The man in the shot may look like an ancient Aztec goofy-footing his way down a rockslide. But he's actually a Tarahumara Indian, a member of a tribe living deep in Mexico’s remote Copper Canyons. When it comes to going ultra-distances, nothing could beat the Tarahumara – not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner. Very few outsiders had ever seen the Tarahumara in action, but amazing stories of their superhuman toughness and tranquillity have drifted out of the canyons for centuries. One explorer spent 10 hours crossing a mountain by mule; a Tarahumara runner made the same trip in 90 minutes.
“How come they’re not crippled?” you might be wondering. The Tarahumara drink like frat boys, subsist on corn mush and barbecued mice, live in perpetual peace and tranquillity, and run multiple marathons into their 60s. It’s as if the stats have been entered in the wrong columns: Shouldn’t we, the ones with running shoes so advanced that the cushioning is controlled by microchips, have the zero casualty rate, and the Tarahumara – who run way more, on way rockier terrain, in little more than flip-flops – be constantly banged up?
One reason the Tarahumara squeeze so much mileage out of their feet is because they don’t baby them. Nicholas Romanov, PhD, a running technique specialist who has coached British Olympians, explains that cushioned shoes throw off your centre of balance, allowing sloppiness to creep into your posture. They also cause you to rely on air-injected foam to absorb shock, not the natural compression of your joints – meaning, your legs become more rigid and less responsive. Strip down to bare feet and you’ll instantly notice two sensations: First, you recentre yourself over the balls of your feet. Second, your body regains its innate gyroscopic ability – whenever you step on a pebble and flinch, your legs instinctively twist and bend, and then shift back to perfect balance again.
According to Eric Orton, an endurance sport coach in the US who has studied Tarahumara lore, the Mexican Indians aren’t great runners. “They’re great athletes, and those two things are very different,” he says. Orton’s specialty is tearing sports down to their integral movements and finding transferable skills. He studies swimming to build athleticism in runners, and applies Nordic skiing’s smooth propulsion to mountain biking. What he’s looking for are basic engineering principles, because he’s convinced that the athlete who avoids injury will be the one who leaves the competition behind.
“Your body needs to be shocked to become resilient,” Orton believes. Follow the same daily routine, and your muscular-skeletal system goes on autopilot. But surprise it with new challenges – leap over a creek, leopard-crawl under a log, sprint till your lungs are bursting – and scores of nerves and ancillary muscles are suddenly electrified into action.
For the Tarahumara, that’s just daily life. They step into the unknown every time they leave their caves because they never know how fast they’ll have to sprint after a rabbit, how much firewood they’ll have to haul home, or how tricky the climbing will be during a winter storm. Before the Tarahumara run long, they get strong.
“Everyone thinks they know how to run, but it’s really as nuanced as any other activity,” Orton says. The Tarahumara add strength to their stride from childhood by passing a wooden ball with their feet as they race through the woods. Keeping the ball in play means lunging, backpedalling and twisting – all movements that later translate into powerful, economical self-propulsion.
Strength drills aren’t as fun as running a fastbreak drill through the forest with a pack of Tarahumara kids, but they’re nearly as effective.
The Tarahumara Diet
Tony Ramirez, a horticulturist in the US, who’s been obsessed with Tarahumara foods for decades.“Anything the Tarahumara eat, you can obtain easily,” says Ramirez. “It’s mostly beans, squash, chilli peppers, wild greens, ground corn and chia.” (Chia is a seed that can absorb more than 12 times its weight in water)
The Tarahumara’s favourite drink, apart from home-brewed corn beer, is a little concoction whipped up by dissolving chia seeds in water and adding a little sugar and a squirt of lime. As tiny as those seeds are, they’re packed with omega-3s, protein, fibres and antioxidants. And there’s no arguing with its pedigree: On a diet like that, a 55-year-old Tarahumara runner won a 160km race through the Colorado Rockies.