Copper Canyon Ultramarathon 63K
Report by Matthew Crownover
Okay, describing this event seems as hard as doing it, so I will give you the following, and invite those of you more insatiable types to hook up with me off-list for more depth. This ultra event is an amazing one. I simply CANNOT BELIEVE that I was the only US American there. I have buddied up with the race director who hopes many of you will be there next year. I volunteer to translate and help make arrangements, as I feel very comfortable in this part of the world. If you fancy yourself flexible and adventurous, give it some thought.
The trip there was great and easy, my dad and I flew to El Paso on a Thursday evening, crossed the border, and took a bus to the great capital city of Chihuahua, where we slept. The next day we took a bus all day through the third highest plane in the world (Nepal, La Paz) to Guachochi, way deep in the Sierra Tarahumara (the western ridge of the Sierra Madre). Most (>90%) of tourists who go to Copper Canyon, which is actually 5 canyons making up one huge canyon system much larger than the Grand, most go to the Northern side around Creel. This is indeed a beautiful place, and you can ride the super-scenic train over to Baja California, passing the stunning canyon along the way. However, Guachochi is at the other end of the system, and thus less frequented by tourists. Result, you get a real Mexican town where you might be the only tourists. I loved that, and was welcomed left and right by folks excited about the race, proud of their town, and eager to invite Dad and me along for sightseeing/hospitality.
It was thrilling to see folks pouring in from all over Mexico. They were as much a tourist as I was in this far flung mountain town. This race belongs to a series: Solo Para Salvajes, which means "only for savages." It is a series of races nationwide that focus on the more hardcore, extreme elements of trail running (frozen volcano runs for instance). This race belongs to the Solo Para Salvajes series, so it was super cool to meet and hang out with runners from across Mexico who dig this sort of thing. We all seemed to feel honored by the chance to share and event with the Tarahumara, about who much could be said. They are amazing and beautiful. Running wise, they just glide over the land like a rabbits or dear. Women run in dresses. It is a thing to behold.
The Race began with the pre-race briefing on Sat. evening. This was mandatory, and for good reason. The course is brutal, and you are wise to pay attention to the many pointers. Among them: where to find water (2 arroyos, 2 springs, avoid the two rivers), how to operate these ancient climbing poles built by the Tarahumara for the very steep, non-runnable, portions of the course, how to identify and protect the bean, corn, and marijuana plants we'd see in the canyon (now that's a rest stop!), how to navigate the poorly marked sections, and how to manage these cool things built by the indigenous folks to keep animals in (like a basket-weave cattle guard thing). There were also vivid reminders that you really did have to get your own self out of the canyon, so lots of caution/psychological prep for the tough portions of the race.
Race Morning began with a 5 am check in. Gun went off at 0530. Now, I would have paid dearly to know then what I'm telling you now, but I did not really "get" the race. It is basically this: A high altitude trail half marathon to the lip of the canyon, the canyon crossing, and half marathon back to the central plaza in town. In other words, run, hike, run would have been very helpful to know (Aracely, a super fast Mexican runner who's run at Hunstville and White Rock framed it this way). The middle part, the crossing, is the big reason to do it. The course plunges you down from cool mountain-pine tree-crisp mist air, to the bottom of the canyon floor (very hot), then along the rivers the cut the canyons then back up. " back up" was infernal, or almost. Just when I thought I would cry or freak out, the guys around me would start singing, or joking. Once they jumped in a waterfall for a quick swim break. The rules are that you cannot run alone before kilometer 40 or so, (there are several dangerous ledges, and places where you need to give each other a hand up.) so you have a good community aspect going by the time you reach the Rosalinda waterfall, the point you can take off. I was loving the group, but went on solo from there, they were taking a quick plunge and you know me, hate wet feet, so I kept cruising.
The next 3 hours of seemingly vertical switchbacks was really hard. The demons of doubt paid their due visit, and I just held on because all you had to do was look around to see you were pretty much toast if you hung it up, I mean, no taxi's passing by. As I neared the Mirador (lookout) point, I could hear people and I new I'd make it. I even passed a few guys, many were in rough shape, and then I saw the "ambulance" coming. The ambulance was a burro with red duct tape crosses on its rump and head, indicating, of course, Red Cross. They had electrolytes and fluids for runners needing it. I was in pretty good shape on that front, as I had fitted my camelback with an in-line filter so I could get water anywhere it was available. I had 5 liters full each time, and I needed it.
There are two finish lines at this race: the real one, back in town, as well as the festive atmosphere rendered by the throngs hanging around the top of the canyon. This second one, the canyon exit, is in a sense the truer one. Here, you know that you will live, but you cuss and spit at the thought of running the 20k back to town. My loving father met me there, and not even in the throws of adolescence did I subject him to the vulgar descriptions I reserved for the canyon that day. Good old Dad gave me some snacks and suggested I press on towards town. He was a good sport. At dinner the night before, after hours of isolating him by chatting in Spanish in front of him, I finally studied the map and gave him pointers on where to look for me. I told him that I'd probably be exiting the canyon between 11am and 1pm. It was 4:30 in the afternooon when I came out, and he was still at his position! Thanks Dad! Lots of people drop here. So there is a sort of new start in a sense too. Here Dad and I walked a km., I stretched a bit, gave him my pack (more profanity in describing the weight of the pack) and took off for town. Before running off, I had to arrange (Dad does not speak Spanish and was kind of in the middle of nowhere, having walked with me) for a local passer-by to give my dad a lift back to town. It turned out to be really funny. The roads were pretty rough, and so this little microbus thing was not going much faster than I was, and it kept stopping to hand out water and stuff, so the result is that Dad and I were kind of neck and neck, he in this little microbus thing and me running. He took some cool pictures of me "in action." And we had a good laugh later because I ended up beating him to the finish.
It was almost 6:30 pm. I'd been running 12 hours and 55 minutes. Yes, there were plenty of folks in front of me, but there were lots behind me too. Folks I imagine that I would normally finish near came in around 10-11, but they knew the course well. The rest of the guys in my group came in around 14, but they had more swim breaks! So, I'm learning.
It's always nice to be in place where: a) beer is sold by the liter and b) walking is a splendid means of transport. The evening was spent relaxing and telling war stories. Also, we hooked up with a couple of runners who lived in Cd. Juarez, and they, in a stunning display of beneficence, agreed to drive us all the way back to the Texas border the following day in their new, air conditioned, leather-upholstered Suburban. They ended up being great guys, and I want to hook up with them and Mark Dorion out around Juarez sometime, as they are into that whole wacky trail scene out there.
Those are the basics of my story. I have some great photos, the donkey ambulance being the best. I simply cannot say enough good things about the race and the important chance to cross culture and language with our sport. Having had the privilege to live and study around the world, I continue to rely on running as an authentic way to cut the crap and really get to know people. It's a beautiful thing. Next year, let's accept the invitation to make a Texas presence!