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Chapter 20
NINE MONTHS LATER, I found myself back on the Mexican border with a ticking clock andzero margin for error. It was Saturday evening, February 25, 2006, and I had twenty-four hours tofind Caballo again.

As soon as he got a reply from Scott Jurek, Caballo began setting up a trapeze act of logistics. Heonly had a tiny window of opportunity, since the race couldn’t take place during the fall harvest,the winter rainy season, or the blistering heat of summer, when many of the Tarahumara migratetoward cooler caves higher in the canyons. Caballo also had to avoid Christmas, Easter Week, theFiesta Guadalupana and at least a half-dozen traditional wedding weekends.

Caballo finally figured he could wedge the race in on Sunday, March 5. Then the real tricky workbegan: because he’d barely have enough time to Paul Revere from village to village to announcethe race logistics, he had to figure out exactly where and when the Tarahumara runners shouldmeet up with us on the hike to the racecourse. If he miscalculated, it was over; it was already atremendous long shot that any Tarahumara would show up, and if they got to the meeting spot andwe were a no-show, they’d be gone.

Caballo made his best-guess estimates, then set off into the can yons to spread the word, as hemessaged me a few weeks later:

Ran 30 some miles out to Tarahumara country and back today, like the messenger that I am. Themessage fueled me more than the bag of pinole in my pocket. Was lucky enough to see bothManuel Luna and Felipe Quimare on the same loop, the same day. When I spoke to each of them, Icould sense excitement even in the Geronimo like solemnness that is the face of Manuel.

But while things were looking up for Caballo, my end of the operation was maddeningly difficult.

Once word hit the grapevine that Jurek might be going toe-to-toe with the Tarahumara, other ultraaces suddenly wanted a piece of the action. But there was no telling how many would really showup—and that included the star attraction himself.

In true Jurek fashion, Scott had told almost no one what he was up to, so word of his plans onlybegan to spread a little more than a month before the race. He’d even kept me guessing, and I waspretty much his point man; Scott e-mailed me a few times with travel questions, but as crunch timeapproached, he dropped off the radar. Two weeks before race day, I was startled to see a postingon the Runner’s World message board from a runner in Texas who’d gotten a jolt of his own thatmorning when he arrived at the starting line of the Austin Marathon and found himself standingnext to America’s greatest (and contender for most reclusive) ultrarunner.

Austin? Last I’d heard, Scott was supposed to be two thousand miles away at that very moment,crossing Baja with his wife to catch the Chihuahua-Pacific train to Creel. And what was the dealwith the urban marathon—why was Scott flying across the country for a junior varsity road race,when he was supposed to be fine-tuning for the showdown of a lifetime on trails? He was up tosomething, no doubt about it; and as usual, whatever strategy he was developing remained lockedin his own head.

So, until the moment I arrived in El Paso, Texas, that Saturday, I had no idea if I was leading aplatoon or hucking solo. I checked into the airport Hilton, made arrangements for a ride across theborder at five the next morning, then doubled back to the airport. I was pretty sure I was wastingmy time, but there was a chance I’d be picking up Jenn “Mookie” Shelton and Billy “Bonehead”

Barnett, a pair of twenty-one-year-old hotshots who’d been electrifying the East Coast ultra circuit,at least whenever they weren’t otherwise occupied surfing, partying, or posting bail for simpleassault (Jenn), disorderly conduct (Billy), or public indecency (both, for a burst of trail-sidepassion that resulted in an arrest and community service).

Jenn and Billy had only started running two years before, but Billy was already winning some ofthe toughest 50ks on the East Coast, while “the young and beautiful Jenn Shelton,” as the ultraraceblogger Joey Anderson called her, had just clocked one of the fastest 100-mile times in thecountry. “If this young lady could swing a tennis racket as well as she runs,” Anderson wrote, “shewould be one of the richest women in sports with all the sponsors she would attract.”

I’d spoken to Jenn once on the phone, and while she and Billy were wildly eager to join the trekinto the Copper Canyons, I didn’t see any way they’d pull it off. She and the Bonehead had nomoney, no credit cards, and no time off from school: they were both still in college and Caballo’srace was smack in the middle of midterms, meaning they’d flunk the semester if they skipped out.

But two days before my flight to El Paso, I suddenly got this frantic e-mail:

Wait for us! we can get in by 8:10 pm.El Paso is texas, right?

After that—silence. On the slim chance that Jenn and Billy had actually found the right city andfinagled their way onto a flight, I headed over to the airport for a look around. I’d never met them,but their outlaw reputation created a pretty vivid mental image. When I got to baggage claim, Iimmediately locked in on a couple who looked like teenage runaways hitchhiking to Lollapalooza.

“Jenn?” I asked.

“Right on!”

Jenn was wearing flip-flops, surf shorts, and a tie-dyed T-shirt. Her summer-wheat hair was inbraids, giving her the look of a blonder, lesser-known Longstocking. She was pretty and petiteenough to pass for a figure skater, an image she’d tried in the past to scruff up by shaving her headdown to stubble and getting big, black vampire bat tattooed on her right forearm, onlydiscoveringlaterthatitwasadea(a) d ringer for the Bacardi rum logo. “Whatever,” Jenn said with ashrug. “Truth in advertising.”

Billy shared Jenn’s raw good looks and beach-bum wardrobe. He had a tribal tattoo across theback of his neck and thick sideburns that blended into shaggy, sun-streaked hair. With his floweryboard shorts and ripped surfer’s build, he looked—to Jenn, at least—“like some little yeti whoraided your underwear drawer.”

“I can’t believe you guys made it,” I said. “But there’s been a change of plans. Scott Jurek isn’tgoing to be meeting us in Mexico.”

“Oh, fuck me,” Jenn said. “I knew this was too good to be true.”

“He came here instead.” On my way to the airport, I’d spotted two guys jogging across the parkinglot. They were too far away for me to see their faces, but their smooth-glide strides gave themaway. After quick introductions, they’d headed to the bar while I continued to the airport.

“Scott’s here?”

“Yup. I just saw him on the way over. He’s back at the hotel bar with Luis Escobar.”

“Scott drinks?”

“Looks that way.”

“Suh-weet!!”

Jenn and Billy grabbed their gear—a Nike shopping bag with a chiropractic stick jutting out thetop and a duffel with the tail of a sleeping bag stuck in the zipper—and we began heading acrossthe parking lot.

“So what’s Scott like?” Jenn asked. Ultrarunning, like rap music, was split by geography; as EastCoast playas, Jenn and Billy had done most of their racing close to home and hadn’t yet crossedpaths (or swords) with many of the West Coast elites. To them—to just about all ultrarunners,actually—Scott was as much of a mythic figure as the Tarahumara.

“I only caught a glimpse of him myself,” I said. “Pretty tough guy to read, I can tell you thatmuch.”

Right there, I should have shut my stupid mouth. But who can predict when the trivial will becometragic? How could I have known that a friendly gesture, like giving Caballo my running shoes,would nearly cost him his life? Likewise, I never suspected that the next ten words out of mymouth would snowball into disaster:

“Maybe,” I suggested, “you can get him drunk and loosen him up.”


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