The Tarahumara came to worldwide attention specially after the book “Born to Run”, by Christopher McDougall, which was published in 2009. More recently Lorena Ramírez was in the front cover of Vogue and got her own Netflix´s documentary “Lorena, light-footed woman”.
A recent article has focused again on the Tarahumara community, or Rarámuri as they call themselves, and from first-hand interviews got a deeper insight in the practical, social and spiritual roles of running, that was widespread among other Native American nations too (Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Yurok and Tohono O’odham).
The Tarahumara got their name from the Sierra Tarahumara, a part of the Sierra Madre, in North-western Mexico, a remote and extremely mountainous area, still far from main roads. Their ability to run long distances have contributed to a wrong stereotype of being immune to pain and fatigue.
We will see the different roles that running does in the Tarahumara community.
Nowadays persistence hunting has almost disappeared, threaten by ecological change, tourism, roads and towns expansion, drug trafficking and migration. In its origins its strategy implied hunters to target an individual and chase it on foot over long distances until they collapsed from heat stroke, exhaustion, or fell in a human-made trap. This type of hunting implied a high level of endurance, tracking and cooperation skills, and an appropriate knowledge of the landscape.
Humans evolved adapting to run long distances at moderate speeds. We already talked about this in a previous post. The estimate length of Tarahumara´s hunting runs was 12-36k, at a running speed of approximately 9.6 kilometres per hour and frequent walking periods, especially in steep ascents. These hunts were always done in groups (3-15 participants) and wearing huaraches, sandals made from yucca (or rubber tires now) and a loincloth or tunic. They drank pinole, a traditional beverage of dried corn, mixed with water from streams.
Footraces can be rarajípare, it they are for men, or ariwete, if they are for wome. They are still practiced today, but not very often, as they are being replaced by traditional western-style ultra-marathons.
In its origin races were organized between Tarahumara pueblos. The organizers, or chokeame, had to supply corn beer, or tesguino, and if they lost three times in a row were not allowed to organize more races.
Courses vary greatly involving various laps of around 5k, with lengths oscillating between 25-30k for the shorter ones, to 150k for the longest ones. Usually the ariwete races (women-only) are shorter.
In the rarajípare races, teams of runners (5-20 runners) must kick a wooden ball, called komakali, along the course, to distances as long as 50 metres in open terrain. Losing the ball or touching it with the hands means losing the race. Each team is formed by the runners, a coach (cabecia), assistants (apuntadores) and healers (owirúame). Additionally, there is a support team, called woman power, or poder de mujer, where a group of women surrounds an exhausted male runner, chanting alongside and matching his strides. Friends and family can run along, giving the runners support although not allowed to kick the ball. In the ariwete races the runners are usually your women, aged 10-20 years, who do not have children.
Therefore, race participation is nothing like in Western-style races. It is not about competing with the others or yourself, but a community´s event. No adult Tarahumara train to improve their running skills or stay fit.
And yes, Tarahumara runners also get tired and suffer from cramps or injuries. As the race continues only the stronger ones remain. The extreme exhaustion can induce an altered state of consciousness, or “trance”, in some runners. Therefore, rarajípare and ariwete are somehow seen as a form of prayer.
Another common leisure activity of the Tarahumara is dancing. But here also they show a level of endurance difficult to achieve. Each dance lasts between 12 and 24 hours! And communities may have 30 of these dances per year!
The lead dancer, or monarco, is a role usually performed by the best runners. It requires a high level of endurance, as they can not stop from start to finish.
As it has been shown, for the Tarahumara long-distance running is only one of the activities improving their endurance capabilities. Besides it, hard-daily working routines, involving long distance walks in mountainous environments, and their dancing “marathons” are also key contributors.
Running evolved from the necessity of persistence hunting to a social event with an intense spiritual component for many.
Although reasons of the Tarahumara for running may seem strange, they are not so far of the motivations behind many runners around the world, or the reasons behind the organization of many big-cities marathons.
Thanks for reading until here.
Running in Tarahumara (Rarámuri) Culture: Persistence Hunting, Footracing, Dancing, Work, and the Fallacy of the Athletic Savage. Lieberman DE, Mahaffey M, Quimare SC, Holowka NB, Wallace IJ, and Baggish AL. Current Anthropology 2020 61:3, 356-379