Friday, March 8, 2013

2013 Ultramaraton Caballo Blanco

View down to Canyon from 6,200 feet above
 What an incredible journey this was!  In the few days since I have been back, I am still processing all the sights, smells, and sounds of this incredible place that is the Copper Canyon.  It was a little over a year ago that I first read the book, "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall,  and I was drawn to the idea of visiting and participating in this event.  If you have not read the book, it describes the search for the mythical "Caballo Blanco" who lives and runs with the Tarahumara or Raramuri.  Micah True, which was his real name, organizes a foot race in the canyons to bring toguether the best Raramuri against the best ultra marathoners outside the canyons.  The race as is currently organized, is 80Km (50 miles) in and around Urique, Chihuahua. Originally, it was a point to point race from Urique to Batopilas but the race has evolved to its current format.  Micah called the people who participated and completed the event as  "Mas Locos". Below is a description of the club. (taken from Facebook group page).

What is Club Mas Loco?
Club Mas Loco was founded by Micah True (Caballo Blanco) for those who participate in the Caballo Blanco (Copper Canyon) Ultramarathon. 

Runners of the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathons are called Very Crazy, or Mas Locos. In the eyes of Caballo Blanco, all Mas Locos have in common the values of sharing, respect, compassion and peace. They share a culture of running with the Tarahumara / Raramuri and offer Korima to the People of the Canyons.

There are three kinds of Mas Loco's:
  1. Mas Loco - Those who have completed the Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon.  2. Aspiring Mas Loco - Those who are signed up for the race or have provided a donation to the cause.   3. Honorary Mas Loco - Some of those who contribute to the Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon as sponsors or supporters are recognize as Honorary Mas Loco.

The Mas Loco Tradition:
The tradition is, once you become a Mas Loco, an animal name, or a name derived from nature, is picked for you by Maria Walton (La Mariposa). Micah (Caballo Blanco) usually picked the names for his Mas Locos, and Maria Walton continues the tradition.

What it means to be Mas Loco:
A Mas Loco embraces the Raramuri concept of Korima, or unconditional giving. The bonds runners create when participating in the race make a connection most people never forget. Once a Mas Loco, always a Mas Loco. 

Run Free! - Micah True (Caballo Blanco)

As with all my blog posts, I will provide a "race report" at the end, but first I will lay out the journey from El Paso.   I feel it is practically in our back yard and I hope someone will be inspired to join me next year.  I promise you will not regret it.    

Urique, Chihuahua
Decision to register for race
Since I was fairly new to Ultras last year, I did not conceive of doing this race initially.  I wanted to get more experience running trails and climbing.  On March 27, however I heard about Caballo Blanco's disappearance in the Gila Wilderness after going out for a 11 mile run.  His body was located by fellow Mas Locos several days later and I wondered if the race would continue.  Thankfully, Maria Walton, Micah's girlfriend and Josue Stephens agreed to continue Caballo Blanco's legacy and continued to organize race.  I found out in the Fall of last year that the event would take place in March 2013.  Only problem was that I  had signed up for my first 100 mile race at Rocky Raccoon in February 2013.  That would only leave me a month to rest for the next ultra after my first 100.  I decided it was worth taking a chance and registered via Ultrasignup in early Dec. 2012. 

Month after Rocky Raccoon 100
During Rocky Raccoon, I did something to my left quadricept muscle which left me unable to walk, much less run for 2 weeks.  That left me with 2 weeks to train/recover/taper for the next event on March 3.  I put in some 6 mile runs on road during this time with Run El Paso members.  My longest run was the El Paso Half Marathon 1 week before the race.  I practiced using my hydration pack and slowly so as not to aggravate my quadriceps injury.   I was not completely recoved from Rocky Raccoon as I had some worrisome residual tenderness of the muscle. Clearly, not a recommended training strategy for a tough Ultra.

Getting there
Since I had been there before, I had a pretty good idea of  the options for getting to the Copper Canyon.  The website for the race Ultra maraton Caballo Blanco  has a section on getting there, which I found helpful.  There is a shuttle which leaves from El Paso by van on Sunday, 1 week before the race.  Since I could not take that many days off work, I decided to make my own travel plans and leave later in the week.  Through a patient, I learned about John Hatch who runs Gavilan Tours out of Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuhua.  He organizes tours to the canyon and was willing to pick me up and who ever I could get to go with me from El Paso.  He has a 10 passenger van and is very familiar and knowledgeable about the area.  I decided to leave on Thursday with a stop in Creel before heading into Urique by train.  I asked anyone in El Paso that was interested in joining me but could not get any takers.  I put a notice on Facebook at the Mas Locos Group page  and got interest from 2 Australians that wanted to join me.  Like me, Josh and Adam were "Aspiring Mas Locos" who had never been there to run this race.  I was grateful for the company they would provide on the trip and we have made a lasting friendship on this trip. 

DAY 1 (Thursday Feb 28)
The three of us departed on our adventure on Thursday, Feb 28 at 0800 AM after John Hatch drove from Nuevo Casas Grandes to pick us up at my house.   We set off via Artcraft to the Santa Teresa port of entry and crossed into Mexico.  Once across, we stopped at the immigrations station and got our tourist visas.  The process was quick and free.  If I had driven my car, which I have done on 2 occasions, this is where you get the permission sticker on the vehicle.  We then set off the toll road which goes around Juarez towards Chihuahua.  The road was fast and we soon arrived to Villa Ahumada.  John was giving us all kinds of excellent insight about the areas we were passing which made the trip pass quickly.  We made an  obligatory stop for "Queso Asadero" tortillas in VIlla Ahumada and then got off the freeway to head towards Buenaventura.  Since there was room in the van, we met up with two of John's son's, Adam and Stewart, as well as his wife Sandra.  They would be taking the train to El Fuerte to meet John's brother and meet us on the way back.  In the late afternoon, we made it to Creel which is the gateway to the Copper Canyon.  I had heard about an inexpensive hotel where Micah True used to stay and went to see if they had room.  

Hotel Real de Chapultepec in Creel, Chihuahua
The owner of the Hotel Real de Chapultepec, Mario, was very accommodating.  He had rooms with a double bed and another room with 3 beds which we used for us.  John and his family stayed in 2 other rooms. The cost for all 3 of us was 250 pesos, less than $20.  (For those who want luxury, the Best Western in Creel is available for $110 a night.).  He showed me the room that Micah and Maria would stay in and which he called the "stable of Caballo Blanco"
El establo de Caballo Blanco en Creel
(The stable of Caballo Blanco)

My room, pictured below was colder at night because it did not have an electric heater but had a wood burning fireplace.  Unfortunately, the temperature that night went down to the low 30's and the fire died out while I was asleep.

My room the first night
That night we went walking around the town in which many people, locals and toursists (mostly European) milled about.  We had dinner/beer at a local restaurant and got to bed with anticipation of getting to see the canyon in the morning.

Day 2 (Friday)
After a delicious huevos rancheros breakfast for me, we headed for the 44Km drive to Divisadero.  This is where we we had decided to take the train that would get us nearer to Urique.  The place has changed a lot since I last visited.  For one, they have a "telesferico" or cable car and a Zip line or "Telesfora".  I was too much of a coward to do the Zip line, but the other guys did it and all said it was a blast.  It was pretty long with about 5 stations and took them 1 and half hours to cover.

The elevation was said to be 1,200 feet in some places and it was just too much for me so I took the cable car to meet the guys with John and Sandra.  They would ride back with us after they Zip lined over to where the cable car took us.  The cost for the Zip line was 600 pesos (about $50)

The more sedate cable car gave us excellent views of the canyon and lasted about 10 minutes each way. From our vantage point we saw a few Tarahumara settlements and farms far below. 

Copper Canyon Cable car

View of Copper Canyon from Divisadero

From there we went to the train station where we had lunch as we waited for the arrival of the train 
going west at around 1 pm.  Since the train stops for tourists to get off and see the canyon for 15 minutes, there are several shops and food stands at this stop.  I had several "gorditas" and a "coca cola" which were great and clearly not part of my regular "Paleo diet" but I was going to enjoy the local cuisine. 
As we waited for the train, at the van, a young local with a Suburban said he was looking to take passengers to Urique.  Since this was our ultimate destination and we did not know what time the train would arrive, we decided to pay the man for a ride there.  I checked the tires and they looked good, he also assured me he had good brakes.  We stopped at his house and picked up his son for the ride and took off.  In San Rafael, we had to stop at a "gas station" which was the only one in town where the gas was dispensed by 20 Liter plastic drums with a hose.  He bought 5 for the trip there and back. (he was spending night there).

Rodolfo (red), our driver at "gas station" in San Rafael
The road past San Rafael was pretty good for another 17 Km as they are improving them because new mines are being developed by Goldcorp and Rio Tinto.  Then the roads became pretty bad during a portion being rebuilt followed by regular unpaved but passable road.  We arrived to Bahuichivo having beaten the train and saw the public bus that takes people to Urique and several vans for hire.  We had intended to take one of these but gained some time with Rodolfo. As we left Bahuichivo, the next stop was the Paraiso del Oso Hotel where the El Paso Shuttle spent 2 nights that week (Mon and Tues night).  The hotel belongs to Diego Rhodes who organizes the shuttle and is at about 7,000 feet elevation. It is so named because of the appearance on the side of the rock cliff of a profile of a bear.

Bear Image at the Hotel Paraiso de Oso

After passing the small town of Cirocahui, we again climbed up for a good while before starting our final descent to Urique.  This is the most beautiful but also the scariest part of the ride.  There are no guardrails and the canyon drops off several thousand feet on the side of the road. The grade is steep downhill with tight switchbacks and the road surface is rough and uneven.  Not recommended unless you have a high clearance vehicle.  We were glad to be in a suburban with a cautious driver who also had his son in tow. 

Last section of road approaching Urique

More views of drive down to Urique

Approximately 3 hours after leaving Divisadero, we drove into Urique and headed straight to the town square and Mama Tita's Restaurant.  For anyone who has read the book, Born to Run, you will know this is a place all the Mas Locos hang out.  It was there that we asked Mama Tita about a house Josh had reserved  via Facebook.  She went to look at a folded napkin with the reservation information and she asked if we wanted to look at the house.
Josh and Mama Tita

Our "Reservation" for lodging in Urique
She sent someone to look for her daughter, Aurora, who is a nurse at the town clinic.  The house was incredibly nice and much a relief to me because I had come prepared to camp (carried a tent, air mattress, and sleeping bag which I never used) for the entire stay.  For those who want to truly "rough it", a place called "Entre Amigos" outside of Urique provides campsites, bathrooms,  a community kitchen, and also dormitory like sleeping quarters.
Dormitory at "Entre Amigos" in Urique

Camping area at Entre Amigos en Urique
The house had 3 beds/ 1 bathroom and a full kitchen.  I took the downstairs bedroom which was incredible comfortable.  Aurora and her husband have 1 other house available and a 3rd under construction.  I told her if a get a group next year, I would love to rent all three for the trip.  The cost was 1,200 pesos a day ($94 split 3 ways) and was well worth it.
Our home away from home in Urique, Adam at the door
That night there was a dinner with all the athletes at the Tarahumara campground.  They served pork and beans which were good, but not enough for us, so we headed over to Mama Tita's restaurant for more food and beer. It should be mentioned that at this event there was a lot of beer drinking for me, much more than I usually do, specially hanging out with Aussies.  With this in mind, I had started training my liver prior to the trip with a beer drinking with the Aussies who arrived Monday before we left El Paso.  Come Friday, I was much better able to handle it and have it not affect my race performance.  At Mama Tita, I met several Mas Locos and Aspiring Mas Locos from all over the world.  There were 3 guys from Turkey, 10 from Japan, many Europeans, and North Americans. It was a great atmosphere all around.

Mas locos at Mama Titas in Urique

Josue Stephen (plad shir) and Maria Walton (orange shirt)

Day 3 Saturday (day before Race)

We woke up early because we wanted to participate in the Kid's Run which started at 0800AM.  This is the first year to have this event and it was a great success.  There were about 400 Tarahumara and children of non-Tarahumara runners participate.  They all received finishers medal, race shirt, and school supplies.  The school supplies were provided by all the Mas Locos and the race organizers. I brought school supplies as well and some children's cough syrup which I donated to Aurora at the Clinic. 

This kids race was about a 4K out and back and it was fun to run with the children and watch the front runners after the turnaround.  The course was  uphill on the way our and the way back they ran very fast downhill with their sandals and big smiles all around.  I got a good run and got to see the course for the first time that morning.  After the race, we had breakfast at Mama Tita's which was huevos con chorizo burritos.  After breakfast we set out to explore Urique and see the rest of the athletes.  We passed by the runway on the edge of town and the mural of the previous winners of the race. 

Runway at Urique Airport (me and Josh)

Mural commemorating Race

Previous winners

We also stopped to pick up our bib numbers.  We each received a nice technical running shirt donated by Saucony, a sponsor, and a Club Mas Locos cotton shirt.  They had several colors to choose from and I chose the green one.

My Mas Loco Tshirt and Bib

After a quick shower, it was time for lunch and we went to a makeshift restaurant placed for this race by Diego Rhodes and had a delicious hamburger.  Since all the Mas Locos there were drinking Tecates, even though it was day before the race, I had 2 beers with lunch.  In the afternoon, there was a ceremony where all the local dignitaries spoke and they made signs with all the countries and regions represented at the race.

Day before race, Adam is the Aussie
Saturday night we went back to Mama Tita and she made spaghetti for us and of course we had more beer. Good thing I had been training my liver for this.  At eight o'clock we were back in the house getting ready for the race the next morning.

Race Morning
I woke up at 0500 am to get ready for the 0600 AM start of the race.  My breakfast was my usual Chocolate Cliff bar, banana, and water. Josh, Adam, and I walked down to the starting area and were met with a huge crowd of spectators and runners milling about.  The atmosphere was electric.  I had brought a drop bag which I placed outside Mama Tita's restaurant. (Urique would be mile  20 and mile 40 of the race).   My kit consisted of a Salomon hydration pack which I got from Lety for Christmas, Salomon trail shoes (FellCross 1), gu's, Cliff bars, and Kind fruit and Nut bars.  I also had my headlamp, Spot tracking device, Go pro, Digital camera, and I phone which had Telcel signal in case I needed to call anyone. At the town square, we all received a black bracelet to indicate we here at the the race in Urique.  There is no chip timing in this race.

The three amigos, Josh (L), me, and Adam Race AM


As I have tried to illustrate, this is not like any other race I have done before or likely to do anywhere else in the world.  I approach it like a celebration of the human spirit that allows us to run and participate in endurance events. It was something that brought  us back to our most basic human nature. I am going to describe the course and the race, mostly to help those who may want to come to have some familiarity with what the course is like, but it is so much more than just a race. 

The Start (Urique to Guadalupe and back to Bridge 8 miles)

2012 Start, make be slow to load.

Since I knew the Raramuri started this race traditionally very fast, I lined up towards the back of field. There were about 500 registered Ramamuri and Mexican Nationals and I believe approximately 150 from around the world who registered via UltraSignup. You run up town from Urique on pavement and all along people are cheering and encouraging you.  Once you leave the town and pass "Entre amigos" campsite you run along the Urique river and reach a small bridge over the river. After the bridge we start our first climb of the day.  I walked this section and encountered the lead group which was coming down the mountain.  The Tarahumara run in sandals and you could here the distinctive clatter as they barrelled down the mountain.

Tarahumara runner racing down mountain from Guadalupe

After a couple of uphills and downhills, you reach Guadalupe Church turnaround and head back down towards the bridge.  There was a water station with bananas and orange slices.  Here, I received a green bracelet to show I had completed the loop.

Guadalupe church turnaround

After 3 miles, we reach the bridge again and headed up the road to El Naranjo. Here there was another water station and people cheering who had walked 2 miles from Urique to this point.

Puente/Bridge to El Naranjo and Back to Urique   (12 miles)

The sun was starting to come out and the temperature was climbing. At 0600 it was about 40 F and the canyons block the sun for a good while in the morning.  By this section, the temperature started to climb rapidly.  I had started to stay on top of hydration early and taking salt tablets every 30-45 minutes along with Gu. At approximately 3 miles into this section (11 miles in), we got off the road and went on the longest, steepest portion of the race via a gnarly single tract trail.  There were several big rocks and my pace dropped to 30 min/mile.

After climbing about 1,800 feet in about 3 miles, we reached the top of El Naranjo.  There some entrepreneurial Tarahumara ladies were selling tacos and cold coca cola. Unfortunately, I did not have any pesos with me.  Next time, I'll bring some change for a cold cola. Once we reached the top, another aid station was there and we all got an orange bracelet.  The rest of the way was pretty much downhill to Urique after crossing the bridge again.  On the way down, I captured this Go pro video of a mother and daughter running along the way.  (Kuira and Kuira ba in the Tarahumara language is like Aloha/Ciao meaning hello or Goodbye)

I reached Urique having completed 20 miles in 5 and half hours. For many of the Raramuri, this was the one and only loop they would complete to earn several hundred pounds of corn vouchers with their
 three bracelets.  The main town road was full of cheering crowds as we crossed from one end to the other side of town, going downriver towards Los Alizos.

Urique to Los Alizos 10 miles 
As I left Urique, the worst heat of the day was upon us.  I continued with the Gu, salt tablets, and occasional Cliff bar. The road has medium climbs and descents as we pass the small town of Guapalayna.  Further along was La Laja  which had a large suspension bridge which we crossed over.  After that we were back on single tract. Initially, the trail is flat to a slight incline, then again we start going up to 20% grade on several switchback trails going up to Los Alizos.  My pace slowed significantly again and I struggled not to stop to rest too long. At this point, I was heartened to see my Aussi friends Adam and Josh coming down the mountain heading back to Urique. They encouraged me and told me what a great aid station that was up there.

Climbing towards Los Alizos

Coming down from Los Alizos (wish I could have hitched a ride)

As I approached the aid station people were telling us we were close and that it was Shangri La waiting for us there.  I decided that when I got there, I was going to take my time to recover a bit.  The place did not disappoint at all.  I knew that I was approaching Los Alizos a large grapefruit tree. There was ample shade and grapefruit/banana/quesadillas.   I took off my hydration pack and sat for a good 10 minutes as I ate and hydrated. I also got a bracelet to show that I had been here. 
Los Alizos aid station

Grapefruit trees at Los Alizos aid station
 It is here, that the memorial for Micah True is located.  A fitting place to celebrate his life, I totally agree.  Having arrived on Friday, I missed the hike to Los Alizos from the swing bridge on Thursday when all the Mas Locos got to visit the memorial.  Regrettably,  I did not have the presence of mind to look  for the memorial while I was up to there that day.  

Los Alizos to Urique  10 miles
Itinially, I felt energized on the return trip after about a 15 minutes of rest. I left Los Alizos at 2 pm and I started to do the math with regards to the cutoff.  I had read on the Web site that a cut-off of 4 pm in Urique was in place to continue for the last 10 mile loop to Guadalupe and back.  The time cut-off for the entire 50 miles was 14 hours.  This meant, I had 6 hours to cover 30 miles and by this time I was getting pretty wiped out.  Despite the downhill sections, I could not run downhill  any more, as my quads started to tighten up.   My walking was even slow and I was being passed by people walking faster than me on the descents. This was demoralizing until I found myself catching some of these folks on the flatter sections where I could run a little still.  (15 min/miles).  I saw a few people who were still trying to make their way up mountain to Los Alizos.  I tried to encourage them as we passed bye.  Toshio, a 72 year old Japanese man was one of those, he has completed 100's of Ultras and I was concerned for him.  He had stopped in the shade and assured me he was OK.  As I got to the creek bed, I was met by a white dog that seemed to be following everyone that passed bye and apparently was seen on the other side of Urique a good 20 miles away.  The dog was adopted by a runner and taken to New Mexico where he now resides. Once again, I was a the suspension bridge and then to La Laja from where I still had 5 miles to go. 

As the 4 O'Clock hour approached, I realize I would not make the cutoff.  I also quickly realized at this pace ,  I would not make the 14 hour cut-off.   I was very sad and continued to press on as vans carrying runners who had bailed passed by and asked if I wanted to jump on.  I had never DNF a race before and I kept thinking about all the weight I had carried with me, the lack of training for the last month, and all the other excuses to help me feel better.   I decided that I wanted to be back to Urique for the awards ceremony at 5 pm. I arrived at 5:30 and went to speak to Josue about having to quit.  His response surprised me and I was elated.   He said: "There are still a lot of people out there" and "Go out and finish this thing".  I asked about the 14 hour cut off and he told me that it was a "soft cut-off" and he would be here waiting for me and I could get my finisher's medal if I completed the last 10 mile loop.  With that, I went to my drop bag and got some more gels and drank some water.   I put on my headlamp and headed out towards the Guadalupe church where I had started off that morning.  

Urique to Guadalupe and back  for last 10 miles
I was so pumped to get a second chance, I ran out of town as fast as I possible could.  As I reached the first of many inclines, I was once again walking slowly.  The 5 miles out to the church were punctuated by the occasional runner coming back for the finish who encouraged me to press on.  I once again ran into my Aussie friends and we exchanged high 5's.  When, I arrived to the church, I was happy the aid station was still open and I was able to get my last bracelet.  I sat for 5 minutes in the dark talking to the aid station folks.   It was about 8 O'clock, and I still had 5 miles to go.  As I was getting ready to get back to Urique, I saw that Claire was coming in to the aid station. She is from Florida and I had met her in El Paso when we met the  El Paso Shuttle people for dinned the night before they left.   Her and I had been passing each other for the last 30 miles and I thought she had quit at mile 40, but there she was catching up to me again.  We decided to keep each other company for the walk back.  I was doing most of the talking as she preferred to save energy by not speaking.  In total, about 4 people were behind us coming up the turn around as we headed to Urique.  As we were discussing now being official Mas Locos, I told her, I did not have a spirit animal. She suggested an animal that talks.  We concluded a Loro or parrot was a fitting  name for me.  And so, that is how I came to have my spirit animal name that night. 

We arrived into town and we ran the last Km into Urique.  Claire's roommate, Kelly, who had already finished earlier was waiting for her and ran barefoot with us.  The town was still in full party mode. I received my finishers medal and was congratulated by Josue for finishing the race.  My Garmin gave the  time as 14:39 but I had stopped de timer at mile 40 when I thought that I had DNF'd and I am not sure how long before I restarted it.  I finished 240th place out of 247 official finishers with a time of 14:49:04. There were a total of 529 people who started the race, so less than 50% finished.  Here is my Garmin connect info that shows the profile for the race.
Finisher's medal
Post Race
After I finished, I walked to the house and met with the Aussies Josh and Adam who were drinking a few beers.  They finished in less than 12 hours.  This the first Ultra for both and they were pretty happy.  I was hungry but did not have the energy or time to shower and go back down to the town square to get food.  The guys offered to get me a hamburger from Diego Rhodes' restaurant. It was delicious. I could not stomach a beer, however and stuck to water.  I was more concerned about my kidneys as I had only urinated twice the hole day. 

Last Day Return trip
Next AM, I went to Mama Tita's to make final plans for getting a ride out of Urique in time to catch the train on the way to Chihuahua.  Her family had a car and driver provided for 1,500 pesos to drive from Urique to Bahuichivo.  After our last meal in Urique at Mama Tita's (huevos con Jamon), we went back to finish packing. The driver, Pepe, picked us up at 0900 and we stopped at Entre Amigos to pick up my friend Marco Z. who was getting a ride back to El Paso.  Pepe was very cautious on the way up and we got to Bahuichivo with only 5 minutes to spare for the train arrived right on time at 12:30 pm.  John and his family were on the train, back from El Fuerte, so we got to chat as we rode to Divisadero.  In Divisadero, we got off and ate the obligatory gorditas before getting back on the van back to El Paso,  The return was uneventful and we arrived at the Santa Teresa point of entry at 1100 pm.  There was no line and we crossed right away back into my house around 12 MN.

Final thoughts
I can't say enough good things about this event.  It is experienced in so many different levels all so very different but complimentary.   The beauty of the setting is indescribable and the pictures and video just don't capture it.  You have to see it with your own eyes.  The residents of Urique, Tarahumara and non-Tarahumara are so welcoming and warm that you feel instantly at home.  The fellow Mas Locos, the friends I made with such a brief stay, are guides on how to live life to the fullest.  The ultra marathon, as many said while we were running, is the icing on the cake, or the dessert after a very good meal.  The race is challenging but there are so many men, women, and children to inspire you to keep running with them.  That they are running for food (corn vouchers) makes it more meaningful to them and puts things in perspective.  I will most certainly want to go back next year, and John has agreed to take us all the way to Urique in his van.  I hope to get a group of runners and non-runners from the El Paso area to travel down there.