Central America is very near and fear to my heart and soul as a runner. In 2004 months after breast cancer took the life of my fiancée I ventured to Big Bend National Park on the Rio Grande to run my first 50 mile trail ultra marathon. We were so close to Mexico I could wave to the people across the river, but after September 11th, 2001 the two sides of the Rio Grande might as well have been separated by a wall.
A year later as I was grieving Jennifer’s passing I decided that I wanted to see what was on the other side of that river. I packed up my action packer and headed to race my first Coastal Challenge on the Pacific Ocean of Costa Rica. It would be a journey that I have repeated now six times and continues to have a profound impact on my soul and soles.
Part of what lead me to Fuego Y Agua and the island of Ometepe was the friendships I developed in Costa Rica. Javier and Kurt had vouched for Josue who is now the Race Director for the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon. I believe in the six degrees of separation in our lives. I had also heard about the culture of the Mexican runners first hand from Scott Jureck in 2009 when he raced in Costa Rica.
Pieces of this “Born to Run” puzzle were coming together like a perfect storm as Josue, Peter, Josue’s wife and I sat sipping cerveza overlooking Volcano Conception on Ometepe ten days before the race in Mexico.
Athletically, now knowing the amount of road running on the Copper Canyon Ultra course, I really had no business toeing the line against German Silva, the younger Mexican runners, and defending local champion Miguel Lara at such a short fast race; but no one has ever called me shy. When Josue offered me the invitation to travel with him and Maria I could not resist even knowing my leg speed wasn’t where it needed to be to race up to the level it would take to compete how I would have liked.
The 2013 Caballo Blanco Ultra Marathon would be a very emotional experience as it would be the first one without the race’s founder Micah True. I don’t know if I ever met the man in person. I was told he was at my 2009 win and course record at the Javelina 101.4 mile race. I like to think that he was and the spirit of his good vibes carried me to the win that day. I also never officially met his “esposia” Maria. We have a lot of close mutual friends in the “valley” ( Scottsdale / Phoenix / Tempe metro area ) including one of my pacers in 2009 at Javelina, Nick Coury who is Maria´s dear friend.
Due to issues with my flights I would have to return to the states for one night which turned out to be perfect as Jason put me up again and we went out for a group run with the San Antonio crew including elite female star Melanie Fryar!
I arrived in Chihuahua on a tiny direct flight from Texas but Josue had to head down early to the Canyons. He was kind enough to hook me up with his sidekick Peter who was arriving the next day on the same flight as Maria. I had 24 hours to rest and explore Chihuahua on my own. The hostel Josue recommended I spend the night at was closed and for sale but the taxi driver found me a motel room near the train station. I didn’t sleep great as it was a Friday night and it sounded like fiestas were in full swing. I woke up tired and sluggish the next morning but laced up my sneakers and headed out for a couple hours at a decent clip. My legs were tired still even seven days post 100K. I found a nice city park near a stadium where there where other runners. After a big breakfast I packed my stuff up and headed back to the park to relax, nap, and soak in the sun. I found a Best Western that was nice enough to hold my bag for the day and let me use the wifi while I waited for Pete and Maria.
They arrived later that evening and we met at the bus terminal and headed for Chautemoc. We arrived after 11pm and inquired about the first bus Sunday morning to the canyons. After a decent night’s rest I was excited to watch the sunrise on my run up a city park mountain but not overjoyed with the below freezing temperatures and the sub zero wind chill. My body was used to hot humid temperatures and I was shivering as i got into the shower. After a delicious breakfast we caught another bus. Bus after bus after bus! As we headed deeper into the heart of rural Mexico the stress of my failed marriage back in Arizona started to lift and I was excited to experience in real life the culture of the copper canyons I had only heard of and read about. We had some amazing one pesso burritos as we again changed busses.
The last bus left us on the rim of the canyon but we had missed the next bus down since it was Sunday and the afternoon one wasn’t running. A local had overheard our predicament and introduced himself to Maria with the proposal of a ride down into the canyons in Urique’s new President’s government issued pickup.
I volunteered to ride in the back and was soon covered in dirt but amazed at the rural natural beauty of our surroundings. We had to stop for a little in a town about halfway down so el Presidente could sell some tires and politic a bit. Peter bought us all chicken and I got some fruit. There was an old church in town that I toured. The people were friendly and happy! This wasn’t the cartel run land I had envisioned at all.
The road got steeper and more narrow as we descended. We arrived right at dusk and were met by Josue and treated to a delicious meal at Mama Tita’s cafe. I felt at home.
I set up my Black Diamond bivy and curled up to sleep thinking of how long the travel to get to the bottom of the canyon had been excited for the week ahead!
I woke refreshed Monday morning excited to explore the canyons! It was cold for me so I ran in tights to the church that would be the turn around point twice for one of the three out and back sections of the race. Out and backs were put into the race so that locals could run for food vouchers. They would obtain them based on the number of sections completed. These people were literally running to feed themselves! One little hill but dirt roads, flat and fast! Later that morning I joined some of the guys staying at enters amigos for an out and back run to Los Alisos. The grapefruit at Los Alisos was incredible! The proprietors were very kind as they offered us water. The run back down to the bridge was so much fun as it would represent the only true downhill trail section of the course.
Peter hadn’t run that long in a while so I waited for him and we hiked a good section of the road back to Urique. The day had warmed and the cold cervezas that awaited us in town were incredible! A much needed siesta in my hammock that afternoon was healing for my tired legs. A communal style dinner hit the spot before I dozed off under the stars.
Tuesday would see the arrival of some more international runners to the canyons. Josue had asked me to join Maria up at Diego’s place to help with the traditional hike into town. I woke at dawn and ran the remaining section of the course up to Mesa Naranjo and back down the dirt road. I was disappointed that this section was a modified loop and not a true out and back.
Maria, Peter, & I caught a ride up to Diego’s hotel to meet the other runners with Miguel’s coach, Mario, who I had met at Run Rabbit Run. We stopped to get our hats at his lodge and Maria showed me the traditional sweat lodge and views. I had no idea I would be back there 48 hours later at the time running into that section of the canyon looking for our guide in the dark!
It was a Mas Locos reunion at Diego’s place when Maria arrived. Guadajuko, Caballo’s dog who now lives with Maria, was there driven down by the Miller’s and was very happy to see his mom! Sean, Patrick, and a few others from Ometepe were there too and it sounded like their trip up from Nicaragua had been fun!
Maria led us on a hike to a site where the influenza had killed many locals. We all shared a somber moment as we walked around the cave among the skulls and bones. It was an important reminder for us as visitors to respect the fragile culture and enviornment of this magestic land.
Since it was my last day as a 34 year old I made some new amigos that night and partook of mucho cerveza! When midnight came and I was officially 35 the beer was still flowing. A few hours later I covered Maria in my sweatshirts as she shivered by the fire on some pillows I put out for her. I found a couch to catch a little shut eye.
My birthday started again with Michael Miller leading everyone at breakfast to a rendition of Happy Birthday. Thanks Mike! I was miles from my family but with my running tribe! I could feel the love. After a big breakfast and a lot of coffee we hiked into the canyon with our guides. I volunteered to be the gringo sweep and we had a wonderful day as I made new amigos!
The trail into the canyon was magnificent singletrack. I could think of no better birthday I have had since I was a kid. I could tell that night that my race performance might suffer with all the time on my feet and all the cerveza but I was in Mexico and it is just running. Like the old man I was now I tucked into my sleeping bag early after a delicious meal of rice and beans.
I ran a little before the group hike up to Los Alisos. I again volunteered to sweep. The spreading of Micah’s ashes didn’t leave a dry eye in the group. After Maria spoke I excused myself and ran as hard as I could down to the bridge. I hadn’t been to a lot of funerals since Jen died and I could empathize with Maria so I needed to vent my own emotions so I could continue to support her and the other friends of Caballo.
I joined Sean and Patrick for the road section back into town. After a beer and some lunch I was invited up to Mario’s Ecolodge for the sweat lodge ceremony and dinner that evening.
This would be my first trip on the road leading into Urique where I actually had a seat which made the ride much more enjoyable and scenic! We even stopped to take photographs at the “mirador” like real tourists! I choose to run first as it was close to sunset and I wanted to see some of the forested trails. A guide was provided to lead us down to some waterfalls that were rumored to be “proxima”. Due to different speeds on the descent our group split and I took up the sweep. When we came to a fork the group went one way and I went solo in the other direction in search of our guide and these mystical waterfalls. I never found either and turned around so I wouldn’t get lost in the canyon after dark. I lost the deer trail I was on but made good time up the established trail once I found it again. I caught the group and we emerged at last light just as the other group was finishing their ceremony in the sweat lodge. The only problem was our guide was still in the canyon looking for me without a light. I had Mario call his cell phone, grabbed my light and ran in for him. We emerged in time for me to chug a sip of Mario’s beer and hop in on the second ceremony.
The ceremony was very powerful and emotional taking us through traditional stages of native American cultural beliefs. It was hot like a sauna or steam room at times when the new rocks were introduced into the pit by defending Champion Miguel Lara. I figured out a way to get my head low near the mud so I could avoid most of the vapors but it was still uncomfortable. The ceremony was physically and emotionally cleansing. The view of the stars in the clear black sky reminded me of the morning of my first trail ultra in Big Bend when I had first ever really truly seen stars. After dinner I curled into bed under some very warm blankets and slept amazingly well even with the 4am wake up from the dogs. Thanks to Sean for getting out of his bed to try to quiet then!
Friday morning I choose to forego a run at dawn because it was so cold and my bed was so warm. Breakfast was incredible and after Mario drove us back into Urique. The trip in took longer than expected as we had to stop a couple times to cool the breaks but we got to enjoy the views again 🙂
When we got to town Maria had already started the group hike to the church where God’s middle finger was. I didn’t want to miss the chance to see the statue and inside the “Iglesia” at Guadalupe Coronado so I laced up my sneakers and ran a tempo run to get there in time to enter with the last group. The pure simplicity of the church coupled with the use of basic architecture humbled me. I haven’t been much of a church goer or a spiritual person since Jen died except with my sister and nieces but I appreciated the power religion played in such a poverty stricken basic old fashion culture. There was a Johhnie Walker Red tin that doubled as an offering container I dropped a few pesos in and I offered up a little prayer to the golden AAU basketball trophy circa 1980s Maryland on the altar. Go Terps!
Instead of running back to Urique I joined Maria, Guadajuko, and the group from Japan for the hike back. It was warming up so we stopped at the river to soak in the cool refreshing waters. After a bite to eat I took my hammock siesta and read a bit thinking of how lucky I was to get to experience the beauty of the canyons.
That evening the internationals were invited to the cow roast at the Tarahumara camp. We feasted on tortillas and stew. A simple meal but so delicious. After dinner blankets were handed out to the Tarahumara. They would sleep out under the stars. As I tucked into my bivy that evening I thought of the stories my mother told me from her childhood growing up in Poland on a farm with no electricity and the trips to the outhouse in the winters. Sometimes less is more.
Saturday morning I slept in again. The full spectrum of emotions from the week were tiring me out. This was more than a race, this was a full on cultural experience! There was a kids run that was just pure magic to watch.
After a big breakfast and the awards ceremony I went out for a jog and started to think about the race. I had come in search of the prize money pesos but realized I was getting a lot more from the experience than money could ever buy. Running was a way to bring the people together in the canyons. I was starting to understand why this place at the bottom of a canyon in rural Mexico was so special to our sport.
After another siesta I spent Saturday afternoon meeting “Mas Locos” (the term used for us gringos that make this crazy journey). I also checked in with the Millers to make sure I had a way out of the canyon as Josue was sure I could bum a ride off of someone to get back to Arizona. It turned out the following weekend was the Old Man 51K in honor of Michael Miller’s 51st birthday so the timing was perfect! I would get to see Manny, wish my soon to be ex wife Rachel a happy Birthday in person, and spend a little time in “the valley” seeing some great running pals.
Saturday night there was a festival of sorts in Urique but I was tucked away in my bivy snoozing. I was up at 5am for the 6am start but to my shock I had one of those feelings like I did at Bandera 😦 The exact opposite feeling to each morning in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I guess in retrospect I was thinking about seeing Manny and I was probably more excited for that than to race again knowing deep down I wasn’t prepared properly for the course.
The negativity quickly vanished as I made my way to the start. I was overcome with a sea of neon orange t shirts. I lost Miguel and German in the chaos. It was the craziest start to a race I have experienced. People were trampled and women in traditional dresses were dropping sub 6 minute miles! I am usually the one that sets a hard pace in the Ultras I race so this took me as a complete surprise even though I was warned of the quick start by the Coury brothers. At the bridge a mile or so in I doubt if I was even in 20th place and I was moving at probably a 5:30 pace. Did I stumble upon an entire culture that races like I do?
At the five mile turn around at the church I settled into a spot near the top ten but was shocked that at the turn that I was ahead of Miguel and German! I don’t usually race with much of a strategy but I knew that is not where I wanted to be so early in this race. I cheered on the rest of the “Mas locos” as I passed them and picked off a few more runners in sandals. Miguel caught me right before the bridge, he was in sneakers like he was at Run Rabbit Run where we had met. I ran with him for a bit but let him go choosing to focus on German who I thought would be the bigger threat. We climbed a bit after the bridge. I had left my Ultimate Direction water bottle behind at the aid station choosing to run with the aid station’s bottled water on this modified lolly pop loop. It was cool and the sun was still behind the canyon wall. Probably a mistake in retrospect, but I felt a need to race like the locals in every aspect except the bright orange shirt and oatmeal drink. I was very excited to get off the dirt road and onto the single track. I knew this section well from my run up it earlier in the week and the long hike down it with the German couple testing out their sandals on my birthday. German pranced by me near the top where the pretty red flowers were. On my run up here earlier in the week I had not yet realized we were going to run through opium fields! I though the flowers might just be well…. flowers 😉
I grabbed some water and calories and took off down the dirt road toward Urique at what to me was a fast pace but I wasn’t catching the dozen locals ahead of me. I patiently held back wondering if all these guys were sub 2:20 marathoners. I knew when I ran my 5:52 to take silver at the 2010 USATF National Championships the guy ahead of Todd and I was walking when he hit 35 miles because he didn’t take any calories in, but these guys were apparently drinking some oatmeal like concoction called Pinole that was rumored to allow them to run forever. When we hit Urique I had moved up into the top ten and picked up my Ultimate Direction handheld for the relatively flat shadeless dirt road to the swinging bridge. I took some gels and ate some fruit and tried to kick it up a notch to let my long stride carry me. The problem was my full powerful stride wasn’t there and even the relatively pedestrian seven minute per mile pace I was running wasn’t coming easy to me.
I didn’t panic as no one was catching me, but I also wasn’t picking people off like I thought I would be at this point. I was happy to reach the aid station at the swinging bridge but got a little upset when Diego announced that I was the first “gringo”. I should have been pleaded but I had not come to race for anything except first overall.
I worked my way up the dry rocky riverbed to the dusty soft dirt climb on the recently extended single track up to Los Alisos where Maria had spread Micah’s ashes less than 48 hours prior. A very good Japanese runner, Hiroshi, el Dragon, passed me and I realized I couldn’t hang with him. I was starting to wish this race was a hundred miles and not the fast fifty that it was. I was running out of time to turn my race around! When I reached Los Alisos I had some juicy grapefruit nectar of the Gods, took some gels, refilled my bottle and tried to push the downhill section back to the road. I wasn’t that far back and the lead pack of German, Miguel, and some other Mexican runners was tight. I knew I wasn’t moving all that fast and figured I could real the guys in on the hot dirt road section but I was wrong.
Something didn’t click right for me on the way back to Urique and my normal ability to transcend pain and push through adversity was lost. Maybe it was the roller coaster of emotions and memories that was awakened by the almost memorial like proceedings of the week, or maybe I was just tired and worn out from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and all the travel, but on that very same climb where Sean, Sweeney, and I had laughed and joked just two days prior I broke down. I cried and didn’t want to run anymore. I was not even going to be able to hold it together for a top ten finish. After a prayer at a roadside vigil and wishing Sean a good race as he passed me I walked over to the river to soak my legs. When I got back to Urique via the alternate river road route that ran parallel I checked in with Josue and Maria. I told them I was burnt toast ready for the vultures to take me out! There would be no food vouchers for internationals so there was no reason for me to continue on. They both thanked me for coming down and giving the race my best shot.
I walked up to camp, took a shower, ate a little meal and curled up in my hammock for a nap trying to reset my emotions. I awoke a few hours later feeling strangely refreshed and decided I would go out and jog the last ten miles to cheer everyone on.
I ran a bit with Sean and the stray dog from Diego’s hotel that had hiked into the canyon with our group. I finished without the win, with no fanfare, but with a little bit of an intact sense of pride. I had not DNF’d! When you race to win sometimes you lose. When you lose you grow and learn. I had lost, but maybe I was wiser from the experience. I congratulated Miguel and thanked German for his encouragement.
I skipped the award ceremony to catch a good rest before the early departure and long drive to Arizona with the Millers, Guadajucko, and Chris. The drive back would take us over twenty hours and we had to leave out caravan partners behind when their jeep died climbing out of the canyon.
Six days later I had the run I was looking for at the Old Man 51K. I won easily. Effortless and fast I ran off the beers from the night before. A week with the Millers, some time in my former home, the chance to run with my little furball Manny, reconnecting with friends, and a good heart to heart with Rachel about the end of our marriage had been what I needed to run free again! Correr Libre!
A bad race is never the end but just the beginning to a new chapter of our lives. I left Mexico with zero pesos in my pocket but took with me many new friendships. I am richer than any material possessions could ever make me for the experience!
Monday I will take a break from my running tour of Europe to reconnect with Miguel and the Tarahumara guys from the canyon! They got visas and we are going to Colorado for a running camp. I am excited to get to run trails with them at altitude and spend time with them again. As I train for the biggest athletic undertaking of my life in Andorra at Sky Running‘s Ronda Dels Cims I hope to learn how to keep running free like mi amigos do en las baranchias cobre!