Bruce Tulloh chez les Tarahumaras

Bruce Tulloh at the Tarahumaras

Extract from the international journal of running - June 1973

This article - we can be sure - none of the Tarahumara Indians will read it. Because the handful of those who know how to read and write know no other language than Spanish. They live in the western part of the Sierra Madre, a very mountainous region in northern Mexico, west of Chihuahua. It is this mountain range that the railway line that connects Chihuahua to the Pacific crosses; the tourists who use it eat hearty meals in the special, panoramic wagons. A few miles away, at the edge of the habitable world, live some of the world's best runners.

I had heard about the Tarahumara Indians from my friend Tim Johnson, who had trained for a year in Mexico. I then read an anthropological description of this tribe, an inviolate enclave of pre-Columbian Mexico. They were seen as a branch of the Apache nation (itself including noted long-distance runners), with running behind a ball, or "rarajupari", at the center of their cultural life. I have read certain accounts of these races given by American physiologists. No doubt about it: these Indians ran over extremely long distances. I was interested in knowing what their athletic value actually was. Previously, no athlete had been there, so none had run with them.

In the summer of 1971, a few days after the start of the school holidays, I flew on a charter to Los Angeles. From there, along with an American friend, I took a bus to El Paso, Texas, then a Mexican bus to Chihuahua, and finally a train through the mountains. I went down to a village called Creel, at an altitude of more than 2000 m, in the middle of the sierra. A few words of Spanish, and we managed to get into a jeep that was going to Sisoguichic, the headquarters of the Jesuit mission. But it broke down after a few miles. We then walked to the next village; from there, a truck brought us to the goal just after dark.

Sisoguichic is the most important village in the region where the Tarahumaras live. The Jesuits run a hospital there, the mission itself and the radio-telephone school which broadcasts lessons in this region. It should be noted from the outset that there is only a very small number of Tarahumaras, because they jealously preserve their independence. Most of the population is made up of mestizos. For centuries, Spaniards and Mexicans have repelled the Indians; some of them, such as the Vaquis, fought. The Tarahumaras have survived thanks to the retreats they have made for themselves in the mountains and in their minds. These men speak very little. Small and swarthy, they have an impressive rib cage and the slender, muscular legs of runners; all have black eyes, slanted like those of the Mongols.
Using the mission, we discovered the home of one of their best runners, a man who had won a race over 48 hours. By jeep, we went to him in the mountains.

This is how, while waiting for Ramon the runner, I found myself in the meadow of the Saghuarachic, the "valley of the great deer". Between the walls of bare rocks fringed with pine stretched a green meadow dotted with yellow flowers. A real paradise...On the edges, right against the trees, isolated from each other, the wooden huts of the Indians, with small fields of corn and herds of goats grazing. The sun was warming the mountain air, you could hear the lark's chand.

Ramon the runner was very small, about 155 cm: he was surely over forty, and his whole person was imbued with great dignity. Yes, he was going to run with me: we agreed on three laps of the valley, in total about 15 km. He wore the traditional costume of the Tarahumaras: straw hat, loose colored jersey, white loincloth, sandals with soles made from old tires and laced around the ankle. We placed three stones (one per lap) at the edge of the track and then we took the start under the gaze of several women who were working among the corn. Ramon deploys the short skimming stride of the long-distance runner. In the rarefied air of this altitude (2300m), I had difficulty at first not losing my breath; then, I didn't take long to get used to it. We walked the first 5 kilometers stride in stride. As we were going up the valley for the second time, I accelerated the train and left it a little behind. I let him catch me, but on the last lap I let him go again. The train wasn't fast - about 15 km per hour - but do you know many middle-aged European peasants who could run at that pace for an hour without too much trouble? Ramon was certainly not fast enough to worry a well-trained athlete, since she was, let's not forget, an ultra-long distance specialist. In the race I mentioned, he had run non-stop for more than two days and two nights, covering a total of 200 miles (320 km) of rough tracks.

We returned to Sisoguichic, where another challenge was issued to me by a young Indian called Madril. Although a little sore, I couldn't refuse. The course would go around this valley, about 11 km. The young Madril, taller and stronger than Ramon, and only 20 years old, started out as a 400m runner. The first 200m, up through the village streets, took him no more than 30 seconds, and the first mile was run in less than 5 min. I gradually managed to keep up with him, then I took the lead. On our return to the village - I was sweating - he took off his hat. During the descent of the valley, he had always stayed right behind me, running with ease. As we climbed toward the finish, I tried to accelerate, but he stuck to my heels. 200 m from the goal, mobilizing all my energy and my experience, I nevertheless managed to take a few meters from him. But in the end, the most tested of the two was me. I took our pulses: 180 for Tulloch, 160 for Madril.
It was by attending their running game behind a ball that I really realized the facilities of the Tarahumaras. One evening, I saw Madril and one of his friends embark on a little bet in a race that lasted six hours: they traveled more than 60 km. However, the rhythm of this kind of race varies constantly since it is necessary to advance the small ball of wood. For this, the runner slides slides the toes under the ball and, throwing his right leg forward, sends the ball 20-30 m further down the course. This course is rugged, rocky, winding. The ball sometimes rolls into a bush: you can't get it out except with a small stick (it is forbidden to use your hands directly).

The longest race we witnessed was accomplished by two teams of three runners on a 10 km course to be repeated 15 times. The race took place by "jumping frogs", the one who had thrown the ball running immediately in front of the other two. The pace was that of a team cross, with occasional breaks to recover the ball. This lasted all night and most of the next day. At night, the runners light up by means of flaming pine branches. We could then clearly see the small group of luminous points meandering on the side of the hill plunged into the night. When they approached, you could hear the clink of the ball on the pebbles, the flapping of the sandals and the breath of the runners. And then they disappeared again into the darkness.

This ball game is at the center of the life of the Tarahumaras, it brings fame and consideration. From what I have seen, the fitness level is higher than that of the Kenyans I have just spent over 18 months with.
So far, and although a Tarahumara has beaten Juan Martinez* in a cross-country race, all attempts to enter them in official competitions have failed. The Tarahumaras believe that our races are too short and too boring for a man worthy of the name. However, I am certain that when a patient trainer can take the time to get to know them, to understand their problems and to familiarize them little by little with the outside world, this small tribe of Mexican Indians will mark the race. as well as the Ethiopians and Kenyans have done in recent years.

Bruce Tulloh

* Mexican Juan Martinez finished 4th in the 5000m (in 14:10:8) and the 10,000m (in 29:35) at the Mexico Games.

Notes :

The Tarahumaras, also known as the Rarámuri, are a people who live primarily in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in northern Mexico. They have a population of around 50,000 people, and they are known for their rich culture and history, as well as their ability to run long distances.

The Tarahumaras have a history that dates back thousands of years, and they have retained many traditions and beliefs that are unique to their culture. They have great importance for spirituality and religion, and they celebrate many rituals and festivals throughout the year.

The Tarahumaras have also faced significant challenges in recent decades. Their ancestral land has been threatened by mining and logging activities, and they have also faced discrimination and marginalization. However, they continued to fight to preserve their culture and their way of life, and they achieved significant advances in the recognition of their rights and their land.

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