“Over the previous few years, Vigil had become convinced that the next leap forward in human endurance would come from a dimension he dreaded getting into: character. Not the “character” other coaches were always rah-rah-rah-ing about; Vigil wasn’t talking about “grit” or “hunger” or “the size of the fight in the dog.” In fact, he meant the exact opposite. Vigil’s notion of character wasn’t toughness. It was compassion. Kindness. Love.”
- Christopher McDougall on Dr. Joe Vigil, Fourteen time College National Coach of the Year and distance coach for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, in McDougall’s book, Born to Run.
I’d been deliberating for about a week on this post. The frenzied activity of the height of summer season in Taos had one busy as a bee with activity as a variety of subjects presented themselves. However, nothing seemed to stick, and for one reason or another, all topics washed away in the late summer rains, leaving me anxious about what I was going to write about.
Then, on a busy Monday late-afternoon in Cid’s Market, I ran across what I interpreted as a sign. Next to the bulk foods dispensers, I spied a kelly-green t-shirt with the name “Caballo Blanco” emblazoned across the front in glossy white lettering. On the back was the image of a lone runner in mid-stride, executed in the same white, who I immediately recognized as Caballo Blanco, the American expatriate living with the Tarahumara Indians deep in Mexico’s Copper Canyon.
Turns out, the owner of the shirt was a videographer who had recently been at the 50-mile endurance run hosted by Caballo Blanco in tiny Urique, Mexico. She and I had a brief chat about her experience down there and after a couple minutes of light conversation, we succumbed to the business of the Market and went our separate ways. Ironically, I’d been recently thinking of how I could incorporate my desire to write about my practice of “barefoot running” in the Edible world. There was so much to say… in fact, I quickly came to the realization that what could be presented was only a fraction of what’s truly there.
After all… the lines of the story intersected with those of my own life, creating a tangled web that reaches into the past and manifests in the present, crossing historical borders, both real, and imagined. The backdrop to this inexplicable tale is the American Southwest, more specifically El Camino Real, the ancient road connecting Mexico City with the Pueblo and Anasazi culture of North America, a place referred to in some circles as Aztlan.
“Running was something the elders used to preach to us, saying, “anytime you go somewhere on foot, you should try to run. It is a big part of our life. Even when you are old, as long as you can race or trot, at whatever pace, it makes you feel younger.”
Hopi runner Bruce Talawema in Peter Nabokov’s book, Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition
In 2011, one was fortunate enough to be living on the golden-grey shores of Santa Cruz, California. Although at a crossroads professionally, the proximity of the Pacific Ocean on one hand, and the cool, Redwood-forested Mountains on the other, provided ample opportunity to re-charge one’s body and soul after a long period of demanding Restaurant work. Although my Wife and I felt the pinch of the floundering economy, we decided to put our energy into the faith that our ability and prayers would see us through, and slogged through a year of penny-pinching and creative financing.
One particularly lazy fall afternoon, I was meandering through the bookshops of downtown Ocean Avenue for inspiration, when the photo of a lone runner on a craggy outcropping of arid desert set against a deep-azure sky adorning the dustcover in the “New Release” section leapt out at me.
The book was called Born To Run, and aside from my initial thought that, personally, I’d change the title to avoid any confusion with Bruce Springsteen’s song of the same name… I found myself immediately engrossed in the story of Caballo Blanco and the “barefoot revolution” currently afoot (no pun intended) in contemporary running.
The book’s author, Christopher MacDougall, begins his story deep in Copper Canyon, in search of the elusive Caballo Blanco, a.k.a. Micah True, an ex-boxer and free-spirit that journeyed down among the Tarahumara some years previous and transformed his aging body into a 50-mile plus-machine in nothing more than a pair of sandals. He studied the Tarahumara stride and made it his own, subsisting on some of America’s nutritious and ancient staples: Chia seeds, beans, tortillas, limes.
But more than any miles logged, or meals eaten, Caballo Blanco saw the Art of running inherent in the Tarahumara way, over time realizing it’s based on a particular way of seeing things. The breathing involved during the act a sort of prayer in an ancient ritual that is so ingrained into the culture of the Southwest, née, Aztlan, it still exists in its ceremonial calendar. From this viewpoint, running is not work. Nor is it meant to hurt. It’s a celebration of the ancient right of all humans – the ability to move forward over long distances, to outrun our prey so that we might eat. To breathe the sacred wind into our bodies and recognize the true nature of our landscape, seeing the spirit inherent there.
India gave us Yoga, China and the Far East, tai-chi and the martial arts, but America’s contribution to the practice of bringing mind and body together is running. It’s a practice at least as ancient as those of the East, and yet, ironically, it’s been hidden from the majority of Americans, due to its association with closely guarded Pueblo, Navajo and Apache ceremonialism.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century Settlers to the American Southwest were oftentimes amazed by the long-distance feats of the native Pueblo and Tribal runners they witnessed. However, they failed to grasp the roots of the tradition, choosing instead to marvel at the anomalous nature of the act – chalking it up to entertainment of some sort.
All this changed on the afternoon of April 20, 1912, when a young Hopi Runner burst onto the scene at the Los Angeles Times Modified Marathon, an event that was a West Coast qualifier for the Stockholm Olympics. Phillip Zeyouma, a Hopi High School Student from the newly-formed Sherman Institute, an off -reservation Indian boarding school in Riverside, California stunned the crowd of fifteen-thousand people who had gathered to watch the 151 contestants race the twelve-mile course.
Had the crowd been aware of the venerable place running had in Zeyouma’s Hopi upbringing, his victory would have been expected. But as the American audience was unaware of such tradition, his victory came as somewhat of a shock. Nowhere near the shock, though, when he announced he would not be attending the Olympic games at his Father’s behest.
What some saw as a historic opportunity, Zeyouma’s Father saw as a gesture not worth the risk. Perhaps he was still weary of the outside world from losing a son and grandchild to a recent influenza epidemic. Perhaps he thought it strange to send his son to represent a country he felt he wasn’t a part of. For whatever reason, Zeyouma stayed home to continue to race at Sherman, his place taken by another Hopi from the Carlisle Indian School on the East Coast, Lewis Tewanima.
Tewanima won Silver in the 10,000 meters, and, in fact had recently participated in the 1908 Olympic games in London, where he quietly finished ninth in the Marathon. They were the media darlings of the moment, their accomplishments bringing national attention to the Southwest and its running-driven culture.
But, as usual, the story in the press was only a fraction of the truth. While the young athletes no doubt brought pride to the Hopi nation, the Hopi in general stayed weary of acclaim of this sort. Culturally, it went against the traditional mind-set for running, placing the emphasis on the result rather than the act. The Hopi knew that the boys were mediocre runners compared to the runners that remained home to run in anonymity.
In a clash of the worlds, Zeyouma and Tewanima met at Hopi in September of 1912 to race against one another; Zeyouma wore his Sherman track outfit, Tewanima his Carlisle.
A crowd gathered to watch them square off with one another and took the opportunity to tease them for their Western outfits, saying they didn’t look like Hopi runners at all. Zeyouma replied, “If you don’t like our looks get in, and show what you can do. ” The men who were taunting them – all much older – eagerly accepted the challenge and entered the race with what they were wearing. Six miles into the race, the older men had left the boys in the dust and the two eventually dropped out to watch the older and swifter barefoot runners in the lead disappear. The winner of the race was about fifty years old it is said, and “looked as if he was dying of consumption.”
Slip, Slidin’ Away: San Lorenzo and a Pole Too High
It’s a glorious summer morning as I head out on County Rd. 110, heading toward the Rio Pueblo and its deep canyon for my run. The eight-mile round trip has become a staple, allowing me to walk out my front door and across the open Chamisa plain to the old road that traditionally has been used to connect Taos to the other pueblos from the Southwest. As I head out, Canjilon Peak – sacred to the Tewa Pueblos between Taos and Santa Fe – looms large in the distance. I concentrate on the saddle of the peak and soon, to the right, Pedernal Peak, Georgia O’Keefe’s muse, appears on the blue-ish horizon.
I know the stories associated with these Mountains, the spirits that reside there witness to eons of runners before me. My breath joins theirs in a unified prayer that the mountains stoically accept, giving peace of mind back to the lone runner. It occurs to me the modern runner is blessed to be among the sacred land of the Pueblos, for there are the constant reminders of the ancient stories, the history of this geographical region that’s ingrained onto their distinct features, old, old…old.
The Native American running style has one landing on the balls of the foot, rather than the heel. The back must stay completely erect, making sure to breathe from the stomach, the head can be slightly tilted back. The mountain reminds me of this posture as my mind begins to wander out in the middle miles, until I realize I’m feeling sluggish and heavy, not light and spry.
Pueblo Peak stands fully erect, its head in the clouds, reminding me that I, too must be this way. The Navajo sandpainting also reminds one through the elongated neck and bodies of its subjects, signifying not only an ascension of breath though deep belly, to top of head, and out to the air, but also through the Emergence story into this and the successive worlds. The breath acquired in running joining the breath of the ancestors in the stratosphere of our collective memory, making the spirits accessible to us – should we choose to entertain them through our mind’s eye.
The Rio Pueblo is stunning at this time of day. Looking down into its deep crevasse, and out to the confluence of the Rio Grande, I’m always amazed by its beauty. And yet, I’m always appalled at the modern treatment of this place. Recently strewn trash and a few random gallons of paint have been carelessly thrown out, the paint scarring the rock its landed upon. A derelict mini-stereo, broken and missing a cassette door litters the path. I go around it and look over to my right into the deep gorge where a series of rusted out automobiles and washers and dryers sit rusting in the elements, now part of the landscape. I realize I’ve gone far enough for the day and turn home. It’s getting late and I intend to make the drive into the mountains to the East through Peñasco, to the other Tiwa Pueblo, Picurís, for their annual Pole Climb and celebration.
The Pole climb is seen as analogous to our struggle to be human, to subsist and survive in a world that is alive and kicking, manifest in the moment. The Pole Climbers are the Koshare, or Chiffonetas, the Clowns, painted in black and white stripes and naked, save a breech cloth, some ceremonial items hanging from a belt and their twin-peaked Papal-looking hats.
They regard nothing as sacred and ceaselessly tease the crowds that gather to watch them attempt to climb the forty-foot pole lodged in the middle of the dance plaza. Southwestern Author Frank Waters writes about his experience at Picurís’ Pole Climb in his 1950 book, Masked Gods, saying:
“Now they get down to business: to shimmy up the pole after the squash, the flour sack of bread and beans, and the sheep before it is eaten up by the flies. One after another wraps his arms about it, lays his daubed cheek against the smooth pine, and heaves up mightily with strong bare legs. Thigh muscles stand out, corded in the sunlight. Faces drip sweat. The moccasined feet scrape and squeak on the shiny wood. And each in turn slips down, leaving a smear of grey paint to mark his three-foot rise. They gather in a group, arch backs and boost a climber from their hips to shoulders. Their hands under his heaving buttocks, he goes up another foot or two, hangs panting, and then limply slides back down. Defeated, the four stand ludicrously disconsolate at the bottom of the pole, rubbing sweaty hands on slimy thighs. No longer fun-makers, the jeering Chiffonetas. No longer hunters intensely aware. Just four thwarted men that can’t get up a pole.”
Ironically, his words resonate in the present day, as the koshare of 2013 find themselves in the same pickle. The air grows thick with worry. The prize of slaughtered sheep, watermelon and brightly colored fabric-wrapped goods stares down from high up down on the koshare heavily.
They must reach the top. And yet, they are all spent. Out of nowhere a ladder appears. Now they get down to business. Perhaps they will make it after all. The ladder gets them a little over half-way up, and from there a younger koshare rises with somewhat ease to the shrieks of joy from the crowd. And then another climbs, at the top they give each other a double-high-five and let loose a whoop of joy. The crowd erupts with applause, with the help of the ladder, it is done.
And so the Pueblo that was counted in Coronado’s original report in 1540, and is still one of the only intact and occupied since then, lives another year. It’s been a tough century for Picurís. Neighboring Peñasco is downtrodden and terrorized by drug-dealers and sycophants from the cartels that have run black tar heroin out of this dark valley since the 50’s. Poverty lines the main drive. There is no “quaintness” here for the meandering tourist, no place to stop and appreciate the dual vista of Jicarita and Truchas Peaks, the masculine and feminine sacred mountains that frame this beautiful and dangerous land.
Waters’ account of Picurís in the 50’s doesn’t mince words. When speaking of the place, he writes, “But it is the dead, oppressive silence one feels at first. It eddies up as if from an open grave. And one knows, instantly and instinctively, that the catastrophe has struck. And now Picurís and its people are dead, dead, dead.”
It had been twelve years since I’d seen Picurís, and I hoped that it had prospered somewhat in that time. Knowing Waters perspective and comparing that with my own experience, I was prepared for the worst. But the day was mercifully overcast and full of a cool breeze on a previously muggy Summer day.
The Church at Picurís was well-manicured and its doors open to visitors. A beautiful pulpit had been artfully decorated with large frescoes executed on wood in the New Mexican style. The trees in the bosque (forest) leading up to and embracing the Pueblo were bright green and full against the silver-grey sky.
But as I meander about the plaza among a crowd of Hispano locals, Taos Pueblo Tiwa, the sundry Anglo tourist and the local Picurís, I can’t help but feel there’s a sense of hopefulness as I look into the faces of the youth to see who looks slim and strong. Who will run Picurís into the future? This August 10th is the 333rd Anniversary of the Pueblo Revolt – the only successful revolt in U.S. history – runners from Taos set out to spread the details to the other Pueblos, all the way out to Hopi, their marathon rife with as much significance than that of their Greek counterparts. Their message equally as life or death. And, so… as I walk around I’m thinking to myself, who of these could today make the run?
Barefoot Ted and his Huarache Revolution
Although Caballo Blanco is the central character in Mc Dougall’s Born To Run, it’s the character of Barefoot Ted that’s managed to transform the attention from the book into a viable career, and quite possibly, a revolution. Although Mc Dougall’s portrayal of him is less-than flattering, oftentimes euphemistically describing him as “talkative,” and openly quoting the other character’s (particularly Caballo Blanco’s) dislike of him, Barefoot Ted has somehow emerged as an improbable hero.
He conferred with Manuel Luna, a respected Tarahumara runner who had recently had a son slain, probably by local drug runners, using his interest in creating his own pair of Tarahumara sandals as a point for involving Manuel in the process, allowing him to submerge his thoughts in the work for a while and “help out” the talkative gringo from El Norte. The two bonded over the work and the experience became Luna sandals. I first read about them about six months ago, when I had been running in Vibram’s minimalist Five Fingers
I had already felt the freedom from the traditional running shoe and the ensuing miles have been pain and injury free. I was lighter from a healthier diet and took that part of my training seriously, as its rather important to make sure that your body gets proper nutrition and rest.
The sandals are like running on air. I’ve been running in mine for several months now and am almost giddy with anticipation as I slip them on. I knew when I picked up Born To Run several years ago, that I had come across a story that would have far-reaching implications. The book led to other texts that confirmed that the story of running in America is as old as its people. In a way, nothing’s changed, the sky still looks down on the lone runner as it has for centuries. Only the faces change. The stride from generation to generation shortens and then lengthens, footwear may change, but the heart of America will always want to run, to feel Father Sun overhead and breathe the sacred wind.