Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Copper Canyon Ultramarathon Race Report/Travel Report

"While they are at war we came together at the bottom of a deep canyon in the middle of no-where; no-where but beauty, to create Peace and Run Free! What more is there?" - Caballo Blanco

Where do I begin? It's virtually impossible to list all my fantastic experiences down in the Canyons, but I'll try my best. The Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon and the days leading up to it were some of the most amazing days of my life. It is everything I thought it would be, and more. The people I met were all so amazing, and I'm missing them so much right now!

We flew out of Cleveland early Saturday morning February 28th. Crystal and I stayed in El Paso for one night before our adventure really began. I placed my last phone calls to my husband, son, and to my coach Ray Z - who made sure his last words to me were: "Remember this is just a training run!" No problemo, as I was really looking forward to seeing all I could see, and just experience as much as I possibly could. Sunday morning we woke up and met some other runners. We would be spending 2 days in a van with our new friends.

Doug "Diego" Rhodes owner of Paraiso del Oso Lodge drove us the whole way acting as tour guide, translator, and most importantly - friend!

Dougs place:

Day one in the van took us through Juarez, which we soon found out the media has overblown the situation down there quite a bit. We exchanged money at a changing house down there and stopped at the local Costco and went about our merry way. We made a few stops for food, one to visit a church, and stopped for visa business.

Night was spent in Cuatemoc, at a pretty cute little hotel - and for $40 a night, which came down to $20 each for Crystal and I. You really couldn't beat it! In the morning we headed out for our last day in the van until after the race. Everyone got to know each other in these two days and I really think I made the right decision taking the van down. Just the simple fact that we got to know some really great people made it all worth it. I'll never forget any of them! (I also won't forget Ted and Leah's dark chocolate covered Acai berries, Bookis' fresh pineapple, or Ravi's dark chocolate covered espresso beans!)Finally we arrived at our destination, Paraiso lodge, and met some other runners that had come down for the race. We had welcoming margaritas and great food.

The day after our arrival was a great day. A group of us set out on a hike to the top of the bear:

After the hike many of us visited a local boarding school. We brought bubbles and balls for the kids, and had an absolute blast playing with them all! While most of us couldn't speak their language a smile can speak volumes!

After the school visit we walked around the tiny town for a bit, and found a volleyball net. We pulled out a soccer ball and started a makeshift volleyball game. It didn't take long for some kids to came over, and we invited anyone who came over. Again, it was absolutely incredible and so much fun! I have to say again, while in terms of spoken language we were not communicating, but were communicating through laughter and smiles. Absolutely amazing!

All runners woke up early to hike as a group down 18 miles down to Urique. We would call Urique home until our departure.

The scenery was beautiful, the temps were warm, and I while I was missing my men I was definitely not missing Ohio's weather!

This was also where reality set in a bit for me. After my 100 miler I didn't rest much. Things hurt, but I was trying to convince myself that I was good. I had tried to pick up the speed before I left for Mexico, but every time I did my knee would ache, my right hamstring would have incredible pain...but I tried to ignore it. After the hike the day before and hiking to Urique my body was even more tired than before, and in more pain. But, I didn't let it get to me , just kept on remembering what Ray had said "just a training run", and kept telling myself why I was really here - to experience the culture of The Tarahumara (Raramuri) people, the uniqueness of the land (coming from Ohio - ya know?), and the beauty of 200 + people coming together as one (Kuria - ba, we are one).

Finally we arrived in Urique at our new home, Keith's place - Entres Amigos. Entres is a hostel, hotel, and camping facility on the edge of town. It ran about $40 a night and is a beautiful place. Keith is one of the friendliest guys you will ever meet.

There was a huge garden at Entres that was available to all people staying there. It was nice to just walk up, pick what you wanted for dinner and there you have it! I did have to make the "must eat" stop: Grandma's Tita's in town:

Tita's served as the meeting place for runners before hikes as well as an informational meetings having to do with the race or hikes. I also made a torta stop, but other than that my food was eaten at Keith's place. Friends Jess and Suman made some awesome dinners that we shared.

There were some optional hikes on the race course that we did before the race. More beautiful scenery, and all worries about my directionally challenged self completely dissapated. There's really only one way you can go. I can't even screw that one up!

Some Mexican nationals and local runners from Urique came with us for one of the hikes - including one who was 14 years old. Taylor is on the right:

We hung out together for most of the hike, and he seemed like a great kid. We raced down the hills, just having a ton of fun. I destroyed my knees even further doing so, but wouldn't change a thing. We did try to communicate a bit as I do know a few words in Spanish, and he knew a few words in English. The discussions actually weren't half bad!

Friday in Urique called for one last hike, which Crystal and I chose not to do. I thought long and hard about this one, but ultimately I was toast. I do regret the decision now, however. (Maybe next time!)

Saturday was a day of rest for all runners. Today was our day for huraches. Americano Ray Molina brought a load of tires down for the Tarahumara to make huraches out of.

We helped make our huraches alongside the Tarahumara, which was an incredible experience.

This Raramuri man helped me make mine, and he was the nicest person!

Later on in the evening the pre race ceremonies were held.

The little town of Urique went all out for us runners. The night before the race there was a big pre race ceremony right in the center of town. It was incredible being there, it felt like a sort of miniature Olympic games pre race ceremony. All groups there had poster boards with their country's name written on it. There were all kinds of performances. We got our race shirts during the festivites as well. The shirts were white with the race logo on it, as well as our own personal race number. After hanging around and watching the performers for a bit, we went back home to Keith's place to get some sleep. Race day was coming fast!!!


Finally it was here! There were many hugs this morning, and I made a point to try and wish as many Tarahumara women good luck as I could. (My good luck was telling them hello, in their language - and shaking hands Raramuri style).

The race consisted of three loops. Loop 1 was 18 miles, Loop 2 was 22 miles, and Loop 3was 10 miles. I have never seen hills this big, this rocky ever in my life. It was hot out, the temps got to 99 degrees farenheit - but that really didn't bother me. What killed me were the hills. There were a few people (the ones who've done races such as Leadville) who thought the course wasn't all that hilly. But let me tell ya - coming from flatland Ohio the hills seemed monstrous to me. Laurel Highlands in P.A.? Doesn't even compare. Those have been the biggest "hills" I've seen so far. WOW.

Loop #1
While in a bit of pain already the first 9 miles went pretty well for me. Then the first climb began. It was rough, but not as bad as I thought it would be at that point. This is where the 2nd place female, Japanese runner Hiroko Suzuki really took off. We left the bridge aid station together and I watched her go up the hill like a rocket. Incredible!

Loop #2
This is what this loop felt like. The uphill seemed to last forever. On the first loop I was pretty far ahead of Caballo. Then in my slow climb up the hills on this loop I heard someone call his name. I stopped right there in my tracks and thought "No way in hell. NO WAY!" I didn't see anyone coming, so I thought I was hearing things, and kept on. But sure enough, there he comes smiling and bouncing up the hills with Patrick McGee close behind him. All I could think at that point was WTF!! Caballo just smiled as he ran past and shouted "I never said this would be easy!" I was overwhelmed then, thinking about how much I must've slowed down. For the first time ever in a race I started thinking long and hard about quitting. I thought I didn't belong out there, on these hills - what was I thinking?! So many people were there, with tons more experience on hills, an- d I thought I didn't deserve to be there. After awhile I ran into another Americano and we chatted for a while - and that helped a little bit. We both got to the aid station and I threw myself into a chair and did not want to get back up. We both sat there, exhausted, in disbelief. I spent the longest time at this aid station. It was the longest time spent at an aidstation out of all my races. I kept on wondering if I should throw in the towel. But, pride got to me and I got back up. I've said so many times that the only way I'd leave a race course if I got taken off by life flight. I saw Ravi coming into the aid station just then, and yelled "What the hell is this shit!!" And then kept on going. Hills. They are called hills. I saw a mule on the way back and it turned it's butt towards me. I stopped on the trail so it wouldn't kick me, but secretly I was really wishing the thing would take me out so I could have an excuse to stop! lol! It did not, of course - so I had to keep goin'!

My speciality USED to be downhills. Before the race I thought, ok. - so there are uphills, but what goes up must come down, and down fast. ERROR. My legs were so fried that I could barely run the downhills anymore. NOT RUN THE DOWNHILLS?! I definitely couldn't go down them pain free - walking or running. At some point going downhill on the second loop I saw runner friend Jess sitting under a tree. I stopped, sat down as well and we didn't say too much. Just sat there with bewildered looks on our faces, just thinking OHMYGOD. After a couple minutes I got up again and just kept moving. Then hello Death March. And hello mile 40.

I got to the Plaza restraunt, mile 40. Nick and Jamil Coury were there (already finished!!!) And helped me with my stuff, water, fuel, etc. and I was so glad for their help. I headed out for my last 10 miles - the longest 10 miles of my life. I passed over the bridge, and whaddya know! Mr Patrick McGee was coming up from the river after taking a dip in it to cool off. From this point forward we stuck together, and I was so grateful. It seemed to take forever to get to the turnaround point. However when we did, my mood was elevated a bit. Only 5 more miles to go! YES!!!! We continued our death march and kept waiting to see the bridge. And waiting. And waiting. FINALLY we saw it. VICTORY!! Almost. Patrick and I gave each other high fives and were all smiles. Then our next goal: Get to Keith's place. UGH it seemed so far away! (It didn't seem that far away at the beginning of the race!) But finally we made it. And that meant we were almost to town, almost to the finish. We decided to run when the dirt road ended. We picked it up a bit and ran all the way to the finish line, the townspeople cheering us on. The hardest race of my life had just ended, and I was fifth woman, but overall pretty low on the totem pole. What a great feeling it was to be finished though! We stayed in town to celebrate for awhile, my friend Crystal came in at third woman overall so we got to see her get presented with her awards, and also give it away - as is customary for this race. Headed back to Keith's place, we sat around and chatted for awhile then attempted to crash. As after every race, I cannot sleep at night. It seemed everyone was the same way as all night long I heard movement, people waking up, going into the kitchen, using the bathroom, etc. I just laid there - smiling, and sometimes let out a laugh. Runners ;-)

The day following the race all those who were going in Diego's van (and those who were leaving on the bus out) met up at Grandma Tita's. I was anxious as I had come into contact quite a few times with a young female Raramuri runner and wanted to give her my winnings. I didn't know her name, just her face. During the race we crossed paths often, smiling - and she even spoke a few words to me in English. Her smile is what I remember most though. I had thought about her all night, wishing I knew her name so I could tell Caballo who to give my corn to. As luck had it - just before we left there she was, walking down the street. Limping, I am assuming she somehow got hurt in the race. I ran over and stopped her, then grabbed Caballo - who gave her the corn voucher. It was the perfect ending to a perfect experience. I couldn't have asked for anything more, and was so excited I found her! Then, off we went - us in our merry van. We wound up taking some Tarahumara runners with us, so they didn't have to make as big of a hike home as they would have. Nacho was one of them:

Jim, myself, Nacho and his Tarahumara friend all sat in the back seat. They enjoyed my gum, but not the music on my mp3 player! Nacho just listened for a bit and shook his head. I don't recall what music I had on the player, but I just laughed. He really enjoyed checking out the pictures I took of our time down in in the Canyons. We said our goodbyes and dropped them off in Creel.

After two days driving to El Paso in the Doug mobile, another overnight stay in El Paso, and another day of flying we were back home in beautiful Cleveland:

Oh well. At least my men are here!!!

One of the biggest things I got from this experience was during the race, even though we did not speak the same language - we understood each other. We would smile and understand each other. We would roll our eyes, and understand each other. We would look at each other blankly, exhausted - and understand each other. We were all so emotionally connected. We rejoiced together, felt pain together, pushed on together. This I will take with me forever.

Happy Running Friends!