Mar 03 2015

Caballo Blanco Copper Canyon Ultra – cancelled for drug wars, confusion, ran 50km, rescued man attacked by 200 bees

Finish Copper Canyon 50km

The 2015 Copper Canyon Caballo Blanco 80km race in Urique, Mexico was cancelled a few hours before starting, due to drug wars in other villages in the canyon just 4-5 miles from the start line. After the government sent hundreds of armed military troops down, some / very few of us ran an alternate course – I did not realize at the time the dynamics of who was putting on the alternate race, and who was running it. During the event, another  Manuello Beerunner (Antonio) and I came upon our group driver (Manuello) who'd been stung 200 times by bees – he was in anaphylactic shock – we spent 90 minutes to 2 hours stabilizing him, carrying him off the mountain trail and transporting him to an ambulance. Still I ran 50km / 31 miles for the day.  .   IMG_1956

RaramuriI was one of only a couple dozen foreigners to run the alternate course this year as most evacuated out of the canyon after announcements of cancelation. As a writer and photographer, I carry my cameras everywhere, and document what is going on around me.  I like to capture the "rawness" of what is occuring without editing.


The Copper Canyon race has attained ultramarathon running legend status as a must run event on any ultrarunner’s bucket list over the past decade.  Race founder Micah True – Caballo Blanco started the race in 2003 as a way to help the indigenous Tarahumara, or Raramuri, running people deep in the canyons.  The Raramari run in scrap rubber sandals, seem to have super human strengths as they can often times run a hundred miles at a time without injury on mountainous terrain.   After Micah’s passing in 2012, the race has continued to bring ultrarunners from across the globe to participate with this race.  I only ran this race after getting hooked up with a deep discount into the race entry fee, and having a local connection in Chihuahua to help me with logistics and getting to the race.  

Return RunnersHaving just run a 100 mile race just 2 weeks prior, I knew the race would be more about the experience then trying to race 50 miles on tired legs. It took two days to reach the deep canyon from Colorado.  The night I flew into Chihuahua, I was treated to a hospitable local runner’s couch – Manuello – before heading out the next morning for the day long drive.  Friday morning a total of nine of us runners met at a park in Chihuahua, loaded into the suburban and began our adventure – I being the only non-Spanish speaker!

Double Murder and Drug Violence Lead to Ultramarathon Cancellation

Last weekend's 13th Annual Ultra Caballo Blanco called off in the wake drug-related violence in Urique, Mexico.

Trail Runner Magazine states "On Sunday, most runners evacuated the region.
With the support of local government, a handful of runners—primarily Mexican nationals, Urique locals and Tarahumara runners—remained and ran a modified course on Sunday. Some local media reported on the unsanctioned event, naming Ranulf Sánchez as the winner of the race in a time of 5 hours 46 minutes. With no mention of the drug violence or the race organizers’ official decision to cancel the race, these reports have led to some confusion over the events of the weekend."

Nothing really seemed out of the ordinary until about 4 hours into the drive the other local runners were commenting how the road we were driving on was newly paved – there’s no way the government could pave a road in less then a year and they suspected the drug cartels funded the upgrade.  Out in the middle of nowhere was a sign, “diversiono” pointing to what looked like a bike bath up a nearly 45 degree dirty rocky hill.Road  After finding the road suddenly ended a km later we went back to the diversion, sure enough that small path barely wide enough for a four wheeler was the route being used for two way traffic.  IMG_1885This is where I had my “ah ha” moment, that this time in Mexico wasn’t going to be about the race, it was about the adventure.  It reminded me of my trip to run the Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset 100km ultra in 2010 – the extremeness of it all, the 2days travel to get to the race, etc… and here we were in Mexico all nine runners looking out the suburban windows hoping the cliffs, rocks, and dirt didn’t give way as we drive up and over the hills. We passed a military checkpoint somewhere, and then near 1:00 in the afternoon we got our first glimpse of CrossesCopper Canyon. It would take us two more hours to descend into the canyon to keep the brakes from burning up, and because the “road/dirt path” was so narrow with literal 1000ft cliffs inches from the tires – it was everything I had to breathe normally!

Props go to Manuello for his excellent driving and getting us to Urique safely!  We got keys to our cabins on the opposite side of the river accessible by walking across a 100m cable bridge over the river.  We put our bags down, changed (it was sunny and hot in the canyon!) and Hot bridgeeventually went to go get food back in Urique.  I ate so much food, amazing chips and salsa, some excellent soup that should make professional chefs drool, and had a few drinks.Movie  Later in the evening the town had a big screen set up to show a movie about Caballo Blanco, Running Free and the great stuff about the race he’d started 13 years earlier. It was such a fun atmosphere, eating, seeing people from all over the world.

Native group Urique SunnySaturday was a day of rest, relaxing, chilling out, exploring part of the course getting some much needed sunshine and picking up our registration stuff. We ate big, I and a few others walked up river a couple miles to check out part of the course, and get tan. I enjoyed putting my feet in the river, getting a tan, and continuing my run streak. After going back to the cabins, we started getting word that the race was suddenly canceled and an announcement would be made soon in the city center. 

Sure enough, around 5pm race directors announced due to the violence and local drug cartels battling rival areas down river along part of the course, they could not hold the race.  There were reports of gunfire and grenades by some throughout the weekend – I didn't hear any of it. There was a big tribue to Micah True, and urging everyone to “Run Free” at home, enjoy the experience, that this was not about a race.  They handed out finishing medals.  The atmosphere was pretty somber yet minor confusion, and acceptance of what was happening.   Somber There was a sense of “lostness” while also everyone trying to make the most of the situation and have fun in Urique or maybe there might be some people running in the morning anyway. Sometime around 8 or 9pm there was an announcement about a possible race the next morning (I was not present for the announcement but the information relayed to me), but I still wasn’t sure what was going on.

DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPROSunday morning – because Manuello wouldn’t be driving us out till Monday anyway – they/we decided we’d might as well run the upriver portion of the course, where there was no problems, we could buy water if we needed in the village up river.  At 7am I arrived 2 minutes before the start of the alternate event and it seemed there was excitement and we were off.  I was oblivious to who was actually running, and who was putting on the race.  I originally thought everyone was running, and the race was [a go] for two laps or 42 miles of a modified course.  I’d find out later through my own photographs and later news translations that those of us on the starting line Sunday morning were only 150-200 Tarahumara / Raramuri and by my estimates at most 25 foreign runners. I had no idea on the startline that the race wasn’t sanctioned, I just thought it was just resheduled.  Originally there were 300+ foreigners registered, 500+ Tarahumara. I also found out the race was being organized by the city council with the “protection” of federal military troops.  Had I known more what was going on, maybe wouldn’t have run, but as a runner just ran, happy to [think] the race had been rescheduled.

IMG_1958DCIM100GOPRO IMG_1732 DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPROThe new “race” itself was actually going pretty amazing.  Here we were running with the Tarahumara Indians – just like in the pictures, or documentaries, with their sandals, women in long brightly colored dresses, this might just turn out to be a lot of fun! We all ran to the first village of Guadalupe, the first Tarahumara were extremely fast!  Returning to a bridge at 10 miles we next had a 11 mile loop to do while climbing 2,500ft in the first 4 miles.  There were less and less runners around me, I think many of the Tarahumara stopped running at the bridge, while here I noticed the scarcity of any ‘white people.’ The single track trail was beautiful and all surreal. At about 11 miles, there were two sticks in a trail with a Raramuri pointing to the others to go up a hill/trail across the other side of a dry riverbed. I followed them up this trail that wasn’t a trail at all but more like scrambling up rocks and through the bushes. I was feeling great from the climbing, and passing quite a few Tarahumara. 

Manuello BeeThen I came up on Manuello laying down obviously something wrong with Antonio standing over him and two other women trying to cool him off and give him water.  I initially thought he was overheating because the temperatures were near 100degrees F.  But Antonia told me bees attacked him, and apparently he was allergic!  Didn’t seem like I could do much as I couldn’t speak Spanish, but we all tried calming him down, getting him to respond, and seeing what needed to be done.  Maybe 20 minutes went by, the women left and I think went to tell the aid station that was 15 minute run ahead about the situation.  Antonio later told me to go get some bee sting antidote in the next village or aid station. I ran up ahead, after passing two medical people running back down the trail, I realized I could not effectively translate what I needed to get, and there was no guarantee the aidstation had any epinephrine, it would be more likely with the medical people in their bag, and I would be better used to use my strength to carry Manuello on the stretcher.

DCIM100GOPROManuello Manuello Manuello Manuello Manuello Manuello ManuelloSo I ran back to Manuello getting there the same time the two medical people (late teens?) did. I think they gave him penicillin? But took quite a long time getting him tied to a stretcher.  All the while runners still going by, no one really every stopping.  Finally we tried carrying Manuello but soon realized just the four of us on that technical terrain could not move very quickly, and Manuello probably weighed 180lbs, we weren’t making much progress.  I was still filming clips here and there,  just to document everything, and because that’s what cameras are for! We found a road/path that the medical personnel tried to radio IMG_1956to a tuck to get access to, it seemed like a drug road that wasn’t supposed to be there, it was barbed wired off, and logs crossing the way, but Antonio and I moved them and we moved him under the barbed wire eventually to a pick up truck that was able to get to us.  That in turn drove us up to a waiting “ambulance” high up on the road where the runners were running back down.  Turns out Manuello was also asthmatic and they administered some inhalant to him for the ride back down the mountain.  I saw water in the ambulance and asked for some as both Antonio and I needed some after all that! IMG_1743 IMG_1749

So with Manuello heading down the mountain, Antionio and I decided what the heck we might as well run up to the aid station at the top, get our wrist band for that station, and run the 7 miles back to Urique down the mountain.  When we got to the aid station, we were happy, the race wasn’t really a race, it was just an experience, and we were going to enjoy it all. The scenery was stunning and the day hot (104 at the highest), and I told him my plan originally was to do one and a half laps or 50km, and might as well make an ultramarathon out of it all. Michael Versteeg So that’s what we did. Time wasn’t an issue, we’d already lost 2 hours, and we still seen other runners so we made for a good effort/pace down the mountain. I saw a Raramuri woman leaning against a side bank not doing good at all, gave her my water bottle and Antonio gave her  some food.  A few minutes later she came zooming by!  DCIM100GOPRO

IMG_1903 DCIM100GOPROIt was a total of 20.5 miles to Urique, we ate some potatoes, oranges, and bananas, and headed back out for the last 10.5 miles. I was suffering from the heat ,nothing bad, but just moving very slow.  I moved slow for about 4 miles, Antonio went ahead to the last aid station we’d come to, and I met him 1km back.  He asked if I wanted him to wait for me, I said no that I would catch him!  I had some sort of hunch I would have a 2nd wind.  After running through Guadalupe the 2nd time, I refueled a last time on oranges, bananas, pinole (ground corn mixed in water – a sports drink), put on some music for the first time, and truly started running hard for the last 5 miles.  I eventually made the 1km gap and caught Antonio about 2km out from the end, and just cruised on in to the finish.  I felt great, he felt great, we’d still done 31 miles after all that had happened, and we just absorbed it all in, sitting down among the Tarahumara and just enjoying it all.

Eventually we ate some food, had some drinks, and I actually went back for another 5km to walk/jog with another runner of our group who wanted to get a few more miles for the day.  After showering later in the evening, I marveled how surreal everything was, and we all went back into Urique for eating, fun, and the last night there.  It was a great time. IMG_1796 DCIM100GOPRO IMG_1841

Monday morning, after learning we’d be leaving sooner than planned, I went for another run on my own, to continue my running streak and just to check out the village.  It was a mass exodus of Tarahumara and the military troops!  I guess all the foreigners had left on Sunday and I didn’t know it.  The sheer numbers of military troops out trying to leave in their big Ford pick-up trucks was amazing.  . After breakfast I did my last search through the town for a pair of the Tarahumara sandals I needed to get for a friend at work, and finally succeeded!  I got the sandals, and we spent all Monday driving back to Chihuahua.  I started learning more and more just how few runners ran in the race, and how lucky Manuello was, and stuff stated sinking in.

Three amigosMonday night was fun – eating – the food was always amazing no matter where I ate! And Tuesday I flew back to Colorado, to an impending snow storm, landed, drove 80 miles home, and ‘whew’ made it!

Crazy story eh?  Reminded me of a time I was late for the Jerusalem half marathon in March 2012, I found myself driving 90mph along the Israeli border with the West Bank and noticed not a single car on the highway while the side roads were packed with traffic….hmmm… or the time I finished the Lochness marathon in Scotland, ran through the finish, ran to a taxi, speed to the airport, last on the plane with my running clothes still on and sweating like crazy, or the time stranded in France at midnight needed a ride to Geneva 2 hours a way for a flight at 7am to be back at work by 9am. This stuff all seems so normal to me, yet it’s not normal, somehow I end up living on the edge. Thank you for reading.

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