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Chapter 17
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?Those people were some kind ofsolution.

—CONSTANTINE CAVAFY, “Waiting for the Barbarians”

“THAT WAS TEN years ago,” Caballo told me, wrapping up his tale. “And I’ve been here eversince.”

Mamá had kicked us out of her living-room restaurant hours before and gone to bed. Caballo, stilltalking, had led me down the deserted streets of Creel and into a back-alley bodega. We closed thatplace, too. By the time Caballo had brought me from 1994 to the present, it was two in themorning and my head was spinning. He’d told me more than I’d even hoped for about theTarahumara’s flash across the American ultra landscape (and tipped me to how I could learn therest by tracking down Rick Fisher, Joe Vigil, and company), but in all those tales, he’d neveranswered the only question I’d asked:

Dude, who are you?

It was as if he’d done nothing in his life before running through the woods with Martimano—orelse he’d done plenty he wouldn’t talk about. Every time I probed, he sidestepped with either ajoke or a non-answer that slammed the topic shut like a dungeon door (“How do I make money? Ido stuff for rich people who won’t do it for themselves”). Then he’d power off on another yarn.

The choice was clear; I could be a pest and piss him off, or I could back off and hear some greatstories.

I did learn that after the ’94 Leadville race, Rick Fisher went on the rampage. There were otherraces out there and other Tarahumara runners, and it wasn’t long before Fisher had regrouped andwas careening from mayhem to mayhem like a frat boy on a road trip. First, Team Tarahumara wasthrown out of the Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run in California because Fisher keptbarging into a runners-only section of the course in the middle of the race. “The last thing I want todo is disqualify a runner,” the race director said, “but Rick left us no choice.”

Then, three Tarahumara runners were disqualified after finishing first, second, and fourth in Utah’sWasatch Front 100 because Fisher had refused to pay the entry fee. Then it was on to WesternStates, where Fisher threw another finish-line tantrum, accusing race volunteers of secretlyswitching trail markers to trick the Tarahumara and—true story—stealing their blood. (All theWestern States racers were asked for a blood sample as part of a scientific study on endurance, butFisher alone somehow smelled a ruse and blew up. “The Tarahumara blood is very, very rare,”

he’s reported to have said. “The medical world wants to get its hands on it for genetic testing.”)By that point, even the Tarahumara seemed to be sick of dealing with the Pescador. They alsonoticed that he kept trading up for newer and nicer SUVs, while all they got for the long, lonelyweeks away from home and their hundreds of miles of mountain running were a few bags of corn.

Once again, dealing with the chabochis had left the Tarahumara feeling like slaves. That was theend of Team Tarahumara. They disbanded—forever.

Micah True (or whatever his name really was) felt such kinship with the Tarahumara and suchdisgust with the behavior of his fellow Americans that he felt compelled to make amends.

Immediately after he’d paced Martimano in the ’94 Leadville race, he talked his way onto a radiostation in Boulder, Colorado, and asked anyone with an old coat to come drop it off. Once he had apile, he bundled them up and set off for the Copper Canyons.

He had no clue where he was going, putting his odds of actually finding his buddy Martimano on apar with Shackleton making it back from Antarctica. He wandered across the desert and throughthe canyons, repeating Martimano’s name to anyone he met, until he stunned both himself andMartimano by actually arriving at the top of a nine-thousand-foot mountain and the center ofMartimano’s village. The Tarahumara made him welcome in their own wordless way: they barelyspoke to him, but when Caballo awoke every morning, he found a little pile of handmade tortillasand fresh pinole by his campsite.

“The Rarámuri have no money, but nobody is poor,” Caballo said. “In the States, you ask for aglass of water and they take you to a homeless shelter. Here, they take you in and feed you. Youask to camp out, and they say, ‘Sure, but wouldn’t you rather sleep inside with us?’”

But Choguita gets cold at night, too cold for a skinny guy from California (or wherever he wasreally from), so after giving away all his coats, Micah waved adiós to Juan and Martimano andstruck off on his own, pushing into the warm depths of the canyons. He meandered blindly pastdrug dens and desperadoes, avoided diseases and canyon fever, and eventually discovered a spothe liked by a bend in the river. He hauled up rocks to build a hut, and made himself at home.

“I decided I was going to find the best place in the world to run, and that was it,” he told me as wewalked back to the hotel that night. “The first view made my jaw drop. I got all excited because Icouldn’t wait to get out on the trail. I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t know where to begin. But it’swild out there. I had to give it some time.”

He had no choice, anyway. The reason he was pacing at Leadville instead of racing was becausehis legs had begun betraying him after he turned forty. “I used to have trouble with injuries,especially with my ankle tendons,” Micah said. Over the years, he’d tried every remedy—wraps,massage, more expensive and supportive shoes— but nothing really helped. When he arrived inthe Barrancas, he decided to chuck logic and trust that the Tarahumara knew what they weredoing. He wasn’t going to take the time to try figuring out their secrets; he’d just tackle itswimming-hole style, by leaping in and hoping for the best.

He got rid of his running shoes and began wearing nothing but sandals. He started eating pinole forbreakfast (after learning how to cook it like oatmeal with water and honey), and carrying it drywith him in a hip bag during his rambles through the canyons. He took some vicious falls andsometimes barely made it back to his hut on his own two feet, but he just gritted his teeth, soakedhis wounds in the icy river, and chalked it up as an investment. “Suffering is humbling. It pays toknow how to get your butt kicked,” Caballo said. “I learned pretty fast you’d better have respectfor the Sierra Madre, ’cause she’ll chew you up and crap you out.”

By his third year, Caballo was tackling trails that were invisible to the non-Tarahumara eye. Withbutterflies in his stomach, he’d push himself over the lip of jagged descents that were longer,steeper, and more serpentine than any black-diamond ski run. He’d slip-scramble-sprint downhillfor miles, barely in control, relying on his canyon-honed reflexes but still awaiting the pop of aknee cartilage, the rip of a hamstring, the fiery burn of a torn Achilles tendon he knew was comingany second.

But it never came. He never got hurt. After a few years in the canyons, Caballo was stronger,healthier, and faster than he’d ever been in his life. “My whole approach to running has changedsince I’ve been here,” he told me. As a test, he tried running a trail through the mountains thattakes three days on horseback; he did it in seven hours. He’s not sure how it all came together,what proportions of sandals and pinole and korima, but—“Hey,” I interrupted him. “Could you show me?”

“Show you what?”

“How to run like that.”

Something about his smile made me instantly regret asking. “Yeah, I’ll take you for a run,” hesaid. “Meet me here at sunup.”

“Huh! Huh!”

I was trying to shout, but it kept turning into a pant. “Horse,” I finally got out, catching CaballoBlanco’s ear just before he vanished around an uphill bend. We had set out in the hills behindCreel, on a rocky, pine-needled trail climbing through the woods. We’d been running for less thanten minutes and already I was dying for air. It’s not that Caballo is so fast; it’s just that he seems solight, as though he wills himself uphill by mind power instead of muscle.

He turned and trotted back down. “Okay, man, lesson one. Get right behind me.” He started to jog,more slowly this time, and I tried to copy everything he did. My arms floated until my hands wererib-high; my stride chopped down to pitty-pat steps; my back straightened so much I could almosthear the vertebrae creaking.

“Don’t fight the trail,” Caballo called back over his shoulder. “Take what it gives you. If you havea choice between one step or two between rocks, take three.” Caballo has spent so many yearsnavigating the trails, he’s even nicknamed the stones beneath his feet: some are ayudantes, thehelpers which let you spring forward with power; others are “tricksters,” which look like ayudantesbut roll treacherously at takeoff; and some are chingoncitos, little bastards just dying to lay youout.

“Lesson two,” Caballo called. “Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, becauseif that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give ashit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that youforget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about thelast one—you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”

I kept my eyes on Caballo’s sandaled feet, trying to duplicate his odd, sort of tippy-toeing steps. Ihad my head down so long, I didn’t notice at first that we’d left the forest.

“Wow!” I exclaimed.

The sun was just rising over the Sierras. Pine smoke scented the air, rising from dented stovepipesin the lodge-pole shacks on the edge of town. In the distance, giant standing stones like EasterIsland statues reared from the mesa floor, with snow-dusted mountains in the background. Even ifI hadn’t been sucking wind, I’d have been breathless.

“I told ya,” Micah gloated.

We’d hit our turnaround point, but even though I knew it would be foolish for me to try goingmore than eight miles, it was such a kick loping these trails that I hated heading back. Caballoknew exactly what I meant.

“I’ve felt that way for ten years,” he said. “And I’m still just learning my way around.” But he hadto hustle; he was heading home to his hut that day, and he’d barely have enough time to make itbefore dark. And that’s when he began to explain what he was doing in Creel in the first place.

“You know,” Caballo began, “a lot has happened since that Leadville race.” Ultrarunning used tobe just a handful of freaks in the woods with flashlights, but over the past few years, it had beentransformed by an invasion of Young Guns. Like Karl Meltzer, who rocked “Strangelove” throughhis iPod while winning the Hard rock 100 three times in a row; and the “Dirt Diva,” Catra Corbett,a beautiful and kaleidoscopically-tattooed Goth chick who once, just for fun, ran all 211 miles ofthe John Muir trail across Yosemite National Park and then turned around and ran all the wayback; and Tony “Naked Guy” Krupicka, who rarely wore more than skimpy shorts and spent ayear sleeping in a friend’s closet while training to win the Leadville 100; and the Fabulous FlyingSkaggs Brothers, Eric and Kyle, who hitchhiked to the Grand Canyon before setting a new recordfor the fastest round-trip run from rim to rim.

These Young Guns wanted something fresh, tough, and exotic, and they were flocking to trail-running in such numbers that, by 2002, it had become the fastest-growing outdoor sport in thecountry. It wasn’t just the racing they loved; it was the thrill of exploring the brave new world oftheir own bodies. Ultra god Scott Jurek summed up the Young Guns’ unofficial creed with a quotefrom William James he stuck on the end of every e-mail he sent: “Beyond the very extreme offatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own;sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”

As the Young Guns took to the woods, they brought everything that had been learned about sportsscience over the past decade. Matt Carpenter, a mountain runner in Colorado Springs, beganspending hundreds of hours on a treadmill to measure the variations in body oscillations when, forinstance, he took a sip of water (the most bio-mechanically efficient way to hold a water bottle wastucked into his armpit, not held in his hand). Carpenter used a belt sander and a straight razor toshave micro-ounces off his running shoes and plunged them in and out of the bathtub to gaugewater retention and drying speed. In 2005, he used his obsessive knowledge to blast the record atLeadville—he finished in a stunning 15:42, nearly two hours faster than the fastest Tarahumaraever had.

But! What could the Tarahumara do if pushed? See, that’s what Caballo wanted to know.

Victoriano and Juan had run like hunters, the way they’d been taught: just fast enough to capturetheir quarry and no faster. Who knew how much faster they might have gone against a guy likeCarpenter? And no one knew what they could do on their home terrain. As defending champs,didn’t they deserve the right to the home-field advantage at least once?

If the Tarahumara couldn’t go back to America, Caballo reasoned, then the Americans would haveto come to the Tarahumara. But he knew the fiercely shy canyon-dwellers would vanish back intothe hills if surrounded by a pack of question-firing, camera-clicking American runners.

However—and this was Caballo’s brainstorm—what if he set up a race the Tarahumara way? Itwould be like an old-time guitar picker’s battle—a week of sparring, trading secrets, studying eachother’s style and techniques. On the last day, all the runners would face off in a 50-mile clash ofchampions.

It was a great idea—and a total joke, of course. No elite runner would take the risk; it wasn’t justcareer suicide, it was suicide suicide. Just to get to the starting line, they’d have to slip pastbandits, hike through the badlands, keep an eagle eye on every sip of water and every bite of food.

If they got hurt, they were dead; not right away, maybe, but inevitably. They could be days fromthe nearest road and hours from fresh water, with no chance for a rescue chopper to thread its waybetween those tight rock walls.

No matter: Caballo had already begun working on his plan. That’s the only reason he was in Creel.

He’d left his hut at the bottom of the canyons and trekked into a town he loathed because he’dheard there was a PC with a dial-up connection in the back of a Creel candy shop. He’d learnedsome computer basics, gotten an e-mail account, and had begun sending messages to the outsideworld. And that’s where I came in; the only reason “the gringo Indio” had gotten interested when Iambushed him back at the hotel was because I told him I was a writer. Maybe an article about hisrace would actually attract some racers.

“So who are you inviting?” I asked.

“Just one guy so far,” he said. “I only want runners with the right spirit, real champions. So I’vebeen messaging Scott Jurek.”

Scott Jurek? Seven-time Western States champ and three-peat Ultrarunner of the Year Scott Jurek?

Caballo had to be high out of his skull if he thought Scott Jurek was coming down here to race abunch of nobodies in the middle of nowhere. Scott was the top ultra-runner in the country, maybein the world, arguably of all time. When Scott Jurek wasn’t racing, he was helping Brooks designtheir signature trail shoe, the Cascadia, or setting up sold-out running camps, or making decisionsabout what high-profile event he’d run next in Japan, Switzerland, Greece, or France. Scott Jurekwas a business enterprise that lived and died by the health of Scott Jurek— which meant the lastthing the company’s chief asset needed to do was risk getting sick, shot, or defeated in some halfassedpickup race in a sniper-patrolled corner of the Mexican outback.

But somewhere, Caballo had read an interview with Jurek and felt an instant thrum of brotherhood.

In his own way, Scott was nearly as mysterious as Caballo. While far lesser ultra stars like DeanKarnazes and Pam Reed were touting themselves on TV, writing self-glorifying memoirs, and (inDean’s case) promoting a sports drink by running bare-chested on a sky-cammed treadmill overTimes Square, the greatest American ultrarunner of them all was virtually invisible. He seemed tobe a pure racing animal, which explained two of his other peculiar habits: at the start of every race,he’d let out a bloodcurdling shriek, and after he won, he’d roll in the dirt like a hyperactive hound.

Then he’d get up, brush himself off, and vanish back to Seattle until it was time for his war cry toecho through the dark again.

Now that was the kind of champion Caballo was looking for; not some showboat who’d use theTarahumara to boost his own brand, but a true student of the sport who appreciated the artistry andeffort in even the slowest runner’s performance. Caballo didn’t need any more proof of ScottJurek’s worthiness, but he got it anyway: asked at the end of the interview to list his idols, Jureknamed the Tarahumara. “For inspiration,” the article noted, “he repeats a saying of the TarahumaraIndians: ‘When you run on the earth and run with the earth, you can run forever.’”

“See!” Caballo insisted. “He has a Rarámuri soul.”

But hold on a sec…. “Even if Scott Jurek does agree to come, how about the Tarahumara?” Iasked. “Will they go for it?”

“Maybe,” Caballo shrugged. “The guy I want is Arnulfo Quimare.”

This thing was never going to happen. I knew from personal experience that Arnulfo would barelyeven talk to an outsider, let alone hang with a whole gang of them for a week and guide them overthe hidden trails of his homeland. I admired Caballo’s taste and ambition, but I seriouslyquestioned his grasp of reality. No American runners knew who he was, and most of theTarahumara weren’t sure what he was. Yet he was expecting them all to trust him?

“I’m pretty sure Manuel Luna will come,” Caballo continued. “Maybe with his son.”

“Marcelino?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Caballo said. “He’s good.”

“He’s awesome!”

I still had an after-image on my retina of the teenage Human Torch surging over that dirt trail asfast as a flame along a fuse. Well, in that case, who cared if Scott Jurek or any of the other hotshotsshowed up? Just the chance to run alongside Manuel and Marcelino and Caballo again would beworth it. The way Caballo and Marcelino ran, it was the closest a human could come to flying. I’dgotten just a taste of it out there on the trails of Creel, and I wanted more; it was like flapping yourarms really hard and lifting a half inch off the ground—after that, how could you think of anythingexcept trying again?

“I can do this,” I told myself. Caballo had been in the same position I was in when he came downhere; he was a guy in his forties with busted-up legs, and within a year, he was sky-walking acrossmountaintops. If it worked for him, why not me? If I really applied the techniques he’d taught me,could I get strong enough to run fifty miles through the Copper Canyons? The odds against hisrace coming off were roughly—actually, there were no odds. It wasn’t going to happen. But if bysome miracle he managed to set up a run with the top Tarahumara of their generation, I wanted tobe there.

When we got back to Creel, Caballo and I shook hands.

“Thanks for the lessons,” I said. “You taught me a lot.”

“Hasta luego, norawa,” Caballo replied. Till the next time, buddy. And then he was off.

I watched him go. There was something terribly sad, yet terribly uplifting, about watching thisprophet of the ancient art of distance running turning his back on everything except his dream, andheading back down to “the best place in the world to run.”

Alone.


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