Paragons of Strength—the Tarahumara Indians

While in Urique the days before the Copper Canyon race, I spent every possible moment watching and interacting with the Tarahumara. I wanted to know how they’d become such amazing endurance runners. What gave them the ability to run a hundred miles, more, in a single day over such extreme terrain?

I found their special “sauce.” It’s not some extra muscle or anatomical advantage. It’s many ingredients blended together: running early and a lot as children, their diet, their terrain, their shoes, the games they play running, a whole lifestyle built around movement. But this sauce isn’t magical or surprising. Much of what I observed in the Tarahumara I had already come to learn was essential for my own athletes. Rather than being revelatory, my time in Mexico was more affirming of the new “sauce” I had developed in my own coaching. That said, in the field of coaching runners, one that is both an art and a science, affirmation is a beautiful, powerful thing.

In terms of strength, the Tarahumara have it in all the right ways for endurance running. This first became clear to me when Manuel, who is a kind of grandfather of the tribe of Indians, offered to make Barefoot Ted his own pair of huaraches. In his late fifties, sporting a Yankees baseball cap over his still jet-black hair, Manuel had run in the first Leadville race featuring the Tarahumara.

While making Ted’s pair of huaraches, he remained in a squat on the side of the main street in Urique. Feet square, his butt sitting low, almost touching the ground, he sawed away at the old tire tread with his serrated knife. Not a big deal, you say. Attempt a simple deep squat on your own; see how close you can bring your butt to the floor in a squat without your knees going inward. Or maybe your squat is more like a lean at the waist. Manuel’s ability to remain in a squat for close to an hour while working with his hands demonstrated remarkable stability, mobility, and muscle equilibrium.

In the following days, running the same trails that Manuel and the other Tarahumara ran, there was no doubt where he had developed this strength—and it reinforces my belief in the central role that our feet play in athleticism. The trails through the steep canyons around Urique are far from the well-tended, frequently traveled paths that we are accustomed to in the United States. They’re rough, uneven, and strewn with rocks and boulders of every size and shape. To run along these trails demands not only your attention, but also the ability for your feet to land on rocks at various angles, and then toe off to advance forward.

Further, when crossing the Copper Canyon terrain, it’s rare for both feet to be landing on level terrain. More often, I found myself landing with one foot on a slanted rock, then another on the path. This requires balance, lunging, and squatting. The Tarahumara do this kind of running repeatedly, day after day, on long runs, up and down mountains. They do so in their worn-out flat huaraches, their feet and calves the only shock absorbers they have. In extremely rocky stretches, they’re basically doing one-legged squats while running fast. They’ve trained their bodies to move strong and powerfully with incredible stability, and it comes naturally. No heavy weights, no slow lifting techniques concentrating on a single muscle.

In many ways, my program of exercises on the slant board and stability disk re-creates the movements and demands on the feet and legs that I saw Manuel and others experience while running the Copper Canyon trails. 

 - The Cool Impossible: Chapter 3 - True Strength

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Comment by Ramsey E. Makhuli on June 7, 2013 at 2:21pm

Inspiring Eric! I am going to try my first Ultra 50 Km Trail Run in Jan. 2014. Thanks for sharing this! I read B2R twice and have done several trail 10km, 1/2 marathons and one 25 km. Keep on inspiring us with your awesome work! It is apprecaited!

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