Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A Soulful Journey to the Depths of The Copper Canyons.

It was a cold,dark morning in mid December.I was on the way to work 11 miles away,running with a head torch with a rapidly diminishing light ,left ankle hurting and I was-well-feeling miserable.I'd made a commitment to run The Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in the deep canyons of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico,having sent my entry donation to race organiser,Micah True.Yes-the Micah True-the person I'd read so much about over the previous year and who was the star turn in the best selling book 'Born To Run'.I knew I had to go there-to take a voyage of discovery into the deep canyons-but the voices of sanity were chipping away that dark morning.

It was a relatively large financial outlay,mainly for the return flight from the UK to Mexico,and Christmas was rapidly approaching.Christmas marked a month long break from work,several weeks of which I would have to take unpaid to utilise the holidays available for Mexico.I'd been having problems with getting a visa for entry to the US-I'd assumed that I'd get a visa exemption,but on close inspection realised that,due to a stupid night of youthful exuberance years earlier,I'd have to attend an interview at the US embassy in London.More expense.Should I just fill in the exemption and take a chance?Would I get turned away at US customs?I just didn't know.

The voices continued.'Save your money-the money you spend will pay your caravan rent for a full season.Theres loads of great races in the UK etc,etc.'These doubts continued for a couple of weeks,until I voiced them to my brother on a snowy,country run during the Christmas vacation.I knew what his response would be.He had ran from John O'Groats to Lands End,ran the coast to coast route from St Bees Head to Robin Hoods Bay,been part of a run across Africa,had cycled across Australia.He began that the easy option is always to stay with what you know-but ,to live life you need to step out of your comfort zone.That I might go to Mexico and think it was a total waste of time and money-that the great things I had read about the people involved with the race,may be hype.However it could also be a life changing experience that I would remember for the rest of my life.If I didn't go.I'd never know'.

Two months later I was sat on a small bus,slowly weaving down the steep roads into the canyons.Darkness was drawing in-our original bus had broken down after miles of making very strange noises and we'd had to wait for a replacement.Rick,an American tourist returning to the canyons ,having visited several weeks earlier,but knowing he would soon to be witnessing something special soon, and having decided to return, pointed out faint lights below.The lights of the small town of Urique. Driving down the main street an hour later in darkness ,all was quite.I was in the most remote area I had been in my life.My mobile phone was dead and my closest friends and family knew I was in the Copper Canyons in Mexico-but didn't have a clue,really,where it was.However I felt relaxed and at home.I'd landed in Mexico City,deciding to bypass the US altogether.I was nervous.The guide books advised of the dangers of unauthorised taxis at the airport-of people being robbed,even killed.At the Norte bus terminal I sat on my pack quietly,viewing everyone as a potential criminal.I was relieved to get on the overnight bus,for an 18 hour trip to Chihuahua.From Chihuahua,I caught the bus to Creel-again a town with a bad reputation for drug related violence and killing.But I was relaxing.The Mexican people were friendly,the foreign travellers had great tales to tell and I was starting to get excited about the race ahead.As I got off the bus and walked down the dark road to the campsite,Entre Amigo,I took in the quietness and serenity of the place and the realisation hit me that I had arrived at the place I had read so much about.

I awoke the next morning,made my way out of the tent and savoured the surrounding.The tent was surrounded by trees bearing oranges and grapefruit,but it was the view beyond the campsite that was jaw dropping.In front of the site was a river,which lazily wound its way through the town of Urique,about half a mile away.I gazed up.We were on the canyon floor-mountains rose high above on both sides,covered with lush greenery.This place truly was beautiful.I dressed quickly into t-shirt,shorts and sandals-desperate to get in my first run for several days.Although it was early,the sun was rising and the temperatures were getting higher.I filled two empty coke bottles in the restroom,dropped in a couple of purification tablets and made my way to the site entrance.There I stood,debating which way to run.To the right was Urique,to the left a dirt road heading to where?.I looked at my watch.I would run for 30 minutes,then come back-paying special attention at any points where I had a choice of routes,in order to not get lost.I set off on the road to the left.

The dirt road headed past several homesteads,keeping close to the river.A mile or two down,the road bent to the left and passed the entrance to a decidedly dodgy looking bridge,which crossed the river.I decided to carry on the dirt road,as it gradually climbed upwards.The light sand colour of the path and the canyon walls made me realise that this was the same road I had seen many times in magazines and the web over the last year-pictures depicting the tarahumara runners,complete in colourful shirts,wrap around skirts and homemade sandals,made from tyres-making their way up the hills,a steely look of determination in their eyes.I continued up that first hill,until the road straightened out and then stopped.I was spent.My head started to go light and I had to quickly crouch down,scared I was about to pass out.I turned round and jogged,gingerly,back down the road.I'd ran,probably 3 miles.In 4 days time I would be running 52 miles,with near on 10,000 ft of climb.This would be harder than I thought.

Over the next few days my confidence returned.I began to feel stronger,the effects of the long trip diminishing.The campsite gradually began to fill with like minded runners,as did Urique itself.Great days were had reecing the course with the rest of the international runners and several tarahumara.Runners,in particular long distance runners usually possess similar attributes.They are comfortable in their own space(the hours of training solo show this),usually modest and easy to get along with.It was great sharing stories about their places of origin and of races and runs they had achieved.The scenery was unbelievable(the single track up to Los Alios must take some beating as the most beautiful run in the world)and the days were rounded off with delicious meals at Grandma Titas,along with beers and more tall tales.

The race itself was as hard as expected,but the smiles from both the supporters on the roadside,the school children at the aid stations and ,more importantly fellow runners,regardless of where they were from,made the going alot easier.I crossed the line in around 8hrs 45mins,just sneaking into the top 30.However times and positions were irrelevant-the whole experience transcended statistics.

There are several things that stick in my mind.The kindness shown by everyone was immense.From the locals,right down to the runners.I remember being eternally grateful to Mike(also on the campsite),for offering me his stash of antibiotics,after an abscess flared up on my tooth 2 days before the race-of Wes offering me his huaraches after finding that the maker in Urique would not be able to make mine before I returned home.Laughing on the way back to the campsite with Rick after spending a night engrossed in Abi's stories of family and races.Seeing the locals darting off the path on the first part of the race,taking short cuts at every bend.The smiles and words off all the runners I past on route.High fiving Maria as I headed back from Los Alios and noticing her beaming smile,even though she had still far to go.The list could go on and on.

However one thing sticks in my mind more than any other.It was the morning after the race.Most of the runners had departed on the bus from the canyons,returning to normal life and the planning of more adventures.A few of us were hanging around for a few more days.I was in the kitchen,talking to Mike,when Micah entered.Everyone was making idle chit chat when Micah said, 'That sure was a beautiful race yesterday'.I suddenly thought that comment summed up the whole experience-beautiful people,beautiful places,a beautiful ethos to the race-everything was just plain beautiful.

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