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Chapter 12
THE WEIRDNESS STARTED as soon as Rick Fisher’s dusty Chevy rolled to a stop outsideLeadville race headquarters and two guys in white wizard capes stepped out.

“Hey!” Ken Chlouber called as he came outside to greet them. “The speed demons are here!” Kenstuck out his hand and tried to remember the phonetics for “welcome” that the Spanish teacherover at the high school had taught him.

“Uh … Bee en benny—,” he began.

One of the guys in the capes smiled and put out his hand. Suddenly, Fisher shoved his bodybetween them.

“No!” Fisher said. “You must not touch them in a controlling way, or you’ll pay. In their culturethat’s considered criminal assault.”

What the—Ken could feel the blood swelling in his head. You want to see some criminal assault,buddy? Try grabbing my arm again. Fisher sure as hell never had a handshake problem when hewas begging Ken to find his guys free housing. So what, now he’s got a winner and a pocketful ofRockport sponsorship money and everyone’s supposed to treat them like royalty? Ken was readyto drive a steel toe up Fisher’s tail, but then he thought of something that made him exhale, relax,and chalk it up to nerves.

Annie must really be making him edgy, Ken thought. Especially the way the media is playing thisthing.

The news stories had shifted dramatically since Ann confirmed that she’d be at Leadville. Insteadof asking whether the Tarahumara would win, they were now wondering whether Rick Fisher’steam would be humiliated—again. “The Tarahumara consider it shameful to lose to a woman,”

article after article repeated. It was an irresistible story: the shy science teacher heading bravelyinto the Rockies to battle the macho Mexican tribesmen and anyone else, male or female, who gotbetween her and the tape in one of the sport’s premier events.

Of course, there was one way Fisher could ease the media pressure on Team Tarahumara: he couldshut up. No one had ever mentioned Tarahumara machismo until Fisher began telling reportersabout it. “They don’t lose to women,” he said. “And they don’t plan to start now.” It was afascinating revelation—especially to the Tarahumara, who wouldn’t have known what he wastalking about.

The Tarahumara are actually an extraordinarily egalitarian society; men are gentle and respectfulto women, and are commonly seen toting infants around on the small of their backs, just like theirwives. Men and women race separately, that’s true, but mostly for logistical reasons: moms with apassel of younguns to look after aren’t free to spend two days traipsing across the canyons.

They’ve got to stay close to home, so their races tend to be short (by Tarahumara standards,“short” clocks in at forty to sixty miles). Women are still respected as crackerjack runners, andoften serve as the cho’ kéame—a combination team captain and chief bookie—when the men race.

Compared with NFL-revering American guys, Tarahumara men are Lilith Fair fans.

Fisher had already been embarrassed once when his entire team had crapped out. Now, thanks tohis own mistake, he found himself in the spotlight of a nationally televised Battle of the Sexes that,quite likely, he was going to lose. Ann’s best time at Leadville two years before was only thirtyminutes behind Victoriano’s 20:03, and she’d improved phenomenally since then. Look at WesternStates; she’d gotten ninety minutes faster in the space of just one year. There was no telling whatshe’d do when she came roaring into Leadville with a score to settle.

Plus, Ann was holding all the aces: Victoriano and Cerrildo weren’t coming back this year (theyhad corn to plant and had no time for another fun run), so Fisher had lost his two best racers.

Ann had won Leadville twice before, so unlike whatever newcomers Fisher had drafted, she hadthe huge advantage of knowing every bewildering twist in the trail. Miss one marker at Leadville,and you could wander in the dark for miles before getting back on course.

Ann also acclimated effortlessly to high altitude, and knew better than anyone alive how to analyzeand attack the logistical problems of a one-hundred-mile footrace. At its essence, an ultra is abinary equation made up of hundreds of yes/no questions: Eat now or wait? Bomb down this hill,or throttle back and save the quads for the flats? Find out what is itching in your sock, or push on?

Extreme distance magnifies every problem (a blister becomes a blood-soaked sock, a declinedPowerBar becomes a woozy inability to follow trail markers), so all it takes is one wrong answerto ruin a race. But not for honor-student Ann; when it came to ultras, she always aced her quizzes.

In short: thumbs up to the Tarahumara for being amazing amateurs, but this time, they weremeeting the top pro in the business (literally; Ann was now a hired gun backed by Nike money).

The Tarahumara had their brief, shining moment as Leadville champions; now they were comingback as underdogs.

Which explained the guys in the wizard capes.

Desperate to replace his two missing veterans, Fisher had followed Patrocinio up a nine-thousandfootclimb to the mountaintop village of Choguita. There, he found Martimano Cervantes, a forty-two-year-old master of the ball game, and his protégé, twenty-five-year-old Juan Herrera. Choguitais bitterly cold at night and sun-scorched by day, so even when running, the Choguita Tarahumaraprotect themselves with fine woolen ponchos that hang nearly to their feet. As they fly down thetrail, capes flowing around them, they look like magicians appearing from a puff of smoke.

Juan and Martimano were doubtful. They’d never left their village before, and this sounded like along time alone among the Bearded Devils. Fisher cut right through their objections; he had cashand was ready to talk turkey. It had been a dry winter and worse spring in the Choguita highlands,and he knew food supplies were dangerously low. “Come race with us,” Fisher promised them,“and I’ll give your village one ton of corn and a half ton of beans.”

Hmm. Fifty bags of corn wasn’t a lot for a village … but at least it was guaranteed. Maybe if theyhad some companionship, it would be okay.

We have other runners here who are also very fast, they told Fisher. Can some of them come?

No dice, Fisher replied. Just you two.

Secretly, the Pescador was working on a little social-engineering scheme: by taking runners fromas many different villages as possible, he hoped to pit the Tarahumara against each other. Let themtear after each other, he figured, and win Leadville in the bargain. It was a shrewd plan—andtotally misguided. If Fisher had known more about Tarahumara culture, he’d have understood thatracing doesn’t divide villages; it unites them. It’s a way for distant tribesmen to tighten the bondsof kinship and buddyhood, and make sure everyone in the canyon is in fine enough fettle to comethrough in an emergency. Sure it’s competitive, but so is family touch football on Thanksgivingmorning. The Tarahumara saw racing as a festival of friendship; Fisher saw a battlefield.

Men women, village village, director race team manager—within minutesofa(versus) rrivinginLeadville,Fish(versus) erhadstorms(race) brewingonthree(versus) fronts. And then he really gotdown to business.

“Hey, okay if we take a picture together?” a Leadville runner asked when he spotted theTarahumara in town before the race.

“Sure,” Fisher replied. “You got twenty bucks?”

“For what?” the startled runner asked.

For crimes against humanity. For the fact that “white guys” had taken advantage of theTarahumara and other indigenous people for centuries, Fisher would explain. And if you don’t likeit, too bad: “I couldn’t care less about the ultra community,” Fisher would say. “I don’t care aboutwhite people. I like for the Tarahumara to kick white butt.”

White butt? Must have been a while since Fisher swiveled around for a look at his own behind.

And what was he here for, anyway: a race, or a race war?

No one could chat with the Tarahumara, or even pat them on the back and say “Good luck,”

without the Pescador forcing his way between them. Even Ann Trason found a wall of hostilityfacing her. “Rick kept the Tarahumara unnecessarily secluded,” she would later complain. “Hewouldn’t even let us talk to them.”

The Rockport executives were bewildered. They’d just launched a trail-running shoe, and thewhole marketing campaign was based around the Leadville race. The shoe was even named theLeadville Racer. When Rick Fisher called them for sponsorship (“Keep in mind, he came to us”

then Rockport vice president Tony Post told me), Rockport made it clear that the Tarahumarawould be a big part of the promos. Rockport would kick in cash, and in return, the Tarahumarawould wear the banana-yellow shoes, work the crowd, appear in some ads. Was that cool?

Totally, Fisher promised.

“Then I get to Leadville and meet this strange guy,” Tony Post went on. “He seemed like aninconsolable hothead. That was the contradiction. Here you had these really gentle people, beingmanaged by the worst of American culture. It was like …” Post paused to reflect, and in thesilence you could almost hear the realization dawning and forming in his mind. “It’s like he wasjealous they were the ones getting all the attention.”

And so, with battles brewing all around them, the Tarahumara snuffed out their cigarettes andedged in awkwardly beside the other runners in front of Leadville’s courthouse, same place theyused to hang the horse thieves. Among the hugs and handshakes, the we-who-are-about-to-diecamaraderie shared by the other runners during the final countdown, the Tarahumara looked lonelyand alone.

Manuel Luna’s genial smile disappeared and his face hardened into oak. Juan Herrera adjusted hisRockport cap and shifted his feet in his new $110 screaming-yellow Rockports with the thickhiking-boot sole. Martimano Cervantes huddled inside his cape in the freezing Rocky Mountainnight. Ann Trason stepped in front of all of them, shook herself loose, and stared into the darknessahead.


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