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Chapter 10
PERFECT! Leadville was exactly the kind of wild, Rock’em-Sock’em thrill show Rick Fisher waslooking for. As usual, he was out to make a big splash, and a carnival like Leadville was just theticket. You telling him that ESPN wouldn’t jump at the chance for footage of good-looking guys inskirts smashing records on a mythical man-eater? Hell yeah!

So in August 1992, Fisher came roaring back to Patrocinio’s village in his big old ChevySuburban. He’d gotten travel papers from the Mexican Tourism Board, and a promised payoff incorn for the racers. Meanwhile, Patrocinio had cajoled five of his fellow villagers to trust thisstrange, intense chabochi whose name got stuck in their mouths. Spanish has no “sh” sound, soFisher soon got a taste of sly Tarahumara humor when he heard his new team calling him Pescador—the Fisherman. Sure, it was easier to pronounce; but it also nailed his Ahabness, the constanthunger to hook a big one that radiated off him like heat waves off a car hood.

Whatever. As far as Fisher was concerned, they could call him Dr. Dumbass, as long as they gotserious once the race started. The Pescador squeezed his team into the Chevy and hit the gas forColorado.

Just before 4 a.m. on race day, the crowd at the Leadville starting line tried not to stare as five menin skirts struggled with the unfamiliar laces of the black canvas basketball sneakers the Pescadorhad gotten for them. The Tarahumara shared a last few drags on a black tobacco cigarette, thenmoved shyly to the very back of the pack as the other two hundred ninety ultrarunners chantedThree … two …Boooom! Leadville’s mayor blasted his big old blunderbuss of a shotgun, and the Tarahumararaced off to show their stuff.

For a while. Before they even made it halfway, every one of the Tarahumara runners had droppedout. Damn, Fisher moaned into every ear he could grab. I never should have stuffed them intothose sneaks, and no one told them they were allowed to eat at the aid stations. Totally my bad.

They’d never seen flashlights before, so they were pointing them straight up like torches….

Yeah, yeah, check’s in the mail. Same old Tarahumara letdown; same old Tarahumara excuses.

Few but the most obsessive track historians know it, but Mexico tried using a pair of Tarahumararunners in the Olympic marathon in both the 1928 Amsterdam games and the 1968 Mexico Citygames. Both times, the Tarahumara finished out of the medals. The excuse those times was that26.2 miles was too short; the dinky little marathon was over before the Tarahumara got a chance toshift into high gear.

Maybe. But if these guys were really such superhuman speedsters, how come they never beatanybody? Nobody cares if you’re a great three-point shooter in your backyard; what matters iswhether you stick them on game day. And for a century, the Tarahumara had never competed inthe outside world without stinking up the joint.

Fisher puzzled over it during the long drive back to Mexico, and then the lightbulb flashed. Ofcourse! Same reason you can’t grab five kids off a Chicago schoolyard and expect to beat theBulls: just because you’re a Tarahumara runner doesn’t mean you’re a great Tarahumara runner.

Patrocinio had tried to make life easier for Fisher by enlisting runners who lived near the newpaved road, figuring they’d be more comfortable around outsiders and easier to gather for the trip.

But as the Mexican Olympic Committee should have realized years ago, the easiest Tarahumara torecruit may not be the ones worth recruiting.

“Let’s try again,” Patrocinio urged. Fisher’s sponsors had donated a pile of corn to Patrocinio’svillage, and he hated to lose the windfall. This time, he’d open the team to runners from outside hisown village. He’d head back into the canyons—and back in time. Team Tarahumara was goingold-school.

Yep, “old” pretty much nailed it.

Ken was none too impressed with the new band of Tarahumara who showed up at the nextLeadville. The team captain looked like a Keebler elf who’d taken early retirement in MiamiBeach: he was a short fifty-five-year-old grandfather in a blue robe with flashy pink flowers,topped off by a happy-go-lucky grin, a pink scarf, and a wool cap yanked down over his ears.

Another guy had to be in his forties, and the two scared kids behind him looked young enough tobe his sons. The whole operation was even worse equipped than last year’s; no sooner had TeamTarahumara arrived than they disappeared into the town dump, emerging with strips of tire rubberthat they began fashioning into sandals. No chafing black Chuckies this time around.

Seconds before the race was about to begin, the Tarahumara vanished. Same eye of the tiger as lastyear, Ken thought dismissively; just as before, the timid Tarahumara had hidden themselves at thevery rear of the pack. At the blast of the shotgun, they trotted off in last place. And in last placethey remained, ignored and inconsequential…… until mile 40, when Victoriano Churro (the Keebler look-alike with a taste for pastels) andCerrildo Chacarito (the forty-something goat farmer) began quietly, almost nonchalantly, pitterpatteringtheir way along the edges of the trail, picking off a few runners at a time as they beganthe three-mile mountain climb to Hope Pass. Manuel Luna caught up and locked in beside them,the three elders leading the younger Tarahumara like a wolf pack on the hunt.

Heeya! Ken whooped and hollered like a bullrider when he saw the Tarahumara heading backtoward him after the fifty-mile turnaround. Something strange was going on; Ken could tell by theweird look on their faces. He’d seen every single Leadville runner for the past decade, and not oneof them had ever looked so freakishly … normal. Ten straight hours of mountain running willeither knock you on your ass or plant its flag on your face, no exceptions. Even the bestultrarunners by this point are heads down and digging deep, focusing hard on the near-impossibletask of getting each foot to follow the other. But that old guy? Victoriano? Totally cool. Like hejust woke up from a nap, scratched his belly, and decided to show the kids how the big boys playthis game.

By mile 60, the Tarahumara were, flying. Leadville has aid stations every fifteen miles or so wherehelpers resupply their runners with food, dry socks, and flashlight batteries, but theTarahumara(can) were moving so fast, Rick and Kitty couldn’t drive around the mountain fast enoughto keep up with them.

“They seemed to move with the ground,” said one awestruck spectator. “Kind of like a cloud, or afog moving across the mountains.”

This time, the Tarahumara weren’t two lonely tribesmen adrift in a sea of Olympians. Theyweren’t five confused villagers in awful canvas sneakers who hadn’t run since the road wasbulldozed into their village. This time, they were locked into a formation they’d practiced sincechildhood, with wily old vets up front and eager young bucks pushing from behind. They weresure-footed and sure of themselves. They were the Running People.

Meanwhile, a rather different endurance contest was taking place a few blocks from the finish line.

Every year, Leadville’s Sixth Street partyers cowboy up and spend the weekend trying to outlastthe runners. They start pounding at the blast of the starting gun, and keep downing ’em until therace officially ends, thirty hours later. Between J.ger and Jell-O shots, they also perform a criticaladvisory function: their job is to alert the timers at the finish line by going apeshit the second theyspot a runner emerging from the dark. This time, the boozers nearly blew it; at two in the morning,old Victoriano and Cerrildo came whisking by so quickly and quietly—“a fog moving across themountains”—they almost went unnoticed.

Victoriano hit the tape first, with Cerrildo right behind in second. Manuel Luna, whose newsandals had fallen apart at mile 83 and left his unprotected feet raw and bleeding, still surged backover the rocky trail around Turquoise Lake to finish fifth. The first non-Tarahumara finisher wasnearly a full hour behind Victoriano—a distance of roughly six miles.

The Tarahumara hadn’t just gone from last to first; they’d done serious damage to the record bookin the process. Victoriano was the oldest winner in race history, eighteen-year-old Felipe Torreswas the youngest finisher, and Team Tarahumara was the only squad to ever grab three of the topfive spots—even though its two top finishers had a combined age of nearly one hundred.

“It was amazing,” a hard-to-amaze participant named Harry Dupree would tell The New YorkTimes. After running Leadville twelve times himself, Dupree thought his days of being surprisedby anything in the race were over. Then he watched Victoriano and Cerrildo whiz past.

“Here were these little guys wearing sandals who never actually trained for the race. And theyblew away some of the best long-distance runners in the world.”


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