Well that was emotional …
Since getting back to the UK just over a week ago, I have been attempting to write about what words cannot explain. There is a big bag of stories from the experience but with something truly amazing happening almost by the hour (sometimes several times an hour) over the week I spent in the Barranca del Cobre, thought it was best to stick to a simple factual account. So …
You probably haven’t heard of Michael Randall Hickman. You might have heard of Micah True and if you have read the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall you will be familiar with Caballo Blanco. By creating the Copper Canyon Ultra, Micah brought the Tarahumara running people of the Sierra Madre to the attention of the world and took the first Mas Loco gringo runners to race in the canyons included Scott Jurek. The story captured my imagination and I decided that it was a journey I had to make.
I never met Micah in person and had originally planned to go out to run in 2012 but for a number of reasons I deferred entering having opted to head out this year. Sadly, Micah passed away last March whilst out running in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico but I did make the journey as I said I would.
Took the opportunity to have a bit of a road trip through Texas and made my way to meet some other runners in El Paso via Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio (including a wee side trip to the Chili Parlour Bar in Austin). Finally arrived in El Paso where I met a great bunch of around 30 folks for another road trip down into Mexico. The only person I knew prior to this was Peter Smith – an ultra runner from just outside London but over the two days got to know the others who I know consider great friends.
Crossing the border was easy (if a bit time consuming) especially compared to a wild dust storm which threatened to put the two vans off the road continually with silly high winds adding to almost zero visibility. As such we arrived in town of Cuauhtemoc late and dirty. Bite to eat before bed and some sleep before the next morning drive down to the edge of the Canyon. Here a few of us literally jumped off the edge on a series of zip lines and suspension bridges. The remainder of the day was spent getting down to Cerocahui and Diego’s place the wonderful Hotel Paraiso de Oso.
Next morning, a few of us went for a wee trail run before the visiting a local school for a cookout in the afternoon. That evening, a few of Micah’s friends and his girlfriend Maria Walton told some stories and we drank strong margaritas toasting the life of the man who had brought us all to the same place and time.
Key to the experience was walking into the town of Urique as Micah had the original Mas Loco gringos do.
Just before crossing the bridge which led onto the single track leading down into the canyons Luis Escobar stopped us and we took the Mas Loco pledge “If I get lost, hurt or die …it’s my own damn fault”. Luis also informed us that once we crossed the bridge, our lives would change forever and there was no way of returning – how right he turned out to be. The next 20 miles or so were spent in the company of a rather wonderful girl called Kate and by the time we all reached the edge of Urique, the positive changes had begun. The following day a group of folks headed out to a tree at Los Alisos for an incredibly moving ceremony for Micah and to spread his ashes. To help regain a little composure, I jumped on the tail end of a bunch of other runners which included Pat Sweeney and some of the Japanese guys …they jogged, I buried myself trying to keep up. That evening a group of us headed back up to the top of the canyon to take part in a traditional temazcal sweat lodge ceremony – initial thoughts was it would help acclimatise to the heat but as was becoming the norm …it was much more and as good for the soul as it was the body. Next morning was a return down to Urique and race registration which helped remind everybody that there was the small matter of a 50 mile ultra in a few days.
Saturday morning started with a kids race which was seriously awesome – kids of all ages running, laughing and simply enjoying themselves. No rules, no risk assessments, no race brief, no crap …just a 4km out and back from the centre of town.
Right the race bit …
The ultra started promptly at 6am on the Sunday morning. Since each day the heat had been increasing, I decided to go fairly hard whilst it was cool then slow down as the heat built during the day with my only target being to complete the course in less than 12 hours (there was a couple of “soft” cut off times which were about 10 hours for the first 66km and 14 hours for the entire 80km course). There were around 500 starters of which only just over 100 were international gringos the balance being made up by local Tarahumara whose prize for reaching control points was bags of corn.
The first section of the course was on a good dirt track out to the church at Guadalupe before a return to a bridge then another loop which took in some single track that we had first hiked down into the Canyons on. I was shocked at how fast the local runners were especially considering they were all running in Huaraches – sandals made from car tire cut offs ! Some of the other gringos slowed down on the hills (especially the downs) and I was lucky to make up a fair few places on these sections.
The route then returned to Urique for the first time before what felt like a long 8km out to the start of the climb up to the tree at Los Alisos where we had said a goodbye to Micah. Having been up a few days prior I knew the route but ran out of water which led to a little panic as the heat was now rising quickly. By the time I reached the control, was feeling a bit wobbly and was grateful to be given as much fruit and fluids as I needed. Feeling pin high again, the descent was a blast and soon arrived back at the road. On the return route I nipped into a wee shop to buy a couple of bottles of coke (the drink) – one for myself and one for Kate & Peter who I knew would be on the road heading outwards.
Felt like things were going well and started dreaming that under 10 hours was possible ! The arithmetic indicated that with a bit of an effort, I would have just two hours to cover the last 14km. Plan was to push hard back into Urique, spend a bit of time at the drop bag located outside Mama Tita’s restaurant then a steady last loop back up to Guadalupe again and back to town. As I approached my bag I realised that things were …well less than well. Cristell (wife on a Belgian runner I had become pals with) got me a chair, Maria helped sort out my bottles and a great Mexican girl called Jade disappeared into the crowd and shops to get me some Gatorade since I was now struggling to get any other fluids down. Keen not to seize, after a few minutes I wobbled towards the edge of town still dreaming that sub 10 was still a reality …until the first incline brought me back to earth.
Having previously had the unpleasant experience of heat stroke (collapsed veins and an IV drip that time) I was very aware of what was happening. After a short stumble from one side of the track to the other, it was obvious heat exhaustion was close. Managed to slowly walk to the top of that hill and round a corner towards an area of shade. The fact some local runners were sitting resting sealed it …time to stop and recover. Ten minutes of soaking my hat and cooling my head had things under a degree of control and I started walking the last couple of km to the church control – time had been replaced with staying upright. Got to the church ..picked up my last wristband to indicate I had been there, a litre of water, fruit and hid in the shade for around 20 minutes sorting things out. Feeling better if not perfect, I was able to run the downhills and some of the level ground on the last 7km. Shortly before the bridge aid point and last 2km, a good friend who went by the name of Fast Eddie appeared with cold drinks – I hugged him, chugged down some coke and headed towards the finish.
The last section through the town was incredible but I wasn’t prepared for the emotion of crossing the line – Maria gave me my medal and we hugged, smiled and aye, cried a bit.
After a quick beer, I loaded a wee pack with some supplies and headed back out onto the course to support Kate and Peter. Turned out they had made the brave decision to pull out the race due to time and support constraints but in the words of Micah “If you participate, you win”. Together, we walked back into town together and celebrated with beer !
The trip was never about stats or times but for those who are interested.
The rest of the trip continued to be filled with madness and adventure …mibee share some of that on Wednesday runs though 😉
For anyone considering making the journey …go for it. The place is safe and people incredibly friendly and supportive. Will I return to run again – given a fair wind, I will be back in the canyons next March. As a result of this year, I hope also to visit my Mas Loco friends in California, Arizona, Colorado (the word Leadville keeps coming up), Illinois, North Carolina and closer to home …St Albans.