Monday, July 27, 2015

El Ultramaratón de los Cañones

       I have to begin this post by saying how grateful I am that Rene "Ramon Chingon" Peinado invited me to come down to this race.  Ultramaraton de Los Cañones is a race that takes place in Guachochi, in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.  The race began 19 years ago and traverses the Sinforosa Canyon, one canyon in a group of several astounding canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental.  I first visited Chihuahua, Mexico in February for the Caballo Blanco Marathon which takes place in the Batopilas and Urique canyons, however the official race was cancelled. For an account of this trip, my friend Michael Versteeg's blog tells the story 

        I was excited to register for another race in Mexico. Like Caballo Blanco, many Tarahumara, or Raramuri, runners would be  coming out for the race.

        I had no idea what I was getting into. Fortunately Rene helped me with the registration process, which involved a lot more than clicking a few buttons on Ultrasignup.

        I will also say that I have never been so unprepared for a race in my life.  I looked at the elevation profile a couple weeks before the race.   I glanced at it, didn't take the time to convert kilometers to feet, and didn't realize that the canyon we were descending into has an elevation similar to that of the Grand Canyon.  I also didn't realize that the starting elevation in Guachochi is almost 8,000 feet.  I could not find a course map, and did not know where the aid stations were nor what they would supply.  After being so overly prepared at San Diego 100, I realized this would be an entirely different experience, without Team La Chiva, pacers, and well stocked aid stations.  In other words, I was screwed.

      I had just returned from a 10 day trip to Maine to visit my family the night before heading down to Chihuahua with Rene and his son Myles.  I was tired, and my legs had not rested for several days (keeping up with Gordon Smith is no joke!) Before heading to Guachochi for the race, I was thrilled to stop in Creel to visit with Rene's uncle Luis Octavio, and aunt Gloria.  They had welcomed us into their home when we stopped there on the way to Urique in February, so after a couple days of traveling between Maine and Mexico, I felt relieved and comforted to relax in their company.  We stayed in Creel for two nights and were able to enjoy a beautiful mountain biking and boat adventure outside of the town.

       In a sudden panic about the race, I spent one morning in Creel researching it and reading some race blogs.  Still I found no course map other than the elevation profile.  Terror was sinking in.  I speak Spanish, but I considered that I am still limited in my vocabulary, and going into a race I knew nothing about, it might be hard to communicate questions and concerns.  I didn't know if I was ready for the elevation.  Rene tried to assuage my fears with little success.

     When we arrived in Guachochi, we met up with a friend we had met in Urique,  Alfonso "Poncho" Morales, who had come all the way from Acapulco, Guerrero for the race.   That he made the trip was especially significant, given that his wife was about to give birth any day to their second child, a baby girl.  Rene's friend Jaime was letting us stay on his ranch in Guachochi, where Rene had also stayed last year.  Jaime seemed apologetic that the ranch had no electricity and had not been cleaned up for us, but we were grateful to have a roof over our heads. I was impressed by the accomodations- we were surrounded by beautiful fields where we watched cattle graze, there were plenty of great spots for campfires and enjoying the scenery, and there were actually beds in the house!  We were able to clean up any rat droppings we found around, and it seemed they weren't really very fresh.  Definitely 5 star in comparison to the usual camp out, often without a tent.

      I was also comforted to know that, like in Urique, there was evidence of goats.  Dead ones.  They seem to follow me around.  While exploring the ranch, we found several goat skins hanging up.  Perfect.
The goat head that stalked me in Urique
Our "shower" at the ranch

     I had noticed since we had entered Mexico that it rained every afternoon.  Pretty hard.  I am never really concerned about heat during a race, but when it comes to the cold, I know I'm in trouble.  While mornings were beautiful, once the rain started at the ranch I piled on sweatshirt and jacket, winter hat and blankets.  Fuck.  And I only use that word when in dire circumstances.

     The Friday before the race, while Rene and Poncho were in town getting supplies for breakfast, Myles and I went out for a short 3 mile run around the property.  It felt great to get out, and I was impressed by Myles' endurance.  The sun was out, the fields were a sparkling green, and my steps felt light and easy.  As we sprinted back towards the ranch, I felt some of my pre-race stress melt away.

     Before packet pickup we stopped to see some friends from Sinaloa.  Tania, who Rene had paced in Urique, had come to the race with her parents and husband.  These friends would turn out to be extremely helpful during the race!  At packet pickup we turned in several documents proving our registration payment and physical health.  We found our friend Arnulfo with wife Susanna and children Matias and Carmen, and tried to discuss plans to head out to the ranch for a trout dinner while runners constantly interrupted by asking Arnulfo to take pictures with them. I forgot that he is such a celebrity!  Myles was ready to step in and tell them to "back off!"  

     We had bought trout and invited the Sinaloans and Arnulfo and his family back to the ranch for dinner.  I had the privilege of presenting Arnulfo with the money raised on a "Go Fund Me" account to help with the costs of his daughter, Hilda, going to school.  I was honored with the opportunity to give him this gift, for which he was s grateful. I also presented him with the customary gift of a pepino.  If you don't know this story, please speak with me privately.

Poncho tends to the trout on the grill.  

     While we were enjoying our dinner on the ranch, some other friends we met in Urique were making their way to Guachochi.  We were SO EXCITED to see Dean Cuanan and Dang Huevos.  Miguel and I first met them while staying at Mario Munez's ranch in San Isidro outside of Urique.  We were headed out for a much needed run when we ran into them, setting up camp with their mountain bikes which were weighed down with some pretty hefty baggage.  They explained that they had started biking in Alaska, and planned to make it all the way to Argentina.  They seemed so positive and happy to be there, without a hint of exhaustion which you would expect after miles and miles on their bikes.  Dean and Dang were taking a little break from their bikes and heading to Guachochi on bus to meet us for the race.  We didn't exactly know when they would arrive, but were eagerly waiting.

After finally being reunited with Dean and Dang!

      We got to bed early, and my usual pre-race anxiety didn't accompany me in my preparations.  Probably because I had zero expectations for this race.  I did make a list though, because otherwise I don't think I'd make it out the door.

     At the starting I realized I was perhaps the only person with a full pack. So high maintenance, one of my biggest fears in life.  I had my raincoat, plenty of Gu's and S-caps, tape for blisters, and food that would provide enough calories to get me to mile 30, where Tania and her family would be waiting with a drop bag.  I lost Rene and Poncho before the start, and realized this would be a race that I would run alone.  Unlike most of the races I have run, where I know at least a handful of the runners, I knew I would be running among strangers who didn't speak my language.
Poncho, Rene and I at the starting line

Sunrise over the cornfields

      I focused only on enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Sierra, and we were off.  I was at the back of the pack, and noticed many runners were going out pretty fast. I tried to hold back, knowing there was no point in keeping faster than a 10 minute pace so early on.  The first ten miles were relatively flat, on dirt roads that cut through corn fields.  Before I knew it, we were descending into the canyon.  I was nervous about the descent, as Rene had told me it was steep and slippery, but almost immediately I felt totally in my element, enjoying the diverse terrain while I glided over mud, rocks and pines needles, grabbing onto trees for balance and using my hands instead of the hiking poles I noticed most runners had.  The dilemma here was that long lines of runners formed, and getting by them proved to be a challenge on the rough terrain.  I managed, waiting patiently at times, to slide by, and eventually the lines spread out a bit.  Whenever I looked up, I was astounded by the beauty of the canyon surrounding us.  Already I realized this may just be the most beautiful race I had ever run.
View as we descended into the canyon

Some selfie videos taken in the canyon

      As I slid further into the canyon, the incline leveled out and we were traversing back and forth over the Rio Verde.    I knew the bottom of the canyon would be slow, with river crossing, lots of rocks and mud, and dense foliage to climb through.   It was really fun jumping from rock to rock in order to cross over the river.   The humudity made me feel like I was in the rainforest, dripping with sweat.  I also realized that many of the runners who had gone out so fast were slowing down, and already I was getting tired of the "con permiso" I was saying every few minutes to try to pass a group.  Note to self: starting at the back of the pack has its advantages and disadvantages.  Advantage: you are tricked into thinking you are going at lightening speed because you are passing so many runners and not getting passed yourself.  Disadvantage: you have to deal with passing so many runners.  I was actually surprised that at this point, runners seemed annoyed at being passed, and a few would try and speed up when I came upon them, looking behind them and trying to get ahead so I wouldn't pass.

     I also had the pleasure of bumping into a new friend, the notorious Benito, who I had never met, nor had any of my friends. But of course facebook brought us together.  Benito had formed a connection with my boyfriend Miguel (again, they had never actually met), and we had sent a few messages back and forth about the race.  Miguel gave me a gift bag that I was to deliver directly to Benito.  So we had attempted since arriving in Guachochi to find the mysterious Benito, not knowing what we were looking for.  The best we could do was exchange bib numbers.  Benito probably could have figured out who I was without the bib number, seeing as I was the only gringa from the states running.  I happened upon him in the canyon.  We took a selfie (obviously, I needed proof that I had met him) and I told him I'd try to find him after the race with his goodie bag.

Finally found Benito

     Going back to the fact that I was the only gringa from the U.S in the race.  Over time I have grown to feel I am latina.  I've lived in Costa Rica and Peru, speak decent Spanish, and usually sport a pretty good tan.  I can make fresh tortillas, beans and salsa.  During this race, I realized that somehow everyone I spoke to knew I was not Mexican.  Oh well, maybe it was just my accent and Dirtbag runners trucker hat (I didn't see any Mexican women in similar headwear.)

     Next I came into a beautiful clearing and found myself surrounded by cows.  Well, bulls actually.  Katharine Ayer, if you are reading this, I thought of you immediately.  As I made my way carefully around them I tried to convey that I wasn't a big meat eater.  They seemed at peace, and I escaped unscathed.

Stand-off with bull

     Shortly after running into Benito I saw Rene in the canyon. Its always awesome and motivating to see a familiar face.  He looked good but said he was struggling some, feeling pretty heavy on the uphills.  He also had run the Western States 100 two weeks prior.  Think this might have made your legs feel a little heavy Rene?  I was impressed that he was still running the 100k, with so little recovery time.  He had also run the canyon last year, so he did knew what he was in for.

The cascada that served as a welcome stopping
point for a photo

     The aid stations seemed to be pretty close together as we started the ascent out of the canyon.  It was hot and exposed.  And very early on I ran out of water.  For someone who gets super paranoid about running out of water, this seems to happen at least once every race, where I somehow think I have plenty and don't fill up when I should.  Not having any idea where the next aid station was, I was picturing myself dehydrating and disoriented, stumbling over the side of the steep trail to my death at the bottom of the canyon. As we struggled up the trail, other runners became noticeably friendlier, and I felt the usual team camaraderie I'm used to during longer races.  Perhaps one would actually lend me a hiking pole before I plummeted into the canyon.

The struggle is real: selfie video climbing out of the canyon..

     I finally arrived at an aid station so I could stop imagining my imminent death. The following video can give you a little idea of my state of mind climbing out of the canyon.  Soon I could see I was getting much closer to the bridge that signaled the ALMOST end of the uphill, and where many spectators were gathered in support.  I felt good considering I had just climbed about 5,000 feet out of the canyon.

     The last steps before arriving at the aid station at the bridge are running over the hanging bridge.  I kept an eye on my feet, I didn't trust myself not to trip over the shaky boards. This bridge was shaky, and I wondered if this thing was really going to hold all of the however many runners crossing it. At least I had passed a lot of people, so at this point the bridge hadn't been crossed my too many people.  I was absolutely euphoric once I crossed that bridge, because Dean and Dang had finally made it, and were right there waiting for me!  I already knew they were the best crew ever, because they had helped us out in Urique when we took off running with almost no supplies.  I didn't want to delay too long, so we exchanged big hugs and I took off up the last hill, where Tania, her mom and boyfriend were waiting with my drop bag.  These friends who I had just met the day before treated me like I was family, taking off my pack, collecting trash, making sure I had all the nutrition I needed, and most importantly Tania had a ice cold beer for me to take a couple sips of.  Sweet reprieve.

Heading up the last hill...I thought.  Photo credit
 Tania Leal.

Awesome crew from Sinaloa!

     As I continued up the hill,  feeling pretty drained, I saw Isidro, a Tarahumara friend who I had met in Urique.  Miguel and I had attempted to pace in Caballo Blanco, and he had also stayed at the "ultra hostel" when he came up to the the Crown King Scramble in March.  He was running in the opposite direction, which confused me greatly because I didn't know that the course brought you back out to the bridge after first returning to the start/finish.  He looked strong, and I saw him heading back for the finish line once I got to the top of the hill.  I also saw his wife, Juanita, who I had met in Urique.  I stopped for a few moments to talk to her, which was a pretty short conversation as, like many tarahumara women, she is quite shy.  I started moving again, and realized she was running with me, just a little behind.  I figured she'd just tag along for a little bit, but after a couple miles it seemed she wasn't stopping!  We talked about the runners, and she updated me on who was in the lead.  At that point I think Isidro was in 4th place. Having Juanita with me kept me out of my head, and I was a little distracted from the reality that once I got myself to the start/finish, I would still have to come out and run 20 more miles.  To top it off, it started raining.  I love this woman.

     Some more motivation: Arnulfo Quimare was coming through running with his son Mattias.  He looked great, wearing his irun shirt- I think he is an ambassador now.  I told Juanita we would try to keep up with them for a bit, and I managed to keep them in sight for 10 minutes or so.  So I qualify that as running with the champ.  

Chasing Arnulfo through the mud

Arnulfo Quimare, irun ambassador, finishing
 the climb out of the canyon
Arnulfo continues to endorse irun in his daily life 
     A few miles from the start/finish where I would turn around, I caught up with another female 100k runner, who was from Durango I believe.  She noticed Juanita running with me and asked "How much are you paying her?"  I was shocked for a moment, then responded that I wasn't paying Juanita, she was simply a friend I knew from Urique who was heading to the start/finish to meet up with her husband.  She explained to me, in a tone that seemed a little aggressive, that some runners will pay Tarahumara to run with them and carry their things.  I didn't like the way she spoke to me, like she didn't believe that a Tarahumara was simply running with me, with no other incentive.  I smiled, sped up, and decided she would not be catching me. I later had a conversation with a friend who told me that many Mexicans believe that the Tarahumara will not do anything unless you pay them to.  This enraged me, 

     I checked in with Juanita now and again, and she seemed strong even though she said she was a little tired.  I don't know how far she had already walked or run that day, but she kept up in a stoic and humble way.  Juanita ran with me into town and broke off just before I crossed through the start/finish.  I was feeling a little discouraged about the fact that I had 20 more miles to run.  I had to check in and make sure I wasn't close to the cutoff time- all 100k runners had to get into the start/finish after their first lap by 12 hours or they would not be able to go back out to finish the course.  I wasn't at 11 yet, so I felt a little better.

Can you tell how psyched I am to have Juanita pacing me?

      I figured I'd rest a bit, grab a bite to eat, see if any of my friends were around.  But a tall guy who I had passed a mile or so before coming in got me moving, saying I was in 4th or 5th place female and could catch the next girl.  I was excited that someone had been keeping track, and headed back out quickly with him.  Within a few hundred meters of heading out I found out he was born in New York, and we switched to English. My energy was renewed- I was happy to converse in Spanish, but at this point in the race I was pumped to not have to use my brain too much and speak in my native language.  So this guy's name is Patricio (Patrick) and he moved to Mexico City from Manhattan about 20 years ago, and now has a wife and kids here.  I'm not sure why he took an interest in my catching the next girl up (who he thought had dropped putting me in 4th place, but who had actually kept going so I was in 5th).
Movin'!  I was so fast they couldn't get a photo from the  front.
     The fun thing about heading back out was I got to see a lot of other runners coming in, and knowing that we were running the 100k (there weren't really a lot of us that made it back out) they were super supportive.  The word "animo!" is used often to cheer people on.  It translates roughly to "courage," but really just means great job keep it up.  I felt good, and some real food came along in the form of a bean burrito, my go to race food.  The aid station (at about 50 miles) before the last descent came pretty quickly, but as I flew down the last hill I was a little worried about the climb back up.  We were back at the bridge, and would turn around, go back up the hill and run the last 10 miles into the finish.   I grabbed a banana at the bridge, and Patrick rushed me off back up the hill.  His words: "Just do what I say and we can catch her."  I honestly didn't think I would catch up with this girl who was then in 4th place, as we had seen her about 15 minutes before, heading back.  I also was perfectly happy with 5th place.  But he seemed hell bent on me catching her.  I thought OK, it never hurts to have a little extra push.  He also knew everyone on the trail, and hooked me up with a few sips of cold beer after the climb.

     Heading back, I felt strong and somehow like I had enough in me to push at the end.   I stuck with Patrick and slowly sped up my pace.  I figured he had the same plan in mind, but pretty soon I dropped him.  I felt a little bad, since he was trying to help me, but it was my race.  
There were fewer and fewer runners around as I moved along, and I enjoyed the solitude, drifting along on the muddy dirt road, surrounded by corn fields on either side.  There were still some Tarahumara along the sides of the trail, supporting the runners with both words and their solemn silence.  I came upon three people walking in the trail, two dressed in plain clothes and one Tarahumara woman in traditional dress.  As I approached I started to recognize Juanita- but what was she doing out here?  As I ran by, I asked her if she had energy left to run with me, and she shyly responded that she did not.  I still am not sure why she was there, 4 or 5 miles away from the start/finish, when her husband Isidro had finished hours ago.  I had a lump in my throat at the thought that she might have been there to support me.  I may never know.

      I kept picking up the pace, though at this point when I felt like I was sprinting I was probably only doing a 10 minute mile.  It started sprinkling again, and the sun was getting lower in the sky.  I knew I could make it without taking out my headlamp.  Though spectators were scarce in the last few miles, I was getting emotional anytime I heard words of encouragement.  Only once before in a race, my 100 in San Diego, have a gotten choked up and close to tears in the last few miles.  As I thought about this journey I had taken, and I felt so grateful for the opportunity to run this race, among all of these strangers who knew nothing of me but had taken me in as one of their own.
     The rain came down harder, and the final push felt amazing and horrible at the same time.  I never fail to be amazed at how, no matter how much pain you are in or how exhausted, there's something left in those last few miles to propel you faster and harder.  As I ran into town, the rain pouring down, there were still a few people out to offer encouragement.  Around every corner I turned, I expected to see that big inflatable line reading "meta," but the streets kept teasing me.  Finally I caught sight of it, and gave it all I had.  A few hundred meters from the finish, Rene and his son Myles called out to me, and came out to run me in.  Myles and I sprinted it out, and finally I was done.  I am happy to say I was going too fast and hard to cartwheel across the finish line, but I did manage one a minute or so afterwards.
Approaching the finish line with miles

    This race was an incredible experience, and I would recommend it to anyone able to make the trip.  Being surrounded by amazing and inspiring runners, breathtaking views, and such a supportive community made this race unforgettable.  Also, for those of you who were concerned, Poncho's wife did not have their baby until he arrived back in Acapulco, a beautiful baby girl named Alexa.  All is well.  And finally, thanks again Rene!

Before and after.  Photo credit Poncho Morales and Benito Sainz Marquez

The bracelets I accumulated to prove my finish!


  1. Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing. No need to say "gracias". I told you repeatedly that I was very happy to share the experience with you. I was very glad to see that just like it happens to me. .. "GUACHOCHI MAKES YOU HAPPY". -alias René / alias Hermano Mayor

  2. Wonderfully powerful post Erica. You made me feel (almost) like I was there - especially during the cow/bull scene - but without the sore legs! As always, in awe of you! xo

  3. Your inner strength astounds and inspires me. What a tremendous adventure and your writing captures its spirit so well. Love you - take care xoxoxoxo.