Name of sport (game)
Name in native language
Place of practice (continent, state, nation)
There are currently about 50,000 Tarahumara living in the Sierra Madre Occidental in northwestern Mexico. They live in small isolated clusters with most the population concentrated in the Barranca del Cobre, or the Copper Canyon. The Tarahumara indians are part of the Uto-Aztecan indian lineage and are closely related to the Apaches of the Southwestern United States. The area of Northwest Mexico that the Tarahumara lives in is very rugged and unforgiving. The Barranca del Cobre is a chain of five very deep canyons surrounded by very tall mountains that reach almost a mile and a half above sea level. Three of the five canyons are deeper than the Grand Canyon of the United States. The area is different though because it receives much more rainfall and is covered with more vegetation. The terrain is very rugged, so much as to lead to the fact that the area has never been thoroughly mapped or explored (Lutz 66). The area is one of th e coldest in Mexico and soil conditions are very poor. It is because of this that the Tarahumara are semi-nomadic and are cave dwellers for part of the year.
Tarahumara Region of Chihuahua
The statement that, "The Tarahumara may be the finest natural distance runners in the world", made by University of Arizona archeologist Michael Jenk inson, offers some insight into just how good the indians are at running. The Tarahumara routinely run distances only covered by only the most advanced ultramarathon runners today. To these indians, running is more than sport, running is literally life. The Tarahumara live in very rugged land and travel by wagon or horses is usually impractical. Because of this, foot travel is more often than not the best option for getting from one place to another and it is usually the quickest. While on foot, the Tarahumara do not stroll from one place to their destination, running is used to perform everyday tasks. It is not uncommon for a Tarahumara to travel between fifty and eighty miles everyday at a "race" like pace.
Running is very important to the Tarahumara culture, although there is no formal training. Quite the opposite, the Tarahumara smoke and drink before each race. While even the children participate, it is not something taught to them. The Tarahumara call themselves "raramuri" which means fleet foot or foot runner. They take great pride in their running abilities and the best runners receive great status in society. They center the entire society around their running. Says anthropologist John Kennedy, "Running is more than a game to the Tarahumara. Though obviously a pleasant diversion, it is also an economic activity, a force for social cohesion, and a channel of aggression....If this institution were removed from Tarahumara life, the total cultural imbalance resulting would be greater than if some sporting activity were dropped from our own complex culture".
Tarahumara running is based on endurance not speed. This fact is exemplified by their hunting practices. In order to catch such wild animals as deer, wild turkeys, and rabbits, the Tarahumara simply chase after the animal until the animal drops from exhaustion. Their hunting practices are widely known in Mexico and ranchers have been known to hire the indians to chase down wild horses . It is also said that a Tarahumara once ran six hundred miles in five days to deliver a very important message. Their endurance and conditioning has become k nown worldwide. Says Dale Groom, M.D., "Probably not since the days of the ancient Spartans has a people achieved such a high state of physical conditioning." This phenomenon has led to the inevitable question of, "Are the Tarahumara genetically special when it comes to running?" After many scientific tests, doctors have come to the conclusion that the Tarahumara's endurance is based more on conditioning than on heredity. Experts believe that there are two main causes for the Tarahumara's amazing endurance; physical conditioning and cultural importance. Diet also seems to play an important role in their running. The Tarahumara diet is practically meatless and consists mostly of complex carbohydrates. They eat approximately 10 percent proteins, 10 percent fat, and 80 percent complex carbohydrate. Balanced diet is believed to be one factor behind the Tarahumara's resiliency. The Tarahumara take cooperative farming to the extreme and agriculture is a project for the entire village. They consume livestock for meat but mostly use it as a source of fertilizer. The mainstay of the Tarahumara is corn but they also eat squash, beans and chili. They also utilize all plants of the Barranca del Cobre and have even been known to domesticate some wild plants as to make them more accessible for consumption. Pinole, a fine powder of toasted corn is the most common food. Meat is rarely eaten but on special occasions they eat goat, mice and fish. The Tarahumara method of fishing is very unusual. They throw sticks of dynamite into the water to stun the fish and then dive down to collect them. If they are hunting small game, they chase after it and then throw rocks a t it. The Tarahumara is very accurate throwers and practice from childhood. These extreme eating habits seem to contribute to lower pulse rates and blood pressure. These factors may allow them to cope with oxygen debt at high altitudes, such as a mile and a half above sea level.
The Tarahumara culture involves two very significant features that deal with running, the rarajipari and the dowerami, which are races in which people of the same sex compete. The rarajipari is for men and is the more competitive of the two. It is a race run between two teams each of three to ten men. The intriguing thing about the race is that men on the teams kick along a wooden, baseball-shaped ball as they run. Each man takes his turn dribbling the ball in a style similar to soccer and the total distance run may be up to one hundred and fifty miles. The races take place over very rugged terrain. The courses are either not marked or marked with rocks and sticks. The races are very competitive because they are run between neighboring villages and much pride is involved. Much betting goes on and cheating often takes place. There is also a lot of ritual and superstition involved during the race and in pre-race competition. Each team has there own medicine man who is responsible for conjuring up special potions to help the runners and to cast bad luck on the opposing team. Runners smoke and drink right until the day of the race. They ritualistically drink tesguino, an alcohol made of corn the night before the race. Runners often smoke a combination of tobacco and dried bats' blood to help them run faster and keep away the other team's spirits. The medicine man also digs up a dead person's shin bone, crushes it into a powder and spreads it over the race course. The man's spirit supposedly casts bad luck on the runners from the other team. Runners are very superstitious and drop out of races from fear, but never from exhaustion. Team members also avoid contact with women for several days before the race.
The women also run a similar race called the dowerami. The difference between the two races is that women throw and catch interconnected loops while they run. Most rules still apply but the women's race is less important to their society. Both types of races are major social events and are very fun to the Tarahumara. Everyone comes out to watch and offers food to runners.
Tarahumara public racing began at the 1928 Olympic marathon. The two indians that were running were not aware of the distance and when they finished, they were not tired and said, "Too short! Too short!" The Tarahumara first appeared on the Ultramarathon circuit in 1992 at the Leadville 100-mile run in Colorado. They were brought from Mexico and funded while they were here by Rick Fisher, operator of Wilderness Research Expeditions. Fisher is disliked in the Ultra community because he is thought to be loud, outspoken, and rude. It is also believed that he uses the plight of the Tarahumara simply to gain attention for himself and for his organization. In their first race, none of the Tarahumara finished. In 1993, Fisher tried again but this time he familiarized the indians with the course, the equipment and the American racing customs . In 1992 the Tarahumara had many problems. First, they were unfamiliar with the course. Second, they did not know how to use the equipment. At night, they ran with their flashlights pointing up likes the torches that they are used to. Third, at aid stations they simply stood there and therefore received little nutrition and became weak and dehydrated. In their culture is not polite just to take food. They wait until it is offered. In the 1993 Leadville they fared much better. Tarahumaras took first, second and fifth place. The most amazing thing about the indians was their pace. The winner was fifty-five years old and only ran the second half of the race twenty minutes slower than he ran the first! Another thing that shocks the ultra spectators is Tarahumara footwear. They wear sandals called huaraches made out of old tire tread and leather straps. A Tarahumara won Leadville again in 1994. Later that same year in Utah at the Wasatch 100-Mile run, the Tarahumara were part of a controversy. Someone did not pay their entry fees so they weren't allowed be official runners. They ran unofficially and a Tarahumara was the first to cross the finish line. This greatly upset race officials and the second person to cross the finish line had to be declared the official winner. The undertaking of the Tarahumara runners was at the Angeles Crest 100-mile Endurance Run in September 1996. They did not fare well and only one of four entrants finished, in fourth place. It is believed that they went out too fast and became dehydrated .
The Tarahumara are still running and will continue to do so until their extinction. They are a very unique group of people with very different ideas about the way to live life. They are a society which many can learn from, not only in the running world but in many other areas of life. The Tarahumaras should be respected for the feats they have accomplished and be left alone to live in peace.
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Source of photos used in this article and gallery: