12th Copper Canyon Caballo Blanco Ultra Marathon #CCUM2014

I cannot sleep. I am too excited and I probably had one too many caffeine gels.
Today’s Caballo Blanco Ultra Marathon was by far the best race I ever participated in, and arguably the hardest because of the heat and the steep hills.

This was the 12th Caballo Blanco Ultra Marathon, started by Micah True as a way to help the Mexican “indigenous” people to keep their culture alive. The first year, there were only 5 runners, all Tarahumaras or as they call themselves, Raramuris – running people.
This year there were over 700 participants, 300 international and the rest Mexican and Tarahumaras.

The 50 miles (80 km) course consisted of 4 loops.
The first loop is from Urique to Guadalupe church and back to a bridge at the edge of town (15km). The second loop is from the bridge to Les Naranje and back to Urique (15km). The third from Urique to Los Alisos and back to Urique (34km). The last loop from Urique back to the Guadalupe church and return into Urique (16km).

For each loop completed, runners receive a coloured bracelet. While for the “gringos” the bracelet is nothing more than proof to have completed the loop, for the Raramuri people each bracelet corresponds to a voucher for corn. So Raramuris of all ages participate; kids as young as 10 to older adults of 70. Not everyone will run the full 80 km, but they will all complete at least the first two loops.
The Raramuris come down from the mountains where they normally live just for this race. They dress in their traditional colourful clothes and wear their now famous “huraches”, sandals made of car tires and leather strings tied around the ankles.
They are very shy people, they don’t talk much and they stay out of sight as much as possible.

For them it’s very inspiring to see such affluence. It’s an opportunity for the Tarahumaras to get food and possibly money if they place in the top 10 in the race. It is also a great opportunity to integrate with the local Mexican community.

While most Mexicans and all the gringos have come down to the race with high tech running gear, all sorts of nutritional supplements and hydration solutions, the Raramuris have nothing. And they are so shy that at the aid stations, volunteers have to hand them water, almost forcing them to take a bottle.

But they run like hell, no matter the age or sex!
And they love hills.

Caballo Blanco runners
Excitement before the start
The race starts at 6am, with just enough light to see where you are going. It is warm enough to wear just a t-shirt and if the first big climb ahead didn’t warm me up, in a couple of hours it will be certainly stinky hot.
My race goal is to finish in around 8 hours, a tough target given the course and hot temperature. My strategy is to push (without overdoing it) for the first half, and then hang on! For nutrition, I plan to have one gel every 10km. I also have a couple of bars. I wear a hydration pack only to carry stuff as I will pick up water at the aid stations.

I hope that all the spicy food and beans won’t force me to have too many toilet stops, especially after the last couple of days where I had several meals of them.

Terence and I start in the first 25% of the pack, with around 150-200 people in front of us. Lidia has decided to run the first loop and possibly some of the second, starts near the back of the pack.
We start off pretty quick and maintain the pace on the first hill. It’s a bit crowded and difficult to overtake. At the second hill, some Raramuris take a shortcut trail to climb up, apparently they are “allowed” to do that while everybody else needs to follow the course… mmmmmhh.
After 5km or so, Terence picks up the pace while I keep on mine. I don’t wear a heart rate monitor but I can feel my heart pumping, probably around 170bpm.
I run all the hills up to Guadalupe and collect my first bracelet. On the way down I get some serious speed, low 4mins/km. I try to keep up with a couple of Raramuris who seem to let the legs “flow” down the hill. I get to the bridge in 1:06, perfect time.

I have no idea what to expect on the second loop, I only know that it has a single track section. My heart rate is still pretty high and I’m wondering if I am not pushing too hard. Will I pay for this later? I continue on and I overtake a few Raramuris. Some of them are way past their pension age, I am impressed that they ran the first section so fast.

We get to the single track and I start walking, it’s too rocky and steep. Not for the Raramuris. They sprint – literally – up the trail. I’m shocked. My heart rate is almost red light, I’m breathing hard and these guys go up like a breeze. Even an old guy in his fifties or sixties, keeps overtaking me on the hills. I get him on the flat bits but I stand no chance on the hills. Surely, they may know the course and be used to the terrain but I am mostly impressed by the “lightness” of their running style.

The single trail never seems to stop. I am over sweating and I start to reconsider my target time. I have obviously underestimated the course and been too positive on my running capabilities. As these thoughts come to mind, I look at my forearms. This morning before leaving, on one I wrote “Believe. Focus.” And on the other “Strong”. I get my focus back.

Finally the single track finishes and there is a long stretch of downhill. The terrain is rocky and as soon I start to speed up, I have a too well known feeling on my right big toe. It is very tender: a big blister is forming. A couple of kms down, there is no doubt. I have a big blister and it has probably exploded already. But I can’t slow down too much; I just need to ignore the pain. I will have to stop in Urique and tape it. I can’t run another 55km on it.

On the way down, I meet Lidia again coming up the opposite direction. She has decided to run past the first loop. She is 4 months pregnant but you can’t stop her once she has decided she wants to do something. I only hope she listens to my advice to turn around and avoid the very hard single trail.

The stretch back to Urique is pretty flat and I get some good speed. I am running 4:20s and 4:30s. I pass the town centre at 30km in just under 3 hours, and I hear the speaker saying that I’m in 32nd position. Sweet.

I keep up the fast pace on the long 8.5km stretch before the big hike up to Los Alisos. It’s mostly flattish with few shorts inclines. This stretch is in the open, at the bottom of the canyon. There is no shade to speak of. The temperature is quickly rising and by the time I will be running the same stretch back, it will be very hot.

I hiked the “Los Alisos” on Thursday and I am worried. It’s a long and very steep hike with very few runnable sections (or runnable for me). I take a gel just before the hike and get in the zone. Once again, some Raramuris seem to enjoy the challenge. They run up the hills and I catch them when it flattens enough for the rest of us to jog.

Tarahumara in action

Half way up, the race leader appears, running like a maniac in the opposite direction. He is Raramuri (no surprise) and behind him no one. 7 minutes later another Raramuri, and 5 minutes later another one. The first “gringo” is 5th.
The temperature is rising and I start to overheat. I keep looking at my forearms for comfort and to gain focus. When I’m 15 minutes from the top, I meet Terence coming down. We talk for few seconds and he tells me that he has hit the wall big time on the climb but he is ok now.
Oh shit.

I get to the top and I take a couple of minutes to rest before taking a deep breath and start the crazy descent. The terrain is soft so you need to be fast on your feet, the trail has barely space for two people so you need to call out to people to move if you don’t want to end up down in the valley in the poppy fields.

From the excitement to pass Urique, I forgot to stop and tape my big toe. I can now feel pain on the top, another blister possibly. Oh well.

There are a few hills on the way down too and I cannot run them anymore. My “strong” message on my forearm is fading from sweating like the “strong” in my legs. My heart is still working hard, even when I walk the flats.

Eventually, I get down to the bottom of the canyon, cross the suspending bridge on the river and get ready for the 8.5km back. It’s 11:15 and the sun starts to burn.
The run back is painful, I need to walk even the slightest incline. I have to force myself to run the flats too. My pace has dropped significantly. The only good thing is that I meet a lot of people I know that are running in the opposite direction, so I get to say “Hi” and exchange encouraging cheers.

At the edge of town I find myself again, I manage to focus on my running form, clear my head and pick up speed. As I approach the town centre, Lidia runs towards me with the most beautiful and comforting smile. All the fatigue disappears for an instant. She says 2 magic words, fresh coca cola and potatoes with salt. She has prepared an aid station for me. I drop off my backpack as I won’t carry it anymore, I eat a slice of potato and I wash it down with coca cola. But that’s all I can eat. I wobble a little and Lidia cools me off with chilled water on my head. I grab a bottle of water and I leave. It’s 12:06, I am 6 minutes behind my target time and I have 16km to go. I may still be able to do 8 hours but that means running the hills. Mmmmhhh.

The couple of minutes with Lidia picked me up, mentally and physically. I take off at under 6mins/km. I get to the bridge pretty comfortably but as the first climb approaches my legs stop responding. I am back walking again. Damn.
Every time the trail flattens a little, I attempt a run, sometimes I manage to break through and continue; other times I aim for a big rock a short distance away and the one after.

I see in the distance the profile of Richard, a runner I met on Thursday that overtook me in the first loop. I focus on him. My new challenge is to reach him. He is a fair bit on distance but I believe I can get him. This new challenge seems to wake up my legs slowly, they hurt but they are now running/walking with purpose.

I start to push and overtake a few runners, Mexicans mostly. At 10-15 minutes from the top, I meet Terence again on his way down. We stop a second and he tells me that he is cramping up, but he is still looking strong. I feel lucky, I am overheating and I’m tired but beside a blister, my body is ok.

I gain ground rapidly on Richard, and I catch up with him on the last climb before the church. We chat for a couple of minutes and I push on to reach the church ahead. Mission accomplished and my confidence gets a boost. A quick look at the watch and now not only I believe I can possibly go under 8 hours, but also catch up with the next target, Nick from the Inov-8 team.

I start the downhill at full speed. I try to relax as much as possible and feel the downhill like I did in the morning. At every step my toe screams but it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m light and feel good, until the first hill. Damn, I need to walk again.

10 minutes down the hill, I hear Richard’s voice. “Hey Luca, we can go under 8 hours. I would much rather finish in 7:59 than 8:01. We just need to push these little hills”. I am disappointed that Richard caught up with me so quickly. Am I fading? But I couldn’t agree more with his comment. So we team up and push on; we don’t run side by side but we motivate each other running at a close distance.

We run most of the up-hills, as slow and as painful they may be. And we let the legs roll on the downs.
When we get to the bridge we check our watches. We have 2.5 km to go and we have 19 minutes. We can do it.
We also caught Nick who also wants to finish in under 8 hours. So we start off together.

Richard and I pick up the pace quite considerably and we drop Nick. We run side by side now and we are rolling.
At 1 km from the finish line Richard says “You are not going to sprint me at the end, are you?” I reply “Well, we must put on a show, we need to finish with a sprint!” “Ok then” Richard says.
We pick up the speed and at 500 meters to the finish chute I take off in full sprint.
There are people on the road, everywhere. There are kids playing and all of the sudden, one kid runs backward without watching and I don’t get the time to swerve or shout. Boom!
I hit him and fall to the ground, arm and elbow first. I look at my arm and there is a long scratch and blood starts to come out. But I hear Richard catching up, so I get up and start sprinting again.

I open my arms and shout “Arriba Arriba Arriba!” as I reach the finish line in 7:52 min. I place 21st overall, a great result.

What a magnificent day, a stunning and challenging course, surrounded by inspiring people and strong natural runners.

The first 6 runners were Raramuris and local Mexicans with a winning time of 6h:38min.

Terence placed 16th in an amazing 7:35
Lidia, ended up running 23km ! Carrying the youngest ever Mas Loco runner!

Lidia & Luca CCUM

– – – –
Unfortunately Terence has picked up an injury. His ITB is inflamed to the point he finds it hard to walk.
I’m still hopeful on a miraculous recovery but if he is not 100%, we will have to postpone the Grand Canyon adventure.
It’s not a run you can do if you are injured. It will be too dangerous. You cannot risk getting stuck in the Canyon.
For the same reasons, I won’t be doing this run on my own, especially in these weather conditions and without having really planned out all the details.
As I said, I am still hopeful we can at least do a descent/ascent but it seems unlikely at this point.

My arm and hand are swollen and bruised. My glute too. How funny… I had 80km of trails and challenging terrain to take a fall, and I fell on the road 300 meters from the finish!

– – – – –

#CCUM2014 Caballo Blanco Ultra Marathon Mexico

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