Fortunately, all photographic evidence has long been destroyed, but there was a time when I briefly belonged to the barefoot cult. That was about ten years ago. Like millions of others, I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run and found that I had been betrayed by big running shoe companies that had sold me something I didn’t really need. Re-enlightened, I did the only sensible thing and spent $ 160 on a pair of shoes that mimicked the feeling of walking barefoot. I felt sorry for the idiots I saw on my daily parking loop that were still trapped in the matrix of upholstery. I nodded to the local hippie who always wore sandals. However, after a few weeks I became disaffected. The expected breakthrough in my running never came. In addition, none of the top professionals seemed to drop their plush shoes and go minimalist. If they didn’t, why should I? In the end, I was relieved to be wearing normal old running shoes again. My feet really started to hurt.
Born to Run’s seismic impact is also haunting The Infinite Race, the latest installment in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series due to be released on December 15. Directed by Mexican-American filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, the film relies heavily on firsthand reports from the Tarahumara. In case you’re one of the ten people who haven’t read McDougall’s book, it is the aboriginal people of Copper Canyon, Mexico, whose amazing feats of (minimally fogged) endurance have been relentlessly mythologized since Born to Run a best-seller -Hit became in 2009. Among other things, The Infinite Race tries to de-exotize its subject. There is a scene late in the film in which Silvino Cubesare, a Tarahumara farmer and quasi-celebrity on the international ultra-running circuit, sees footage of McDougall and a New York Times journalist jogging barefoot in Central Park. “I don’t know what to think,” says Cubesare. “Why do you want to run barefoot? I think they’re crazy. “
(Photo: David Ramos)
While Cubesare is in disbelief that anyone with the means to buy functional running shoes would willingly forego them, Irma Chávez, a Tarahumara activist and moral conscience behind Ruiz’s film, is more cynical. She views the barefoot running industry as an insult – an attempt to capitalize on a misconception that the Tarahumara wear minimalist sandals because of supposed performance advantages rather than necessity. This, in Chavez’s view, is consistent with a long legacy of external forces who project their narratives onto their people. Even the name “Tarahumara” came from the conquistadors, for example; Locals call themselves the Rarámuri. As for the ultramarathons, Chavez says she doesn’t consider them part of her heritage. Running, on the other hand, is essential, although traditional Tarahumara races are a collaborative effort. In the men’s version, called Rarajipari, a wooden ball is repeatedly hit and pursued over long distances, while the women’s equivalent Ariweta depicts a similar concept with a stick and hoop. The never-ending race begins and ends with gorgeous, sweeping aerial views of the Tarahumara involved in this activity. It is believed that what we are looking at is not a competition, but rather an act of preservation.
“Running,” says Chavez, “is our resistance to imposition.”
Imposition by whom? On the one hand there is the narcotics. Due to its agricultural potential and its remote location in the mountains of Mexico’s border state Chihuahua, the Copper Canyon has long been plagued by drug violence. The Sinaloa and Juarez cartels vie for territorial control. Over the years the Tarahumara have confiscated their land; People were forced to smuggle drugs into the United States.
An insidious boom in ultra-running tourism is less of a threat, as more and more Born to Run-inspired “locomotives” are making the annual pilgrimage to the city of Urique for the “Ultra Maratón Caballo Blanco”. In The Infinite Race we meet an American adventure blogger and over-brother named Ryan van Duzer. If he travels to Urique to attend the 2015 event, he’ll wear one of those Colorado logo hoodies and stick his head out a train window to shout “yee-haw” into the Chihuahua countryside. “I didn’t think they’d have a racing store,” says Duzer later as he brandishes a Caballo Blanco shot glass. “That’s great!”
(Photo: David Ramos)
Not everyone feels the same. The dilemma at the heart of The Infinite Race is whether the fundraising drives and Caballo Blanco ultra’s positive impact on the local economy have also forced the region to sell some of its soul. The ambivalence is reflected in Cecilia Villalobos, Urique’s former tourism director and co-organizer of the city’s famous race. Originally, according to Villalobos, the ultramarathon benefited the region, but soon foreigners came in “like white horses”. (No wonder she’s the former tourism director.)
Most of these intruders did not participate in 2015. After a surge in drug violence forced a controversial last-minute cancellation of the race – a decision made unilaterally by the U.S. non-local contingent organizing team, according to Villalobos – an abbreviated version was staged by the Urique community saving a version of the event wanted. “I haven’t seen the face of a single foreign runner,” says Villalobos of the ad hoc event. “And I thought how ironic. Where are all these people who support the Tarahumaras? ”
Josué Stephens, one of the overseas (and now former) directors of Caballo Blanco ultra, isn’t portrayed too positively in The Infinite Race – although he can hardly be accused of canceling the event after seeing armed cartel members like the Urique have ambushed police station and kidnap several officers. As Stephens notes in the documentary, the local leadership’s move to override the decision to cancel and stage an event was almost certainly motivated by fear of negative advertising.
After the 2015 debacle, the Caballo Blanco ultra was mainly organized by the municipality of Urique. Likewise, The Infinite Race can be seen as an attempt to reclaim part of the Tarahumara myth in the name of the Rarámuri. Throughout the documentary, we see footage of McDougall promoting Born to Run (whose subtitle is “A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen”) in various high profile media. Thanks to a rather selective treatment, we hear again and again how McDougall says that he “discovered” the Tarahumara – a people he once called the “Smithsonian exhibition come to life”. And yet the documentary is less a bleak sermon about the dangers of cultural appropriation and more a reminder that history always has another side.
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Main photo: David Ramos
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