Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 3
Barefoot and brilliantMeet the world's best runners and see how they're helping area students
BY KRISTINA SEWELL
Local cross-country runners Hayes Dunn and Beth Rigali found it hard to believe, at first, that there existed a culture in which running isn’t just a part of life, but a way of life. In America, we run for cancer, finish lines, and out of a desire to be in shape. Here with our cars, trains, and planes, running simply isn’t a necessity.
But deep in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, there exists an indigenous tribe for whom running is as much a part of their daily lives as is breathing. They’re the Tarahumara Indians, more commonly known as the “running people,” or the world’s best-kept secret of hidden athletes.
Running in sandals or no shoes at all, the Tarahumara have perfected the sport in a way that allows them to run for miles without injury. In turn, they’ve inspired a new kind of running style in America that abandons bulky tennis shoes and pavement in favor of trails and Vebrum five-finger shoes.
Dunn and Rigali first heard about the Tarahumara during their 2012 cross-country season at St. Joseph High School. Through their coach, Rigali and Dunn have rediscovered their passion for running by ditching their shoes and learning the importance of quality versus quantity.
A unique opportunity
Dunn’s and Rigali’s changes in running were a result of the experiences of their coach and running mentor, Luis Escobar.
Escobar, with his black hair and wiry build, is in his 12th season as a high school cross-country coach, in addition to owning and operating Reflections Photography Studio with his wife, Beverly, since 1984.
A native of the Central Coast, Escobar shared with the Sun two of the things to which he’s devoted.
“Photography is my profession and passion, but distance running is something I’m very passionate about as well,” he said.
The photographer said he became more involved in running in his early 20s. Since then, he’s participated in at least 30 100-mile races (ultra-marathons), including the Bad Water to Death Valley race three times.
Having run so many races all over the world, Escobar was excited when he was invited as one of seven American ultra-marathon runners to participate in the inaugural Copper Canyon ultra-marathon in 2006.
The opportunity took him to the Mexican state of Chihuahua, deep in the Sierra Madre mountain range.
“The Copper Canyon is nearly four times the size of the Grand Canyon,” Escobar said. “There are no paved roads to get there; it’s nearly impossible to get there unless on foot or four-wheel vehicle.”
There, Escobar, with camera in hand, encountered one of the oldest indigenous tribes in North America. Living isolated in this canyon are the Tarahumara; while Escobar knew of their existence, witnessing their lifestyle was a worthwhile experience for this American runner.
The Running People
How old are the Tarahumara? This should give you some idea: They speak an obscure pre-
A very private people untouched by modern society, they’re not always comfortable with being photographed or seen, Escobar said.
“They live here in isolation by choice,” he explained.
According to Escobar, the Tarahumara are a simple tribe that lives off the land. Living in one-room adobe buildings under rock outcroppings, they raise chickens, pigs, and goats. They farm cactus, squash, and avocados, make tortillas, and eat a lot of pinole, a corn meal substance. Wearing shirts similar to what Spanish conquistadores used to wear, this tribe is a throwback to the days of old.
“I didn’t expect how authentic they would be,” Escobar said. “I saw people living as though it were 600 years ago.”
But what’s brought attention to this tribe isn’t so much its extreme isolation or “antiquated” lifestyle, but its members’ astounding capabilities as long-distance runners.
Notoriety came to the tribe after an article appeared in a 2011 Men’s Health Magazine, “The Men Who Live Forever” by Christopher McDougall. As it turns out, McDougall was visiting the tribe during Escobar’s 2006 journey; the journalist went on to publish a book about the Tarahumara, Born to Run.
The Tarahumara are being revered as the world’s best athletes and endurance runners. According to the 2011 Men’s Health article, the Tarahumara will run anywhere from 50 to 80 miles a day at a race-like pace.
“They’re good runners out of necessity; they run every day for simple tasks,” Escobar said.
Running has been the Tarahumaras’ only method of transportation for hundreds of years. Escobar, in great shape for someone who recently turned 50, said that although they may not look like athletes, the Tarahumara could run nonstop for hours at a time.
They’ve also integrated running into their cultural practices. They hold secretive inter-tribal races, since there are various ranches (or villages) all over the canyon.
“Each ranch has a president who will come together with the other presidents to negotiate the terms of a race over the course of a few days,” Escobar explained.
According to the runner, the presidents determine when the race will happen and the length; then they make wagers. A team of five racers who compete for food, property, money, and animals represents each ranch.
“They recreate competitive running, but they don’t personally get prizes for winning. Their community is counting on them to perform,” Escobar said.
The Tarahumara also play a running game called “rarajipari,” which involves using curved wooden sticks to pass back and forth a wooden “bolla” carved from a tree. The tribe will run 50 or more miles while playing this game.
Even more amazing, the Tarahumara will have parties two to three days before a race, smoking, drinking beer, and eating. Escobar shared that the tribe doesn’t suffer from stress, heart disease, or cancer; there are even 60-year-old tribe members still able to run 100 miles—a number that means nothing to the Tarahumara.
So how do they do it?
The Tarahumara Technique
Escobar learned that when it comes to the Tarahumara, the key is keeping it simple.
“They don’t use GPS trackers or heart rate monitors when they run,” Escobar said. “They also maintain an incredibly simple and organic diet. They run for endurance, not speed.”
In addition, the Tarahumara have managed to perfect the running form all on their own. The Men’s Health article reveals these running people never fully straighten their legs while running; they keep their knees bent and run on the balls of their toes.
Perhaps the secret lies in their running shoes—or lack thereof. Escobar said the Tarahumara run wearing “huarache” sandals made from old tires and leather, or they simply run barefoot.
According to Men’s Health, Gerard Hartmann, Ph.D, is one of several people starting to believe that running isn’t what causes injury; rather, it’s our form and “economy of training.”
Newer studies are showing running-related injuries are the result of highly cushioned shoes that inhibit natural movement and cause the muscles in our feet to atrophy; lack of strength and flexibility almost always lead to injuries.
“We wear these big cushioned shoes that restrict our movement and contact with the Earth that we need to feel,” Escobar said.
McDougall’s book and the techniques of the Tarahumara, according to Escobar, have greatly inspired what’s being called the “minimalist” running style movement in America.
“This means removing any barrier or shield, eliminating the things that bind and hold us back in our running,” Escobar said.
The minimalist running style has inspired a new wave of footwear from Nike to Vebrum five-finger shoes and Luna Sandals—a shoe modeled after the Tarahumara foot wear.
From a local medical perspective, Bryan Woo, physical therapist and director at San Luis Sports Therapy in Santa Maria, said there’s currently a debate in the medical community regarding the new wave of minimalist running.
“I’ve heard about the footwear the Tarahumara wear,” Woo said. “But minimalist running is not for everyone.”
According to Woo, while this new kind of running has its benefits, none of it matters if you still run incorrectly.
“There is in fact a correct way to run; you have to make changes in form to avoid other injury,” Woo said. “Form is everything.”
Regardless of their shoes, the Tarahumara running form is near perfect and something Escobar knew would benefit his running students in the states.
Bringing it home
Escobar, who returned earlier this month from another visit with the Tarahumara, said he wanted to witness, participate, learn, and bring it all home to share with his students and the running community. With nine seasons under his belt at Righetti and going into his third season as coach at St. Joseph, Escobar wanted to introduce his runners to the Tarahumara idea of running gently. This means not running for numbers and mile times, but focusing on how you’re running.
“I wanted lower quantity and higher quality,” Escobar said. “I’d rather introduce them to a lifetime of running—the winning will come.”
Like Escobar, former St. Joseph cross-country runner Hayes Dunn had heard a little about the Tarahumara before his coach introduced him.
“When I first heard about them, it was surreal,” Dunn said. “They perfected the art of running simply by being isolated and not listening to people tell them what’s best.”
While Dunn said the technique was different from anything he’d ever learned, the quality-versus-quantity mantra spared him injury during senior season.
“The first few seasons, I did a lot of running and I had numerous minor injuries,” Dunn said. “I was healthy my entire senior season and had better race times.”
Beth Rigali, a current St. Joseph runner ranked 16th in the state, was introduced to the Tarahumara last year.
“When I first heard about these people, I was amazed at their simple lifestyle,” she said. “I feel their endurance corresponds directly to their gentle running style.”
Dunn and Rigali said Escobar made them focus on form, in particular their stride and how their feet would hit the ground, encouraging them to run on the balls of their feet like the Tarahumara.
“Coach Escobar ran with us and made sure we kept our form the entire way through; my mileage and stride gradually increased,” Dunn said. “I felt more relaxed when I was running.”
Escobar said he still wanted his runners to run aggressively, but be more physically connected to the elements. With that in mind, he had his students warm up on the track barefoot; he also introduced them to rarajipari.
“We would play soccer ball or ultimate Frisbee barefoot; we got to improve our running in a different way,” Dunn said, adding that he was more aware of how his feet hit the ground when running this way.
Rigali was pleasantly surprised by the effects of running barefoot; it made her feel faster and freer.
“The Tarahumara are able to run many miles at a time pain and injury free because they run barefoot,” Rigali said. “Barefoot runners use the natural shock-absorbing muscles and ligaments when they run allowing them to excel without harm.”
After training without shoes, Dunn and Rigali understand how so much cushioning for feet is actually detrimental to runners.
“The cushioning of running shoes increases injuries; our feet need to feel so they can send signals when we run,” Dunn said.
Both runners agree the Tarahumara techniques changed their mentality and taught them to use energy more efficiently; Dunn added that being a good runner is more than the miles you put on your shoes.
“The Tarahumara have inspired me to grow as a runner, and I now understand the importance of running gently,” Rigali said.
The St. Joseph cross-country team certainly benefitted from Escobar’s experiences and training techniques: The 2012 boys team went to the state meet while the girl’s team went to CIF.
Escobar will continue to share his knowledge, experiences, and iconic photos of the Tarahumara (Google “Tarahumara” and his images are the first to pop up) with his students and the running community; he will be conducting two presentations on Tarahumara in the coming months.
“There are running tribes all over the world,” Escobar said. “We can recreate what these cultures do and learn a lot from them.”
Contact Staff Writer Kristina Sewell at firstname.lastname@example.org.