Chihuahua, Mexico – Athletics coach Carlos Ortega saw only fleeting glimpses of the “floating running style” he has been trying to teach his young trainees, but that did not mean he was disappointed with the teenagers’ showing at a race meet in early December in Chihuahua City, northern Mexico.
“Losing is important, too,” Ortega told Al Jazeera, optimistically. “Unless you build character, success will go to your head and losing will cut to your heart.”
With the help of funding from the Fundacion Telmex, Ortega has taken a team of 25 teenage runners from the Raramuri indigenous group for their first competition against better-trained, better-equipped, and better-off teenagers from Chihuahua.
Sometimes known as the Tarahumara, the Raramuri numbers between 80,000 and 125,000 people scattered throughout tiny villages in 65sq km of the south-eastern Sierra Madre mountain range.
More exact measures are hard to come by, since the Raramuris’ geographical isolation and traditional cosmology means a deep distrust of many facets of life outside their mountain home. Indeed, the Raramuri word for the outside world – chabochi – conflates the words modern, foreign and devilish.
‘I want these kids to be like the Kenyans at the Olympics’
The contrast between the city kids, with their smart running gear, and the slighter-framed runners from the mountain – some of whom run barefoot, or in their school shoes – is obvious. But the Raramuri appear unfazed by the differences, standing apart, quiet and watchful as they wait for the starting whistle.
The ethnic group’s long-distance running abilities have been well-known for generations. Two veteran Raramuri athletes took silver and bronze at the World Indigenous Games in Brazil, while runners from the community took the top three places at last year’s Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, a punishing 50-mile course through rugged terrain some 2,800 metres above sea level.
“I want these kids to be like the Kenyans at the Olympics,” said Ortega, an engineer and former professional footballer. The supervisor for his master’s thesis in sports science had specialised in studies of Kenyan athletes. Ortega immediately saw a parallel with the impoverished Raramuri, vowing to take their natural endurance to the next level by setting their training on a scientific footing.
“Kenya had war, poverty, and hunger – but their athletes had the same inborn gifts of stamina and strength that we see in the Raramuri,” he explained. “These traits are the most important things, because they can’t be taught. The rest is just training.”
The Raramuri’s strength in ultramarathons becomes a weakness in shorter competitions. The day’s races proved as much, with athletes only settling into their steady, even rhythm on the last stretch of the course. One apocryphal story tells how the community’s last two Olympians finished 32nd and 38th in the 1928 Olympic marathon, arriving at the finish-line with complaints that the course was “too short”.
“We need to add speed to resistance,” explained Ortega. “Raramuri runners can turn up to an ultramarathon and win 20,000 pesos ($1,106) easily. But I want to push them to win races where the prize is $30,000, or to go to the Olympics, where they can win gold medals. Can you imagine the difference that would make to the whole mountain?”
A red zone
Even leaving aside athletic considerations, Ortega has his work cut out for him. The Raramuri region has been marked as a “red zone” of high marginalisation, according to Mexico’s National Advisory Board on Social Development, meaning that people living in the area regularly face hunger. Indeed, the UN Development Index ranks the Raramuri region behind Niger in West Africa – the world’s poorest country – on its league table.
A survey conducted by health authorities in the Raramuri village of Cuiteco sheds light on that grim reality. Not one of the 408 Raramuri surveyed reported earning more than $160 a month. The majority were recorded as eking out a living as subsistence farmers, or as day-labourers paid between $12 and $15 for 12-hour days in the fields.
What’s more, the Raramuri’s ancestral lands border Sinaloa and Durango, in the heart of the lush heroin-poppy and cannabis plantations of the Golden Triangle. The region has become a flashpoint in the war between rival cartels, with 21 homicides registered in September 2015 alone.
Poverty and violence are together producing a perfect storm for young Raramuri, more and more of whom are being pressed into service by the cartels. Their endurance over long distances and rough terrain make them ideal candidates for tráfico de hormiga, or “ant-trafficking”. One of Carlos’ trainers – who did not want to be named – spoke of being kidnapped by drug-traffickers from his home in the impoverished community of Batopilas and driven to Nogales, Sonora.
“They filled my backpack with 20 kilos of marijuana and cocaine, then sent me through the desert,” he told Al Jazeera. “I was arrested on arrival, spent two years in a federal prison in Arizona. When people ask me why I was gone for so long I tell them I was a builder.”
‘Exceptional for her community’
The morning’s placements were underwhelming, but not sufficiently so to dent Ortega’s optimism about one runner in particular: 15-year-old Catalina Rascon, a shy, slightly built secondary school student with a penchant for fiery chili-flavoured crisps. After finishing fourth in her race, she wolfs down an entire packet at a record-breaking pace.
“I eat better when I’m at home,” she laughed. “I prefer what we grow on the farm at home – apricots and things like that. I’m worried about eating too many preservatives if I move to Chihuahua to study. I know one kid who put on a lot of weight and gave up running after she moved. There are a lot of temptations in the city.”
“There’s going to come a day when the scholarship money runs out,” Ortega said. “I need to build a nucleus of good runners and role models, who can show what alternatives are possible. Catalina is that model for me.”
His pride in her is obvious: as the other runners dawdled towards the buses, he slung an arm around her shoulder and offered an impromptu pep talk.
“We don’t go to races to win: we go to collect the medals,” he told her. “The race is won before you get there. It’s all in how you prepare.”
“I already miss the long-distance races,” Catalina said. “My first competitive race was against adults, on a 60km course, when I was 12. I won that one. These suit my natural style: the tiredness becomes mental after a while, and the freedom I feel when I run makes it easy.”
“On these short courses, Carlos is trying to get me to ‘float’ when I run, rather than take slow, steady steps that are shorter. I need to add speed to resistance, so I watch Ana Guevara a lot [Mexico’s 400m silver-medallist at the 2004 Athens Olympics]. She was really fast – but, more importantly, she gave it everything.”
Catalina’s academic ambition – to become a doctor – is also exceptional for her community: more than 25 percent of Raramuri surveyed at the Cuiteco health centre had not finished primary school, with one in six being illiterate. That reality weighs heavily on her.
“There’s a big group from my class that stays together at the hostel by our school. Some of them are very poor – I invite them to our farm, where they can eat well, and tell them to give it everything at school. It makes me sad to see people fall behind or drop out. I want be an example. I want to give people hope.”
Catalina finds her own hope on the racetrack.
“I love to escape into running. It helps me concentrate better. Winning gold at the next Olympics after Rio is my dream.” Packet of crisps still in hand, she shrugged, before adding: “What else is there?”