The Rarámuri, also known as the Tarahumara, are an indigenous people living primarily in the canyons and high sierras of the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. It’s a rugged place to live, but also one that has helped them avoid conquest and assimilation into Mexican culture. Many follow a traditional lifestyle of farming and herding, and it’s unlikely you would ever have heard of the Rarámuri except for one thing—they’re amazing long distance runners. In fact, running is an essential part of their identity and culture— the name Rarámuri has been translated as “runners on foot” or “those who run fast” (Tarahumara is the name given them by the Spanish colonists, who couldn’t pronounce Rarámuri)—and a race is for the Rarámuri more an expression of community than a contest focused on winners and losers.
The Rarámuri were brought to the attention of the outside world through Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. McDougall, an amateur runner and journalist, was fascinated by the ability of the Rarámuri to regularly run distances of 100 miles or more, at a rapid pace over rough ground, without modern running shoes or high-tech clothing, and without suffering injuries. He formulated several hypotheses based on these observations, including that human beings evolved to be endurance runners, in contrast to other primates, and that running in cushioned shoes was unhealthy (the Rarámuri wear sandals, although according to one person interviewed in the film, the reason is poverty rather than any beliefs about the harms of more substantial footwear).
An American runner, Micah True (born Michael Randall Hickman), organized the first Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in 2003, with the intend of helping the Rarámuri preserve their running heritage. He encouraged American runners to participate as well, and hundreds of outsiders from dozens of countries would show up some years, overwhelming the tiny community of Urique, which served as race headquarters. Even if they have the best of intentions, the influx of so many relatively wealthy tourists, and the different beliefs about running they bring with them, can’t help but disrupt a traditional culture. One of the more painful aspects of The Infinite Race is having to listen to a succession of presumably well-meaning white people missing the point and making themselves the center of attention.
Commercialization is just one of many threats to the traditional Rarámuri way of life. Other threats are ecological, including climate change, which has led to poor crop yields due to drought, and legal and illegal logging, which disrupts the fragile environment. A more sinister threat is posed by the Sinaloa and Juarez drug cartels, for whom the rugged landscape of Chihuahua provides ideal cover for illegal activities, and the long Chihuahuan border with the United States a number of entry points for smuggling. Some Rarámuri families have been forced off their land by the cartels, others have been injured in battles between the cartels, and some Rarámuri have been recruited as smugglers to bring drugs into the United States. Finally, more Rarámuri children attend Spanish-language schools than was the case a few generations ago, which will undoubtedly lead to more assimilation to mainstream Mexican culture.
Director Bernando Ruiz focuses more on the Rarámuri culture, and individual members of the community, than he does on the annual race, so this is an unusual entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. Not that I’m complaining—the film is fascinating and you can’t help but admire the traditional way of life the Rarámuri are endeavoring to preserve. Plus, it’s high time someone produced a counterbalance to the exaggerated portrayal offered by McDougall, who has referred to the Rarámuri as “a Smithsonian exhibit come to life.” | Sarah Boslaugh
The Infinite Race will premiere on ESPN and ESPN Deportes on Dec. 15 at 8 pm ET.