Copper Canyon Adventure and Ultramarathon

World class ultrarunner Scott Jurek running with Arnulfo a few years ago before the Copper Canyon Ultra. Source: barefootted.com

Ever since hearing about the Tarahumara from Tony Robbins at a workshop several years ago (Tony was sharing tips on fitness and endurance), I’ve dreamed about visiting the Copper Canyons of Mexico. Reading Born to Run a short while later got me really excited and upon meeting Caballo Blanco (Micah True) and Barefoot Ted in Seattle and hearing about their efforts to help the Raramuri (means “running people”…and is what the Tarahumara call themselves), I realized that the only thing stopping me from doing it was a strong commitment to do so.  So here I go, on Saturday (February 26th, 2011) I’m leaving to visit the Copper Canyons. I’ll stay there for a few days and also compete in the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, an epic 50 mile endurance run through amazing off-road terrain.

View of the Copper Canyons. Source: David B Bell

The race has been organized by Caballo for several years, and serves as a celebration of the Raramuri way of life as well as a fund raiser to support them through the Norawas De Raramuri foundation. Running comes naturally to the people that live in the canyons, as it is their primary mode of transportation between villages, given the terrain is too extreme for roads and cars. Running is also a form of play, with villages playing a “ball game” that often lasts for several days and involves kicking a small wooden ball along a dirt path, covering upwards of 100K+ at a time! Yes, all for fun. For these strong and kind people, running 50 miles really is nothing big. They run in simple sandals made from old tires, wear simple cotton clothing and having fancy in terms of energy gels, bars or camelbacks for hydration. Despite their simple approach, they are incredibly fast! For me, it will be a big mental and physical test and be the longest I’ve ever run in one stretch (when I say run I really mean jog/walk!).

The Copper Canyon Ultramarathon will feature around 20-30 “non-local” runners (mostly from the US) and over 200 Tarahumara runners. Non-local runners have all donated funds that will go back to support local villages, and every local finisher will receive 100Kg’s of corn (their primary food). The top finishers will a lot more corn (I think the winner gets 1 ton!).

Copper Canyons deep in the heart of Mexico. Source: www.graphicmaps.com

The canyons, are very remote – requiring a 3+ day journey (each way!) just to get to the start of the race. I’ll be flying into El Paso, Texas and meeting a handful of runners. After an overnight stay at a cheap motel we’ll meet a guide who is taking us via van across the border (very quickly passing through Juarez!) for a 2 1/2 day overland journey to the edge of the Copper Canyons. After a night’s stay at a hotel we will then hike around 18 miles down into the canyons, to the small village of Urique that will serve as the “race headquarters.” I’ll spend 3 days in Urique hiking the entire race course with other runners, exploring the canyons and relaxing as much as possible. I’ll be staying in some very simple dorm-style accommodations. Hiking 50 miles on rugged terrain 3 days before a race might not be the best race taper strategy, but this is more about seeing the canyons and meeting the people than racing per se 🙂 . I’ve also heard they have amazing grapefruit orchards in the canyons – if this is true I’ll be in heaven!

It’s also the case that the diet of the Tarahumara is primarily vegetarian – based on corn, chia, beans and fruits and vegetables. There is some meat in their diet, but it is limited simply due to cost and the limited land for animal farming. As a vegetarian, this is all good with me!

On March 6th, the race will begin. The course will have a lot of elevation change, I think something on the order of 8-9000 feet of climbing in total (and then descending the same). Some of the course is on old dirt roads and some is on single track. Temperatures in the canyons will be a dry 80-85 degrees during the day and as low as 45-50 in the evenings. In terms of aid station, I’m still unclear exactly what will be offered, though I’m assured there will be “enough”! I’m betting on water and fruit along the course in at least a couple of spots since the route is a figure 8 and will pass through the village a couple of times. My race strategy is to use an Amphipod waist belt to carry around 40 ounces, and an Amphipod hand bottle for another 20 ounces. I’ll carry 600 calories in energy gel (in a gel flask), a bunch of almonds, a Cliff Bar and electrolyte tablets (1 per hour at least). If the aid station situation isn’t ideal, I’ll carry another bottle.

My expectations for the race itself are simply to finish with a smile on my face. Under 10 hours would be awesome, but I recognize that it might take around 12 hours. I really don’t know what will happen to my body after 32 miles (the longest I’ve run) so it’s all uncharted territory. The only important thing as far I am concerned is to finish before dark (we start at 6am) and not get lost…navigating the trails in the dark won’t be fun (or safe).

I won’t have internet access while I’m down there, so however this adventure goes down, you’ll get an update when I return.

Hasta Luego!

Shift Your Vision – Lesson from a Hike to Lake Serene

I took this photo of one of the amazing waterfalls on the way to Lake Serene, I adjusted the exposure on my Nikon D60 SLR to capture the silky smooth nature of the water rushing over this granite slab.

I went on what turnout out to be an incredible hike yesterday, though at times I felt pretty miserable. I headed to Lake Serene, a wonderful hike in the Cascade Mountains about 90 minutes from Seattle. Just drive east on Rt 2 towards Steven’s Pass. Head 7 miles past the hamlet of Gold Bar and turn right on Mt Index Rd (a well-maintained dirt road) and you’ll come to the trail-head.

It is a 7-8 mile hike round-trip, with the first part fairly flat to rolling along small rises in the hills. You’ll cross streams (great fun!) with an optional spur taking you to Bridle Falls (a 1 mile round-trip hike straight up the side of the mountain!). The final 2 miles to Lake Serene are a steady and steep climb, all the way to an epic looking alpine lake. On a nice day you can see the 3000 foot granite cliffs rising from the far side of the lake like an ancient amphitheater. It is totally surreal! Here is a photo panorama I took last year on a clear day:

Photo panorama composed from 10 individual pics of Lake Serene on clear day last year.

Yesterday however, the weather did not cooperate. It was very cold at the start (40 degrees) and the rain began to pick up from a mist to a steady downpour. My supposedly rain-proof coat gave up and quickly became soaked through all the way! My pants were pretty useless too, so I zipped off the bottom portion and just hiked in shorts (people looked at me like I was crazy!). In fact, I resolved to hike “barefoot” using my Vibram’s, and everyone I passed on the trail asked me about them. It was pretty funny since most people were wearing intense hiking gear, with gaiters, poles, and full water-proof regalia…and here I was with a small day-pack, no shoes and shorts!

I did this entire hike in my Vibram Five-Fingers, felt like I was walking barefoot! Yes, I got tons of questions from other hikers on the trail :).

The trail was full of large puddles and at times was flowing with running water. After a few hundred yards I stopped trying to step around the puddles and just tramped right through them. These Vibram’s are meant for walking through streams while kayaking, and work incredibly well. Over time my feet have gotten used to the rocks and roots, and I only winced a few times when I stepped on something sharp poking through. I relished the chance to dunk my legs in streams mid-calf while other hiker tentatively tip-toed across rocks trying not to get their shoes wet! The sense of absolutely freedom that comes from just going right through mud, water and not worrying about the conditions is so amazingly cool.

Self-portrait!

I eventually made it to the summit, where the weather was much colder, the streams were frigid and it actually was snowing! My feet were cold but surprisingly not as cold as I thought. In fact, my hands were far colder than my toes!!!! I eventually reached Lake Serene, and this time, instead of seeing an epic amphitheater fit for the gods, was greeted by a misty fog-drenched lake, half-covered with snow. The granite columns were invisible. My arrival was also welcomed by the sound of periodic “ka-booms” in the far distance, followed by low-rumbles that grew to deafening roars. Indeed, avalanches on the far side of the lake were happening every few minutes! I could hear the rush of the snow, but due to the fog could not see a thing. It’s neat how when one of our senses gets cut off, the others are so much more in tune. Luckily, my position at the water’s edge surrounded by flat earth and large trees made me very safe from direct hit by an avalanche.

Lake Serene this time around, covered in snow with the sound of avalanches rumbling through the natural amphitheater every few minutes!

On my way down from the lake, I began to get colder and ridiculously hungry. I had plenty of food and water with me, but due to the cold, was hesitant to take a break and eat like I should have. As I descended the mountain, I was laser focused on the trail right in front of me. I wasn’t looking around. I was day-dreaming and not very present. I was out in this pristine wilderness but not soaking it in, I was in my own bubble. I might as well have been in a shopping mall or lounging in my apartment, I was that oblivious.

Suddenly, I turned a corner in the trail and came to a small vantage point. I was still laser-focused on the muddiness of the trail ahead, not enjoying the environment. This lovely woman was standing just aside from the trail and greeted me with a big smile. It was enough to get me to stop for a moment. She said a few words and seemed incredibly relaxed and enjoying the moment. I just stood there, still feeling cold, hungry and staring at my mud-soaked feet.

Suddenly, I saw her zip open her back and pull something out. It was a camera! She turned to one side and pointed across the valley, saying “check that out.” Turning my gaze I saw an epic waterfall, one of the biggest I’ve seen in a long time, pouring off the top of the mountain, spraying mist everywhere. In this instant I went from feeling cold and anxious to feeling totally calm and happy. A small shift in my vision made all the distance. I pulled out me own camera to capture the moment (check it out below….).

A small in vision led me to notice this amazing vantage of a roaring waterfall! The picture really doesn't do it justice. It's spectacular.

In the end, the hike was remarkable. I didn’t get the view of Lake Serene that I hoped for, but a small shift in my vision allowed me to see the bigger scenery that was there, and come away with a pleasant experience despite the conditions! If such a small shift in focus could have such a profound affect on a single walk in the woods, imagine how we can use such small shifts in our vision to make every day amazing!

Using Jedi mind power to support a fallen tree!
There is beauty all around, we just need to stop and notice.