“The question to ask right now is what’s really happening in Mexico? While they are at war, we come together to make peace here in the bottom of the Canyon.” – Micah True
Just three days ago I was in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, excited beyond belief to run in what is one of the world’s most fabled ultramarathons. Then a local police commander was allegedly kidnapped and two officers executed by a drug cartel, and as a result the race was cancelled due to safety concerns.
Now, as I sit here in the comfort of my home, I ponder multiple questions dealing with violence, community and self. But before I go any further in describing my experience from this past weekend, and the takeaways, there’s a thing or two you need to know about the reason I picked this race and write this blog.
I turn 40 in 2015, and a lot of thought went into choosing the races I hope to run this year. I first saw a write up about ultrarunning legend Micah True in my news feed in 2013. After having read it, I found myself increasingly obsessing with the race he founded. So, as my fourth decade on this planet came around, it made sense to sign up and go find out for myself what the fuss was all about. Caballo Blanco would be my first race of the season.
Once registered, I wouldn’t shut up about the race. Then, in the company of running friends, someone mentioned the book Born to Run. I don’t read, I said. I just don’t have the patience for it. This was the wrong answer, and in a matter of a week I was hooked up with an audio version of the book and told I needed to listen to it before heading to Caballo Blanco. Finally, in November of last year, I reluctantly gave it a listen. And…it all made sense! The joy of running, the fascination with pushing beyond boundaries, the spiritual connection with self, other runners and the world. I was more than certain of my decision to run the race than ever.
Fast forward to February 2015. At this point I’d connected with a few other runners who were signed up and headed to Copper Canyon. I can’t stress enough that if Caballo Blanco is on your radar you need to connect with other folks headed there. It took five months of logistics and fine-tuning the details before we were confident we could get there and back in the time frame we had (roughly five days). Did I say I was beyond ecstatic?
Leaving from St. Louis were Tim and I. We would meet Jason and David in Chihuahua, Mexico, and then commence with the long drive to Urique and Copper Canyon. This is no ordinary race; it’s a journey, and it’s what destination races are all about. So I thought, anyway, until my bags were packed and loaded into a van full of other runners.
If you haven’t been in a van full of people on the way to an adventure, you’re missing out. Stuck in with a bunch of male ultrarunners, I was the only girl, wedged between Carlos, Don and Francisco, who we’d also picked up. The dynamic was a little strange at first, but then Don started talking.
Intro to Don: As we would find out, he’s been running ultras for 35 years. This is one MOFO distance runner, and he has lived a very colorful life. I found myself wondering what it would be like to live as him for a day.
The drive out to Urique was gorgeous — so scenic and peaceful — but also treacherous, with unfinished back roads and very rocky terrain. Though a couple of us felt motion sick, conversation flowed inside the van. Suddenly, we were passed by a truckload of boys, no older than 15 or 16 years old, with guns in their hands. Cartel! They leisurely waved at us as they drove by. It was a little unnerving, but I was aware of this likelihood as I’d stepped off the plane in Mexico. Not once did it make me question my decision to be there.
Nine hours and multiple stops later, we finally arrived in Urique. My first impression was how remote it was. The entire town is a strip comprised of two or three miles, totally self-contained. There was something very raw and peaceful about it. Calm, untouched, beautiful! Our hotel room was nothing fancy. Actually, it was a welcome change from all the modernization and craziness that we surround ourselves with on a daily basis.
Ready to Run
On Friday morning Tim, David and I were up and out the door for a course preview, five miles out and five miles back. The sun was bearing down on us one mile into the hike, and I was hot. This course was no joke; it was going to be a tough race, not just the terrain but the temperature, lack of shade and all the other things factored into being in the canyon. I found myself reevaluating my strategy. I broke away from the boys and hiked for a bit with a couple on their third annual pilgrimage to Urique. They weren’t running this year but had driven from Colorado with their two kids, who were taking part in the kids’ race. The parents were both volunteering on race day and helping out with the various other projects.
Done with the hike, we made our way back into town and saw two pickup trucks with armed guards pull up as we arrived. They were searching for something or someone. I can’t speak for David and Tim, but I was pretty oblivious to the scene in front of us. We walked past the trucks and the somewhat anxious scene on the street and went to our rooms. We changed and connected with Carlos over lunch, then went on to explore the town some more.
By that evening, things were different in the town. It was somehow more alive, stirred from the slow, lazy slumber of the past 24 hours. I turned my head to see the strip swarming with the legendary Raramuri Runners, the local tribes people who take part in Caballo Blanco in order to receive maize, beans, rice, flour and seed corn for their families. It was surreal, lovely and daunting at the same time. Tim, David and I stood at the corner of the street, talking and taking it all in as things got real.
We hung out that evening after dinner and watched the movie “Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco” in the town square. As the day came to an end, the enormity of where I was and what I was part of dawned on me. I wasn’t the only fool who had travelled to Urique to try to become a small thread in this amazing tapestry. I was surrounded by nearly 100 international runners from 23 countries, 260 Mexican nationals from outside Copper Canyon and more than 500 Raramuri runners — all connected as one in that moment. It was exhilarating. I was nervous yet excited to be a part of it, and also looking forward to taking on the 50 miles of challenging race course.
Saturday morning rolled around, and we were up and moving at 7 a.m. as the entire town buzzed in preparation for the kids’ run. Tim had put on the Superman costume costume he’d brought from home and was hanging with the locals, doing what Tim does best. Everyone was stopping to chat him up and take photos with him — and, yes, he was digging all the attention. It was such a great, simple, happy moment. David, Carlos and I hung around the sidelines, handing out candy as the kids ran past.
Later, as we made our way to grab lunch and head to packet pickup, there was some whispering on the street about security concerns and our race cutoff time being pushed up. Someone mentioned people being dragged out of town and shot. Huh?
As we sat at lunch, speculating, David suggested we find the race director and try to get some answers. We made it back to the town center and caught up with Josue, the RD, and were told that after a long discussion, they had in fact decided to cancel the race due the unrest, security concerns and the unwillingness to put the runners’ lives in danger. They were going to make the announcement at 4 p.m. in the town square, as everyone gathered for the evening’s festivities.
Come again? I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. Security concerns? Had someone really been killed? No, this is all wrong. This can’t be happening. Surely we can still run. I mean, we’re all here. We came out to run.
Reacting to the News
After my initial reaction, and having had a little time (and a beer) to process the decision, I saw that the situation was much bigger than me. In fact, it was bigger than all the racers. As we sat discussing our exit strategy and trying not to panic, it occurred to me that I could leave, but the situation in Mexico would remain the same.
At that moment, the race being cancelled didn’t matter. This wasn’t about a race at all. What mattered was that we were in the here and now with people — athletes, organizers, parents, tibes people, townsfolk — all brought together and living a life touched by the joy of running.
As it appeared to be our last night together in Urique, since we would all be going home instead of running on Sunday morning, we agreed it was going to be a celebration. A few too many drinks later, we made it the town square. Though happy, I was still restless and terribly disappointed. It was like a perfect storm had hit home. We stood there, side by side, as the cultural festivities went on per schedule, knowing that the race was not happening. Then the official cancellation announcement came.
I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but the scene before my eyes was not one of disappointment, anger and shock but quite the contrary. Within minutes of the announcement being made, the vibe of the town center changed. It was like we were being swallowed in the comradery. People held up signs representing the part of the world they were from, singing and shouting; they hugged and held up the peace sign. Sure, there were some tears, but there were also comforting shoulders and smiles.
Words can’t do justice to how I felt at that moment. It was surreal. It was the right thing to do. Cancelling a race is never an easy decision, but this one was a much harder decision to make because it impacted not only the runners who had traveled from across the globe, but also the locals who count on the race for as part of their liveilhood.
But just like that, for me anyway, it made sense. This was meant to be. The race might be off, but the message of belonging to something bigger than yourself, the message of peace that Micah True had maintained, would never be cancelled. We weren’t there just to run a 50-mile race. This was bigger than us — this was bigger than everyone present — it was about being able to Run Free.
We packed up the van once more as we prepared to leave Urique on Sunday morning. The town continued the race with a modified course and mostly the locals running it. We left with a couple of other runners who had not been part of our original crew. Hello, Gerardo and the charming “Finn” (whose name is actually Mikko, unbeknownst to me for much of the day).
Another nine hours of driving in the van later we, arrived in Chihuahua. We spent the next day together, all of us running at a local park as our way of honoring Caballo Blanco and what the race stands for, what it meant to each one of us.
Now, as I write this, I’m not the same person I was when I left St. Louis. What I experienced has changed me not only as a runner but as an individual. I feel blessed to have met so many beautiful, complex and amazing runners. We created bonds that only running can bring.
I’ve never once questioned my decision to sign up for this race, and I’m not about to do so now. This will forever be an experience I will hold dear to my heart — the laughs, the bullshit and the love.
And, yes, I’ve already asked myself the question: Will I go back to run it in 2016?
If you’ve been closely reading this blog, I don’t need to answer that for you. You already know the answer is Yes Indeed!
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.