Once the proud Native American inhabitants of the region of northwestern Mexico, the Tarahumara people – also known as Rarámuri, meaning either “runners on foot” or “those who run fast” – resettled in an area known as the Sierra Madre Occidental, or the Sierra Tarahumara back in the sixteenth century.
They are a people of ancient traditions – many of which they still practice today. If you are reading this blog about barefoot running, then you have most likely heard of the Tarahumara in regards to their reputation for long-distance running. One of the primary reasons for this development was a matter of geography, and developed into something that became an integral part of their culture. The people had created widely-separated communities throughout the region of Copper Canyon in the Sierra Tarahumara, and it was this distance that led to long-distance running – many times traversing up to a hundred miles through the rugged canyon country. (Horses, wagons, let along automobiles are wholly impractical to use in the isolated region.)
Running was not only a means of communication between the settlements, but a main source of transportation. It’s central application goes far to explain how running has become imbued with both competitive aspects – certainly any pro runner can relate – and ceremonial ones as well. There are “foot throwing” games called rarjíparo played by the men while the women play dowerami in which the Tarahumara men typically kick the balls while the women throw and catch interconnected hoops as they run. It’s notable that these competitions also involve an element of relay where runners must kick the ball to the next runner in the line while fellow players run ahead to predetermined relay points. What is amazing is that these races can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days – without rest!
The Tarahumara’s reputation as great runners has put them in the cultural spotlight more than once. One of them, named Arnulfo Quimare, was featured in the book “Born To Run,” for his status as the “fastest Tarahumara.” Other Tarahumara have ran in public races, including the 1928 Olympics and later in the Ultramarathon circuit in the 1990s. They move at a rate usually reserved for highly trained marathon runners, and it is nothing for them to run upwards of 50 to 80 miles in a single day at a face pace.
How do they achieve such astonishing feats of endurance? Certain experts suggest two main causes: raw physical conditioning and cultural prominence. Others would add diet as a contributing factor as well. The Tarahumara have a high complex carbohydrate intake, somewhere around 80 percent. Protein and fat percentages hover around 10 percent respectively.
Though they are a quiet, reserved people who are deeply appreciative of their privacy, they have garnered the interest of many people around the world for their amazing endurance and capacity to travel so far on foot so quickly.
Written by Shaun C. Kilgore
Photo Credit: Nathan Laurell on Flickr