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Chapter 21
“PREPARE TO MEET your god,” I said as we entered the hotel bar. “Sucking down a cold one.”

Scott was on a stool, sipping a Fat Tire Ale. Billy dropped his duffel and stuck out his hand, whileJenn hung behind me. She’d barely let Billy get a word in the whole way across the parking lot,but now, in Scott’s presence, she was starstruck. At least I thought she was, till I saw the look inher eye. She wasn’t bashful; she was sizing him up. Scott might be hunting the Tarahumara, buthe’d better watch who was hunting him.

“Is this all of us?” Scott asked.

I looked around the bar and did a head count. Jenn and Billy were ordering beers. Beside them wasEric Orton, an adventure-sports coach from Wyoming and longtime student of the Tarahumarawho’d made me his personal disaster reconstruction project; over the past nine months, we’d beenin weekly contact, sometimes daily, as Eric attempted to transform me from a splintery wreck intoan unbreakable ultramarathon man. He was the one guy I’d been sure would turn up; even thoughhe’d be leaving his wife behind with their newborn daughter in the middle of a fierce Wyomingwinter, there was no way he’d be sitting at home while I was putting his art to the test. I’d flat-outtold him he was wrong and there was no way I could run fifty miles; now, we’d both see if he wasright.

Sandwiching Scott were Luis Escobar and his father, Joe Ramírez. Luis was not only an ultrastudwho’d won the H.U.R.T. 100 and raced Badwater, but also one of the top race photographers in thesport (his artistry aided, of course, by the fact that his legs could take him places no other shooterscould reach). Just by chance, Luis had recently called Scott to make sure they’d be seeing eachother at Coyote Fourplay, a semi-secret, invitation-only free-for-all described as “a four-day orgyof idiocy involving severed coyote heads, poisoned snacks, panties in trees, and one hundredtwenty miles of trails you’ll wish you’d missed.”

Fourplay is held at the end of February every year in the backwoods of Oxnard, California, and itexists to give a small band of ultrarunners a chance to whip each other’s butts and then glue saidbutts to toilet seats. Every day, the Fourplayers race anywhere from thirty to fifty miles on trailsmarked by mummified coyote skulls and women’s underwear. Every night, they face off withbowling tournaments and talent shows and endless guerrilla pranks, like replacing ProBars withfrozen cat food and gluing the wrappers back shut. Fourplay was a battle royal for amateurs wholoved to run hard and play rough; it wasn’t really for pros who had to worry about their racingschedules and sponsorship commitments. Naturally, Scott never missed it.

Until 2006, that is. “Sorry, something came up,” Scott told Luis. When Luis heard what it was, hisheart skipped a beat. No one had ever gotten photos of Tarahumara runners in full flight on theirhome turf, and for good reason: the Tarahumara run for fun, and having white devils aroundwasn’t any fun. Their races were spontaneous and secretive and absolutely hidden from outsideeyes. But if Caballo pulled this thing off, then a few lucky devils would get the chance to crossover to the Tarahumara side. For the first time, they’d all be Running People together.

Luis’s dad, Joe, has the chiseled-oak face, gray ponytail, and turquoise rings of a Native Americansage, but he’s actually a former migrant worker who, in his hard-scrapping sixty-plus years, madehimself into a California highway patrolman, then a chef, and finally an artist with a flair for thecolors and culture of his native Mexico. When Joe heard his kid was heading into the homeland tosee their ancestral heroes in action, he set his jaw and insisted he was going, too. The hike alonecould, quite literally, kill him, but Joe wasn’t worried. Even more than the ultrastuds around him,this son of the picking fields was a survivor.

“How about that barefoot guy?” I asked. “Is he still coming?”

A few months before, someone who called himself “Barefoot Ted” began blitzing Caballo with atorrent of messages. He seemed to be the Bruce Wayne of barefoot running, the wealthy heir of aCalifornia amusement-park fortune who devoted himself to battling the worst crime evercommitted against the human foot: the invention of the running shoe. Barefoot Ted believed wecould abolish foot injuries by throwing away our Nikes, and he was willing to prove it on himself:

he ran the Los Angeles and Santa Clarita marathons in his bare feet and finished fast enough toqualify for the elite Boston Marathon. He was rumored to train by running barefoot in the SanGabriel Mountains, and by pulling his wife and daughter through the streets of Burbank in arickshaw. Now, he was coming to Mexico to commune with the Tarahumara and explore whetherthe key to their amazing resilience was their nearly bare feet.

“He left a message that he’d be getting here later,” Luis said.

“I guess that’s everyone, then. Caballo is going to be psyched.”

“So what’s the story with this guy?” Scott asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t really know much. I only met him once.”

Scott’s eyes narrowed. Billy and Jenn turned from the bar and cocked their heads, suddenly moreinterested in me than the beers they were ordering. The atmosphere of the whole group instantlychanged. Seconds ago, everyone was drinking and chatting, but now, it was quiet and a little tense.

“What?” I asked.

“I thought you were really good buddies,” Scott said.

“Buddies? Not even close,” I said. “He’s a total mystery. I don’t even know where he lives. I don’teven know his real name.”

“So how do you know he’s legit?” Joe Ramírez asked. “Shit, he may not even know anyTarahumara.”

“They know him,” I said. “All I can tell you is what I wrote. He’s kind of strange, he’s a hell of arunner, and he’s been down there for a long time. That’s all I found out about him.”

Everyone sat for a sec and drank that in, myself included. So why were we trusting Caballo? I’dgotten so carried away with training for the race, I’d forgotten that the real challenge was survivingthe trip. I had no clue who Caballo really was, or where he was leading us. He could be totallydemented or merrily inept, and the result would be the same: out there in the Barrancas, we’d becooked.

“So!” Jenn blurted. “What are you guys up for tonight? I promised Billy some big-ass margaritas.”

If the rest of the crew had hit a crossroad of doubt, they’d put it behind them. Scott and Luis andEric and Joe all agreed to pile into the hotel courtesy van with Jenn and Billy and head downtownfor drinks. Not me, though. We had a lot of hard miles ahead, and I wanted all the rest I could get.

Unlike the rest of them, I’d been down there before. I knew what we were heading into.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I was jerked awake by shouting nearby. Very nearby—like,in my room. Then, a BANG shook the bathroom.

“Billy, get up!” someone yelled.

“Leemee here. I’m fine.”

“You’ve got to get up!”

I snapped on a light, and saw Eric Orton, the adventure-sports coach, standing in the doorway.

“The kids,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know, man.”

“Is everyone all right?”

“I don’t know, man.”

I sat up, still groggy, and went to the door of the bathroom. Billy was sprawled in the tub with hiseyes closed. Pink vomit was splattered all over his shirt… and the toilet… and the floor. Jenn hadlost her clothes and found a shiner; she was wearing only shorts and a purple bra, and her left eyewas swelling shut. She had Billy by the arm and was trying to haul him to his feet.

“Can you help me lift him?” Jenn asked.

“What happened to your eye?”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“JUST LEAVE ME HERE!” Billy was shouting. He cackled like an archvillain, then passed outcold.

Jesus. I squatted over him in the tub and looked for nonsticky places to get a grip. I got him underthe arms, but couldn’t find any soft flesh to grab hold of; Billy was so muscular, trying to hoist himwas like lifting a side of lean beef. I finally managed to drag him out of the tub and into the sittingroom. Eric and I had planned to share a room, but when Jenn and Billy showed up with noreservation or, it seemed, any money for a room, we said they could crash with us.

And crash they did. As soon as Eric yanked out the fold-out sofa, Jenn dropped like a sack oflaundry. I stretched Billy out beside her with his head hanging over the edge. I got a wastebasketunder his face just before another pink river gushed out. He was still retching when I hit the lights.

Back in the adjoining bedroom, Eric filled me in. They’d gone to a Tex-Mex place, and whileeveryone else eating, Jenn and Billy had had a drinking contest with fishbowl-sizedmargaritas.Atsome(was) point, Billy wandered off in search of a bathroom and never returned. Jenn,meanwhile, entertained herself by snatching Scott’s cell phone while he was saying good night tohis wife and shouting, “Help! I’m surrounded by penises!”

Luckily, that’s when Barefoot Ted turned up. When he got to the hotel and heard that his travelingcompanions were out drinking, he commandeered the courtesy van and convinced the driver toshuttle him around till he found them. At the first stop, the driver spotted Billy asleep in theparking lot. The driver hauled Billy into the van while Barefoot Ted gathered the others. WhateverBilly was lacking in pep, Jenn made up for; during the ride back to the hotel, she did backflips overthe seats until the driver slammed on the brakes and threatened to throw her out if she didn’t sit thehell down.

The driver’s jurisdiction, however, only extended as far as the van door. When he pulled up infront of the hotel, Jenn burst loose. She ran into the hotel, skidded across the lobby, and crashedinto a giant fountain full of water plants, smashing her face against the marble and blackening hereye. She emerged soaking wet, waving fists full of foliage overhead like a Kentucky Derbywinner.

“Miss! Miss!” the appalled desk clerk pleaded, before remembering that pleading doesn’t work ondrunks in fountains. “Get her under control,” she warned the others, “or you’re all out of here.”

Gotcha. Luis and Barefoot Ted smothered Jenn in a tackle, then wrestled her into an elevator. Jennkept wriggling, trying to break free while Scott and Eric were dragging Billy aboard. “Let megooooo!” the hotel staff could hear Jenn wailing as the doors slid shut. “I’ll be good! Ipromiiiiiiissse. …”

“Damn,” I said. I checked my watch. “We’re going to have to haul their drunk asses out of here infive hours.”

“I’ll carry Billy” Eric said. “Jenn is all yours.”

Sometime after 3 a.m., my phone rang.

“Mr. McDougall?”

“Hmm?”

“This is Terry at the front desk. Your little friend could use some help getting upstairs. Again.”

“Huh? No, that’s not her this time,” I said, reaching for the light. “She’s right—” I looked around.

No Jenn. “Okay. Be right down.”

When I got to the lobby, I found Jenn in her bra and shorts. She gave me a delighted smile, as if tosay, “What a coincidence!” Beside her was a big ol’ boy with cowboy boots and a rodeo beltbuckle. He glanced at Jenn’s black eye, then at me, then back to her black eye as he tried to decidewhether to kick my ass.

Apparently, she’d woken up to use the toilet, but wandered right past the bathroom and ended upout in the hall. After relieving herself next to the soda machines, she heard music and started toexplore. A wedding party was going on down the hall.

“HEY!!!” everyone shouted when Jenn poked her head in.

“HEY YA!” Jenn shouted back, and boogied in to get herself a drink. She butt-grinded with thegroom, downed a beer, and fended off the guys who assumed that the wobbling, half-dressed hottiewho magically appeared at 3 a.m. was their personal party favor. Jenn eventually meandered on,finally winding up in the lobby.

“Sweetie, you’d better not drink like that where you’re going,” the desk clerk called as Jennwobbled toward the elevator. “They’ll rape you and leave you for dead.” The clerk knew what shewas talking about; our first stop on the way to the canyons was Juárez, a border town so lawlessthat hundreds of young women Jenn’s age had been murdered and dumped in the desert over theprevious few years; five hundred other people were killed in one year alone. Any doubts aboutwho ran the show in Juárez were cleared up when dozens of police commanders quit or were killedafter drug lords nailed a list of their names on telephone poles.

“’Kay” Jenn said, waving good-bye. “Sorry about the plants.”

I helped her back into the sofa bed, then double-locked the door to prevent any further escapes. Ichecked the time. Damn, 3:30. We had to be out the door in ninety minutes, or there was no chanceof meeting Caballo. At that moment, he was making his way out of the canyons and up to the townof Creel. From there, he’d guide us down into the Barrancas. Two days later, we all had to be at acertain spot on a trail in the Batopilas mountain range, where the Tarahumara would be watchingfor us. The big problem was the bus schedule to Creel; if we got a late start tomorrow, there wasno telling when we’d arrive. I knew Caballo wouldn’t wait; for him, a choice between missing usor standing up the Tarahumara wasn’t a choice at all.

“Look, you guys are going to have to go ahead,” I told Eric when I got back into the bedroom.

“Luis’s dad speaks Spanish, so he can get you to Creel. I’ll follow with those two as soon as theycan walk.”

“How are we going to find Caballo?”

“You’ll recognize him. He’s one of a kind.”

Eric thought about it. “You sure you don’t want me to drill sergeant those two with a bucket of icewater?”

“Tempting,” I said. “But at this point, I like them better asleep.”

About an hour later, we heard noises in the bathroom. “Hopeless,” I muttered, getting up to seewho was puking. Instead, I found Billy sudsing up in the shower and Jenn brushing her teeth.

“Good morning,” Jenn said. “What happened to my eye?”

Half an hour later, the six of us were back in the hotel van and hissing through the damp morningstreets of El Paso, heading toward the Mexican border. We’d have to cross over to Juárez, thenhopscotch from bus to bus across the Chihuahua desert to the edge of the Barrancas. Even withluck on our side, we were facing at least fifteen straight hours on creaking Mexican buses beforewe got to Creel.

“The man who gets me a Mountain Dew can have my body,” Jenn croaked, her eyes closed andface pressed against the cool of the van window. “And Billy’s.”

“If they race the way they party, the Tarahumara don’t have a chance,” Eric muttered. “Where’dyou find these two?”


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