.
The beach in Old Town Mazatlan has some great body surfing waves. I felt my body surfing technique getting better. The first time I had ever body surfed was in Hawaii, just a few months previous. Here is what I’ve learned as the basics of body surfing: find the right spot where the waves are breaking, plant your feet in the sand as a good one approaches, don’t let the outgoing current pull you, push off the sand hard just before the wave, paddle like crazy for a few strokes with the wave, then extend one arm so the wave can catch your armpit and push you, then ride it, and as you ride watch for high five opportunities with Sweeney, who is bound to be riding every good wave.
Mazatlan was my first Mexican experience and first time out of the country (besides Canada). I really enjoyed spending a few days in Old Town Mazatlan. It wasn’t filled with resorts and felt very culturally rich. I loved walking the bustling markets on the streets and the sleepy colorful back alleys. As for “dangerous Mexico”, I never felt unsafe in Mazatlan, though we never wandered down sketchy alleys late at night. It was strange seeing the police trucks full of armored and masked men with machine guns driving around occasionally. As it turned out, seeing a truck full of dudes armed to the teeth was not an uncommon sight in any of the areas of Mexico we would visit. Most of the time it was police or military, but a couple times in the canyons it was cartel dudes, or mercanaries, or who the hell knows, just a bunch of dudes with machine guns, no big deal, right?
Our ragtag group consisted of eight people crazy enough to make the journey: Barefoot Ted, this would be his fourth year attending the CCUM, the infamous Patrick Sweeney, in full force with all sorts of games, jokes, and antics, my best friend Shawn and his partner in crime Steff, both from Utah, the one and only Eli Duke, from Portland, Claudia from San Diego, and Sabrina from L.A. It was pretty unbelievable how fun and easy it was to travel with all of them. I could go on and on about each of them with stories of how amazing they are. I felt extremely privileged to be travelling with everyone of them.
After three days of playing in Mazatlan the eight of us started our journey to the legendary Barrancas del Cobre. Our travel was thus: taxi, 6 hour bus ride, taxi, 2 hour bus ride, hostel in El Fuerte, taxi, 6 hour train ride, 3 hour layover in Bahuichivo, 1 hour bus ride, switch buses, then 2 hour bus ride into Urique. It was two full days of travel. The main buses were super nice, way better than Greyhound in the States. The train ride was my first time riding a train and was awesome. The bus ride into Urique from the canyon rim was the scariest road I’ve ever been on.The travelling was long but very comfortable and not too expensive.
We were on our way to participate in what could be the greatest footrace on the planet, The Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon. Inside, I had been buzzing with growing anticipation for weeks, months, maybe even years. We would be running 51 miles in the canyons of the Raramuri. The story of the CCUM, the Raramuri, and the book Born To Run had been a catalyst in my life launching me into a path deeply intertwined with it all. So it was a dream and honor to be going to participate in this celebration of life, running, the Raramuri, and that undefinable spirit of… good intention maybe, korima, community,… no, not quite any of those,… or maybe this ‘thing’ is better left unnamed and undefined to float freely through the hearts of those that can taste and smell it.
If I finished this would be my first 50 miler. It was Barefoot Ted’s first 50 in 2006, and also Bookis’s (Luna co-owner and my brother) first 50 in 2011. This was a right of passage as one of the owners of Luna Sandals, which was born right there in the street of Urique with a Raramuri man named Manuel Luna. With a knife sharpened on the concrete and a chunk of tire rubber, Manuel made Ted his first pair of huaraches and the seed for Luna Sandals was planted.
We spent three full days in Urique before the race. We hung out with new friends, swam in the river, hiked around, and we cooked delicious food in the kitchen of the amazing hostel we were staying at; Entre Amigos. Two nights before the race we played basketball with the local teenagers and it was so much fun. The bleachers were full of all kinds of spectators; Mexican, Raramuri, and gringos. The court was super slick from all the dust. Urique is a dusty place. People were slipping and sliding all over the place and everybody was having a blast. Shawn would run by the girls sitting in the bleachers and get them to chant “vamos, vamos, gringos!” It was hilarious.
Walking home late that night we had an SUV full of drunk guys stop us a couple times wanting to hang out and drink. At one point they showed us their gun, in a friendly way. But with drunk dudes things can turn from friendly to hostile quickly and it put a little pep in my step to get back to the hostel.
The first Raramuri person I saw was in Bahuichivo on our way to Urique. She was a short, small woman in bright orange and red with a walking stick and the traditional tire huaraches. A smile came to my face when I first saw her. I was excited to finally get to meet the Raramuri in person. This woman ended up on the bus we were on down into Urique.
The Raramuri poured into Urique as the week progressed. They were dressed in their bright blouses and skirts and tire sandals. It is true that the Raramuri are a very beautiful people in general. Their skin tone is a vibrant brown and they have handsome facial features. Combine that with their bright traditional clothing, their timid personalities, and their reputation as legendary runners and they have a very awe-inspiring presence.
So much happened in those few days before the race there is no way I can write about all of it. I met so many amazing people. Including two local women who invited us to their home and taught a group of us how to make tortillas from scratch and how to roast and grind coffee.
Race day morning came fast. The hostel started stirring around 5am. As the race got closer I got nervous about it. Would I actually be able to run 50 miles? Especially with the tiny amount of training I had been doing. After the Orcas Island 50k a month before, I had only done a handful of short runs in the 5-7 mile range. I would definitely be testing the least amount of training possible approach to running ultras. With my drop bag packed and my sandals adjusted for racing, a group of us walked in the early morning pre-dawn darkness to the center of town and starting line. Excitement hung in the air as we all prepared ourselves. Then came the countdown and just like that we were off, running the dream that is the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon.
Just as I had heard, the Raramuri and front runners burst from the starting line as if they were running a 5k. I found my groove at a nice trot and waved to the cheering people lining the streets. In the early morning light we followed the Urique river out of town and off toward the Guadalupe school which would be the turnaround point for the first 10 mile loop. Which would also be the last loop and last 10 miles of the race. Running along the river the sun began lighting up the high canyon cliffs as we rolled up and down on a gradual climb to the school. It was a gorgeous morning in those canyons. At one point I thought about how on this stretch I would see the sunrise and later if I was still running I would see the sun set on this same stretch. It was a little shocking to think I was going to try to be running until the sunset. But I didn’t dwell on it and focused on the moment surrounded by beautiful people from all over the world all running together.
In no time the front runners were zipping by me on their return from the turnaround at Guadalupe. There were so many Raramuri running fast, just huge lines of them streaming by me at a pace that was mind-blowing. At the school I grabbed a snack and got the wristband indicating I had made it there. I cruised back, running with Shawn for a little bit and chatting with other runners. I was feeling great. My body felt 100% and my mind was reeling, trying to take it all in. Around mile 10 was the start of the first big climb. We left the dirt road for a switchbacked single track trail winding its way up the canyon. We climbed high and the miles were flying by. At the top was bracelet number 2 and a sweeping view of the canyons.
From the top was a 6 mile steady downhill dirt road. At the Orcas island 50k my approach to the downhills was to be conservative, take it slow, and conserve my leg muscles. But for Copper Canyon I decided to try the opposite and open it up, let my legs spin, and let gravity pull me down the hills. This approach felt so right and I hoped my legs wouldn’t regret my decision later. I cruised down the path feeling amazing. I caught up to Ted on this hill and chatted with him briefly. The trails and roads in the canyons are as you would expect, very rocky. On this long downhill I was really noticing that I was having to watch my steps more carefully than I wanted. Every once in a while I would catch the point of a rock right in the ball of my foot and when I was trying to open it up and run ‘fast’ it was slightly annoying to attempt to avoid every pointy rock. Watching the Raramuri running around me in their nice and thick tire sandals got me thinking. Their huaraches are heavy but they sure aren’t feeling the rocks that I was. I was making mental notes on the ideal sandal for Las Barrancas that I would develop later. Something even a little closer to the Raramuri’s tire huaraches. There is a reason the Raramuri don’t use thin sandals and prefer the beefy, thick stuff. I was also thinking about Ted’s concept of ‘Portable Ground’, which is the idea that you are running barefoot with a piece of ‘portable ground’ strapped to the bottom of your feet. Thinking about it this way makes the concept of ‘ground feel’ way less important. And in those canyons I was getting sick of ‘feeling’ the ground. I was wearing the Leadvilles with a leather footbed and the ATS laces. They were performing wonderfully other than that I would have preferred a little more rock protection. The LeadCat would have been a better choice for rock protection.
Before I knew it I was rolling back into the edge of town at mile 22. The first 22 miles were the easiest 22 miles I had ever ran. Not that the terrain was easy I was just feeling really good. I grabbed some snacks and ate some food in town and was on my way. The next stretch was relatively flat dirt road following the river for 5 miles out to the bridge and the biggest climb of the course up to Los Alisos. The sun was getting higher and the temps were rising fast. By the time I got to the bridge and started the steep dusty singletrack switchbacks the sun was in full force. It was really cookin. I power hiked up the mountain and saw Sweeney and some other friends on their way down as I was on my way up. Some people like to run parts of the course and get familiar with it before a race, which makes sense, but sometimes I really enjoy seeing the course for the first time as I’m running it. It helps keep me present by not being able to anticipate what is coming up. Instead I just take it as it comes. On the climb up to Los Alisos I was expecting it too be higher and was pleasantly surprised when all of a sudden I was at the top at the nice shady grove of grapefruit trees. The top of Los Alisos is about the 50k point in the race and it means most of the major climbing is done. At that 50k point I asked someone the time and found out we were 6:45 into the race. I was stoked to have done the first 50k in 6:45 and I still felt great. My legs felt surprisingly totally fine.
On my way down I saw Ted, Shawn, and Eli coming up and we exchanged words of encouragement. I strolled down the mountain and by the time I was at the bottom I was hot, really hot. The out and back up to Los Alisos was fairly exposed in the sun and it was now the middle of the day and really scorching. I went down to the river and filled my hat with water and dumped water all over myself which helped a lot. The 5 mile section back to Urique was brutal. It was just too hot. I made several trips down to the river to cool off but my brain was frying.
I made it back into Urique at mile 40 in just over 9 hours. My legs were still feeling great but the heat was getting to my head and stomach. I sat and snacked from my drop bag and chatted with Caballo and Steph. All I had left was the 10 mile out and back to the school at guadalupe which I had already done that morning. I left Urique again feeling determined and excited. It was still really hot but evening was around the corner.
On my way out I was seeing a lot of strong runners coming in for their finish and it was very appearant that the heat was taking it’s toll on most of us. I saw Sweeney coming in and he said he had laid down on the side of the trail and passed out for a while. I would really have to be careful if I didn’t want to bonk in the heat. So I would run for a stretch then walk for a stretch. This time out to the school felt much longer than the first time out. I eventually made it out there and got my final bracelet. The sun had gone down considerably by this point and it had cooled down quite a bit. My stomach was bothering me a little and after a bathroom break behind the bushes I felt much better.
Back on the trail I immediately ran into Flint from Montreal. Flint is such a positive and upbeat guy, he is amazing. This was his first 50 as well. He would make the perfect companion to tackle the last five miles with. As we chatted we would trot some and then walk some more as the last of the light left the canyons and we entered the darkness. I watched the sun set on those same rocks that I had watched the sun rise on. And I was still moving and still amazed by it all. Some kind of magic happened as we made our way with headlamps in the darkness. As we were chatting all of the sudden the bridge, that meant we weren’t too far from town, appeared out of nowhere. We were so excited and it hit me that we were going to finish this thing. We walked up a small hill, then with one mile to go we started running. As we approached town I could see lights and people about. Then I heard the music playing at the finish line and it pulled me in. When we hit pavement our pace picked up. My heart was beating fast from anticipation. People cheered as we ran through the streets of Urique and I was all smiles. A tunnel of people opened as we approached the finish line. Together Flint and I sprinted through the people, under the banners, and across the finish line of the greatest footrace on the planet.
Sprinting into that finish line was one of the greatest feelings I had experienced in my life. After the race I was floating. I felt great. I just wanted to sit, eat, and be.
This was the first long run I had done that my legs felt pretty damn good afterward. It was really crazy. My legs would be stiff after sitting for a long time and they were a little sore but for the most part they were fine. I could trot around the day after the race without too much effort. During the race as well, my legs got tired but they never got sore or achy while I was running which I was so excited about and not quite sure why or how that is possible since I hadn’t trained much.
The next day we said goodbye to the amazing people we had met and started our non-stop journey back to Mazatlan and the States. The further we got from the canyons the more surreal the whole experience seemed.
There is a lot more I would have liked to talk about here but it’s going to have to wait for another time.
Until the next adventure….
Muchas gracias a todos!!! Thanks to each of you in the Lunatic tribe above, Ted, Sweeney, Shawn, Steff, Eli, Claudia, Sabrina, and to Flint, Caballo, Maria, Caleb, Tyler, Tony, the Raramuri, the people of Urique, Sterling and Leslie, Jeff and the Luna crew at home for holding down the shop while I was gone, and all the other beautiful people I met, too numerous to count.