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Chapter 31
Often I visualize a quicker, like almost a ghost runner,ahead of me with a quicker stride.

—GABE JENNINGS, 2000 U.S. Olympic Trial 1,500- meter winnerBY 5 A.M., Mamá Tita had pancakes and papayas and hot pinole on the table. For their preracemeal, Arnulfo and Silvino had requested pozole—a rich beef broth with tomatoes and fat cornkernels—and Tita, chirpy as a bird despite only getting three hours of sleep, whipped it right up.

Silvino had changed into a special race outfit, a gorgeous turquoise blouse and a white zapete skirtembroidered with flowers along the hem.

“Guapo,” Caballo said admiringly; looking good. Silvino ducked his head bashfully. Caballo pacedthe garden, sipping coffee and fretting. He’d heard that some farmers were planning a cattle driveon one of the trails, so he’d tossed awake all night, planning last-minute detours. When he got upand trudged down for breakfast, he discovered that Luis Escobar’s dad had already ridden to therescue with old Bob, Caballo’s fellow wandering gringo from Batopilas. They’d come across thevaqueros the evening before while shooting photos in the backcountry and warned them off thecourse. Now without a stampede to sweat over, Caballo was searching for something else. Hedidn’t have to look far.

“Where are the Kids?” he asked.


“I better go get them,” he said. “I don’t want them killing themselves without breakfast again.”

When Caballo and I stepped outside, I was stunned to find the entire town there to greet us. Whilewe’d been inside having breakfast, garlands of fresh flowers and paper streamers had been strungacross the street, and a mariachi band in dress sombreros and torero suits had begun strumming afew warm-up tunes. Women and children were already dancing in the street, while the mayor wasaiming a shotgun at the sky, practicing how he could fire it without shredding the streamers.

I checked my watch, and suddenly found it hard to breathe: thirty minutes till the start. The thirty-five-mile hike to Urique had, as Caballo predicted, “chewed me up and crapped me out,” and inhalf an hour, I had to do it all over again and go fifteen miles farther. Caballo had laid out adiabolical course; we’d be climbing and descending sixty-five hundred feet in fifty miles, exactlythe altitude gain of the first half of the Leadville Trail 100. Caballo was no fan of the Leadvillerace directors, but when it came to choosing terrain, he was just as pitiless.

Caballo and I climbed the hill to the little hotel. Jenn and Billy were still in their room, arguingover whether Billy needed to carry the extra water bottle which, it turned out, he couldn’t findanyway. I had a spare I was using to store espresso, so I hustled to my room, dumped the coffee,and tossed it to Billy.

“Now eat something! And hustle up!” Caballo scolded. “The mayor is gonna blast that thing atseven sharp.”

Caballo and I grabbed our gear—a hydration backpack loaded with gels and PowerBars for me, awater bottle and tiny bag of pinole for Caballo—and we headed back down the hill. Fifteenminutes to go. We rounded the corner toward Tita’s restaurant, and found the street party hadgrown into a mini-Mardi Gras. Luis and Ted were twirling old women and fending off Luis’s dad,who kept cutting in. Scott and Bob Francis were clapping and singing along as best they couldwith the mariachis. The Urique Tarahumara had set up their own percussion brigade, beating timeon the sidewalk with their palia sticks.

Caballo was delighted. He pushed into the throng and began a Muhammad Ali shuffle, bobbingand weaving and punching his fists in the air. The crowd roared. Mamá Tita blew him kisses.

“.ándale! We’re going to dance all day!” Caballo shouted through his cupped hands. “But only ifnobody dies. Take care out there!” He turned to the mariachis and dragged a finger across histhroat. Kill the music. Showtime.

Caballo and the mayor began corraling dancers off the street and waving runners to the startingline. We crowded together, forming into a crazy human quilt of mismatched faces, bodies, andcostumes. The Urique Tarahumara were in their shorts and running shoes, still carrying theirpalias. Scott stripped off his shirt. Arnulfo and Silvino, dressed in the bright blouses they’dbrought especially for the race, squeezed in beside Scott; the Deer hunters weren’t letting the Deerout of their sight for a second. By unspoken agreement, we all picked an invisible line in thecracked asphalt and toed it.

My chest felt tight. Eric worked his way over beside me. “Look, I got some bad news,” he said.

“You’re not going to win. No matter what you do, you’re going to be out there all day. So youmight as well just relax, take your time, and enjoy it. Keep this in mind—if it feels like work,you’re working too hard.”

“Then I’ll catch ’em napping,” I croaked, “and make my move.”

“No moves!” Eric warned, not even wanting the thought to creep into my skull as a joke. “It couldhit one hundred degrees out there. Your job is to make it home on your own two feet.”

Mamá Tita walked from runner to runner, her eyes puddling as she pressed our hands. “Te ncuidado, cari.o” she urged. Be careful, dearie.

“.Diez!… .Nueve!…”

The mayor was leading the crowd in the countdown.

“.Ocho!… .Siete!…”

“Where are the Kids?” Caballo yelled.

I looked around. Jenn and Billy were nowhere in sight.

“Get him to hold off!” I shouted back.

Caballo shook his head. He turned away and got into race-ready position. He’d waited years andrisked his life for this moment. He wasn’t postponing it for anyone.

“.BRUJITA!” The soldiers were pointing behind us.

Jenn and Billy came sprinting down the hill as the crowd hit “Cuatro.” Billy wore surf baggies andno shirt, while Jenn had on black compression shorts and a black jog bra, her hair knotted in twotight Pippi braids. Distracted by her military fan club, Jenn whipped the drop bag with her foodand spare socks to the wrong side of the street, startling spectators, who hopped over it as it flewbetween their legs and disappeared. I raced over, snagged it, and got it to the aid table just as themayor jerked the trigger.


Scott leaped and screamed, Jenn howled, Caballo hooted. The Tarahumara just ran. The Uriqueteam shot off in a pack, disappearing down the dirt road into the predawn shadows. Caballo hadwarned us that the Tarahumara would go out hard, but whoa! This was just ferocious. Scott fell inbehind them, with Arnulfo and Silvino tucked in on his heels. I jogged slowly, letting the packflow past until I was in last place. It would be great to have some companionship, but at this point,I felt safer alone. The worst mistake I could make would be getting lulled into someone else’s race.

The first two miles were a flat ramble out of town and along the dirt road to the river. The UriqueTarahumara hit the water first, but instead of charging straight into the shallow fifty-yard crossing,they suddenly stopped and began rooting around the shore, flipping over rocks.

What the hell…? wondered Bob Francis, who’d gone ahead with Luis’s dad to take photos fromthe far side of the river. He watched as the Urique Tarahumara pulled out plastic shopping bagsthey’d stashed under rocks the night before. Tucking their palias under their arms, they slippedtheir feet into the bags, pulled them tight by the handles, and began sloshing across the river,demonstrating what happens when new technology replaces something that has worked fine for tenthousand years: afraid of getting their precious Salvation Army running shoes wet, the UriqueTarahumara were hobbling along in homemade waders.

“Jesus,” Bob murmured. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The Urique Tarahumara were still stumbling over slippery rocks when Scott hit the riverbank. Hesplashed straight into the water, Arnulfo and Silvino hard behind. The Urique Tarahumara reachedshore, kicked the bags off their feet, and stuffed them into their shorts to use again later. Theybegan scrambling up the steep sand dune with Scott closing fast, sand spraying from his churningfeet. By the time the Urique Tarahumara hit the dirt trail leading up the mountain, Scott and thetwo Quimares had made contact.

Jenn, meanwhile, was already having a problem. She, Billy, and Luis had crossed the river side byside with a pack of Tarahumara, but as Jenn tore up the sand dune, her right hand was bugging her.

Ultra-runners rely on “handhelds,” water bottles with straps that wrap around your hand for easycarrying. Jenn had given Billy one of her two handhelds, then rigged a second for herself withathletic tape and a springwater bottle. As she fought her way up the dune, her homemade handheldfelt sticky and awkward. It was a tiny hassle, but it was a hassle she’d have to deal with everyminute of the next eight hours. So should she keep it? Or should she once again risk running intothe canyons with only a dozen swallows in her hand?

Jenn began gnawing through the tape. Her only hope of competing with the Tarahumara, sheknew, was to go for broke. If she gambled and crashed, fine. But if she lost the race of a lifetimebecause she’d played it safe, she’d always regret it. Jenn tossed the bottle and immediately feltbetter. Bolder, even—and that led to her next risky decision. They were at the bottom of the firstmeat grinder, a steep three-mile hill with little shade. Once the sun came up, she had little hope ofsticking with the heat-eating Tarahumara.

“Ah, fuck it,” Jenn thought. “I’m just gonna go now while it’s cool.” Within five strides, she waspulling away from the pack. “Later, dudes,” she called over her shoulder.

The Tarahumara immediately gave chase. The two canny old vets, Sebastiano and Herbolisto,boxed Jenn in from the front while the three other Tarahumara surrounded her on the sides. Jennlooked for a gap, then burst loose and pulled away. Instantly, the Tarahumara swarmed and bottledher back up. The Tarahumara may be peace-loving people at home, but when it came to racing, itwas bare knuckles all the way.

“I hate to say it, but Jenn is going to blow up,” Luis told Billy as they watched Jenn dart ahead forthe third time. They were only three miles into a 50-mile race, and she was already going toe-totoewith a five-man Tarahumara chase pack. “You don’t run like that if you want to finish.”

“Somehow she always pulls it off,” Billy said.

“Not on this course,” Luis said. “Not against these guys.”

Thanks to the genius of Caballo’s planning, we’d all get to witness the battle in real time. Caballohad laid out his course in a Y pattern, with the starting line dead in the middle. That way, thevillagers would see the race several times as it doubled back and forth, and the racers wouldalways know how far they were trailing the leaders. That Y-formation also provided anotherunexpected benefit: at that very moment, it was giving Caballo plenty of reason to be verysuspicious of the Urique Tarahumara.

Caballo was about a quarter mile back, so he had a perfect view of Scott and the Deer hunters asthey closed the gap with the Urique Tarahumara on the hill across the river. When he saw themheading back toward him after the first turnaround, Caballo was astounded: in the space of justfour miles, the Urique crew had opened up a. four-minute lead. They’d not only dropped the twobest Tarahumara racers of their generation, but also the greatest climber in the history of Westernultrarunning.

“No. Way. In. HELL!” growled Caballo, who was running in a pack of his own with Barefoot Ted,Eric, and Manuel Luna. When they got to the five-mile turnaround in the tiny Tarahumarasettlement of Guadalupe Coronado, Caballo and Manuel started asking the Tarahumara spectatorssome questions. It didn’t take them long to find out what was going on: the Urique Tarahumarawere taking side trails and shaving the course. Rather than fury, Caballo felt a pang of pity. TheUrique Tarahumara had lost their old way of running, he realized, and their confidence along withit. They weren’t Running People anymore; they were just guys trying desperately to keep up withthe living shadows of their former selves.

Caballo forgave them as a friend, but not as a race director. He put out the word: the UriqueTarahumara were disqualified.

I got a shock of my own when I hit the river. I’d been concentrating so much on watching myfooting in the dark and reviewing my mental checklist (bend those knees … bird steps … leave notrace) that when I started to wade through the knee-deep water, it suddenly hit me: I’d just run twomiles and it felt like nothing. Better than nothing—I felt light and loose, even more springy andenergized than I had before the start.

“Way to go, Oso!” Bob Francis was calling from the opposite bank. “Little bitty hill ahead.

Nothing to worry about.”

I scrambled out of the water and up the sand dune, growing more hopeful with every step. Sure, Istill had forty-eight more miles, but the way it was going, I might be able to steal the first dozen orso before I had to make any real effort. I started climbing the dirt trail just as the sun was slantingover the top of the canyon. Instantly, everything lit up: the glittering river, the shimmering greenforest, the coral snake coiled at my feet….

I yelped and leaped off the trail, sliding down the steep slope and grabbing at scrub brush to stopmy fall. I could see the snake above me, silent and curled, ready to strike. If I climbed back up, Irisked a fatal bite; if I climbed down toward the river, I could plunge off the side of the cliff. Theonly way out was to maneuver sideways, working my way from one scrub-brush handhold to thenext.

The first clump held, then the next. When I’d made it ten feet away, I cautiously hauled myselfback onto the trail. The snake was still blocking the trail, and for good reason—it was dead.

Someone had already snapped its back with a stick I wiped the dirt out of my eyes and checked thedamage: rock rash down both shins, thorns in my hands, heart pounding through my chest. I pulledthe thorns with my teeth, then cleaned my gashes, more or less, with a squirt from my water bottle.

Time to get going. I didn’t want anyone to come across me bleeding and panicky over a rottingsnake.

The got stronger the higher I climbed, but after the early-morning chill, it more exhilarati(sun) ngthanexhausting.IkeptthinkingaboutEric’sadvice—“Ifitfeelslikework,(was) you’reworking too hard”—so I decided to get outside my head and stop obsessing about my stride. Ibegan drinking in the view of canyon around me, watching the sun turn the top of the foothillacross the river to gold. Pretty soon, I realized, I’d be nearly as high as that peak.

Moments later, Scott burst around a bend in the trail. He flashed me a grin and a thumbs-up, thenvanished. Arnulfo and Silvino were right behind him, their blouses rippling like sails as they flewpast. I must be close to the five-mile turnaround, I realized. I climbed around the next curve, andthere it was: Guadalupe Coronado. It was little more than a whitewashed schoolhouse, a few smallhomes, and a tiny shop selling warm sodas and dusty packs of cookies, but even from a mile away,I could already hear cheers and drumbeats.

A pack of runners was just pulling out of Guadalupe and setting off in pursuit of Scott and theQuimares. Leading them, all by herself, was the Brujita.

The second Jenn saw her chance, she pounced. On the hike over from Batopilas, she’d noticed thatthe Tarahumara run downhill the same way they run up, with a controlled, steady flow. Jenn, onthe other hand, loves to pound the descents. “It’s the only strength I’ve got,” she says, “so I milk itfor all I’m worth.” So instead of exhausting herself by dueling with Herbolisto, she decided to lethim set the pace for the climb. As soon as they reached the turnaround and started the longdownhill, she broke out of the chase pack and began speeding off.

This time, the Tarahumara let her go. She pulled so far ahead that by the time she hit the nextuphill—a rocky single track climbing to the second branch of the Y at mile 15—Herbolisto and thepack couldn’t get close enough to swarm her. Jenn was feeling so confident that when she reachedthe turnaround, she stopped to take a breather and refill her bottle. Her luck with water so far hadbeen fabulous; Caballo had asked Urique villagers to fan out through the canyons with jugs ofpurified water, and it seemed that every time Jenn took her last swallow, she came across anothervolunteer.

She was still gurgling her full bottle when Herbolisto, Sebastiano, and the rest of the chase packfinally caught her. They spun around without stopping, and Jenn let them go. Once she wasrewatered, she began pounding down the hill. Within two miles, she’d once again reeled them inand left them behind. She began mentally scanning the course ahead to calculate how long shecould keep pulling away. Let’s see … upcoming was two miles of descent, then four flat milesback into the village, then—Wham! Jenn landed facedown on the rocks, bouncing and sliding on her chest before coming to astunned stop. She lay there, blinded with pain. Her kneecap felt broken and an arm was smearedwith blood. Before she could gather herself to try getting to her feet, Herbolisto and the chase packcame storming down the trail. One by one, they hurdled Jenn and disappeared, never looking back.

They’re thinking, That’s what you get for not knowing how to run on the rocks, Jenn thought.

Well, they’ve got a point. Gingerly, she pulled herself to her feet to assess the damage. Her shinslooked like pizza, but her kneecap was only bruised and the blood she thought was pouring fromher hand turned out to be chocolaty goo from an exploded PowerGel packet she’d stashed in herhandheld. Jenn walked a few cautious steps, then jogged, and felt better than she expected. She feltso good, in fact, that by the time she reached the bottom of the hill, she’d caught and passed everyone of the Tarahumara who’d jumped over her.

“.BRUJITA!” The crowd in Urique went crazy when Jenn came racing back through the village,bloody but smiling as she hit the twenty-mile mark. She paused at the aid station to dig a fresh gooout of her drop bag, while a deliriously happy Mamá Tita dabbed at Jenn’s gory shins with herapron and kept shouting “.Cuarto! .Estás en cuarto lugar!”

“I’m a what? A room?” Jenn was halfway out of town again before her rickety Spanish let herfigure out what Mama Tita was talking about: she was in fourth place. Only Scott, Arnulfo, andSilvino were still ahead of her, and she was nibbling steadily at their lead. Caballo had picked herspirit name perfectly: twelve years after Leadville, the Bruja was back with a vengeance.

But only if she could handle the heat. The temperature was nearing 100 degrees just as Jenn wasentering the furnace—the jagged up-and-down climb to the Los Alisos settlement. The trailhugged a sheer rock wall that plunged and soared and plunged again, gaining and losing somethree thousand feet. Any of the hills in the Los Alisos stretch would rank among the hardest Jennhad ever seen, and there were at least half a dozen of them, strung one behind the other. The heatshimmering off the rocks felt as if it was blis............
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