Ride up the canyon: A dailymiler’s account of getting to the start of the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon

This week has been all about barefoot running. We’ve heard from major brand shoe companies, elite athletes, best selling authors, dailymilers, and Caballo Blanco (who cannot be contained in a label). Today we’re featuring a story from a dailymiler who went back to where the barefoot running story all started for a lot of us, the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon.

Raymond Danks plans to run the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon more than a couple times. This is one of those races that is almost more difficult to get to the start than it is to get to the finish.

Leaving Urique

A view of the first departing bus as passengers were redistributed.

The ride out of Urique was the most sensational and thrilling part of my trip to the Copper Canyons overall. After having arrived at Mama Tita’s early in the morning, the day after the race, and meeting many of the gringo runners probably for the last time in a long time, I held back and watched the first bus fill up. There were only a few passengers on the second bus to start with, several Mexicans, three of us “gringo runners”, Suman, Patrick, and I, and my parents who had also traveled to Urique to watch the race, but as the bus started moving it picked up many more Mexican and Tarahumara travelers along the way. We met up with the second bus shortly before leaving town. A few of the passengers from this bus, Megan and Mike from Durango, came on board saying that the first bus had become standing room only and the buses were redistributing passengers. Well, soon enough the second bus became standing room only as well, but eventually we took off again headed up the hill.

The bus with the missing U-joint travelling backwards into the town of Urique.

This was to be a good 6000+ ft vertical climb in about 15 miles. We didn’t make it more than half a mile, however, before we heard a huge thud and snap clearly coming from the drive-shaft. The passengers looked around in anticipation as the driver exited the bus to inspect the situation. My parents, who were sitting directly behind the driver, noted the manner in which the he exited the bus. Sitting on perhaps a 15% grade incline, the driver casually put the emergency brake on, left the engine running and hopped down the stairway to duck underneath the bus while holding onto the bottom step. He disappeared under the bus and returned walking alongside the bus, presumably having crawled on the gravel the whole length of the bus. The expression on his face when he returned was priceless. He gave something of a humored and apologetic smile, said nothing, and shook his head before revealing what was in his hand. It was the U-joint.

Following the mishap, passengers dispersed to the side of the road, up the hill and back down the road to Urique.

“Es importante?” my dad joked as everyone hauled themselves and their belongings from the now decrepit vehicle. On the side of the road we discussed options as we watched the bus make its way back down the hill in reverse using only its brakes for resistance. As the Tarahumara passengers situated themselves on the side of the road I encouraged my parents to follow the lead of the runner passengers and begin the hike back to Urique. The driver had said that another bus would be coming down the mountain and would arrive in about an hour. Other vehicles would also surely pass before that time, but because I had only just begun to recover from a heat stroke I had incurred days before, I did not want to risk staying too long on this side of the mountain with the hours into the day already progressing.

My parents and I hadn’t walked very far before we saw that Mike, Megan, and Patrick had found a pickup truck to hitch a ride with. The truck was a good 25 years old and had panels encompassing the bed, presumably to assist with carrying cargo. These wood panels and two sturdy metal bars, about two inches in diameter that ran across the bed from driver to passenger side, made it very easy for the driver to accommodate several standing passengers in the bed. Besides those in the cab, there were already three gringos, and six Tarahumara aboard when my dad flagged down the driver to add the three of us to his load.

Now this was an exhilarating ride! Mike made the comment that just as the Tarahumara runners had come up to run the Leadville 100, so too should this driver come and race the Pikes Peak Race to the Clouds. At times we were curious why, with so much road to the mountain side, the driver would let his wheels come within inches from the drop into the canyon as he careened around corners and up this single-lane dirt road. There was a period of fright while we got accustomed to this new means of travel, standing three across in the back of a pickup, absorbing the shock of the road with our legs and holding on for dear life to the bars that we told ourselves must surely be secured to something close to the body of the vehicle. We bent and turned our heads to avoid the dust from the first bus as we gained on it. Comments were made about the necessity of travelling so close behind the bus. It soon became clear, however, that the dust levels increased as we neared what in the States would be transition of the double yellow line to a dashed line. On this road, there was no yellow line. Traveling the road from Urique, we passed within a foot of the bus when it slowed on a small outcropping, averting our attention of that fact that an impact would cause a spectacular rock and bus slide back into the town of Urique.

Megan and other passengers in the truck and behind a view of the canyon and Rio Urique.

When we began to look up, we were able to witness the true majestic beauty of the Sierra Tarahumara; series of side canyons and beautiful rock formations and vegetation as far as the eye could see. Two Tarahumara children, a boy and a girl of about five and three were at my feet; I was happy when the young girl moved from between the two large spare tires that continuously inched their way together and stood at my feet. She found the spot comfortable and took seat at my feet as I did my best to position the tires back towards the opposite end of the bed.

The first bus… hot on our tail.

The first bus… hot on our tail.

We joked about our plans for evacuation, deciding, perhaps irrationally, that the truck was actually a much safer means of travel. If we began rolling down the hill we could hurl ourselves out the back of the truck whereas if we were in the bus we would have to deal with the repeated impact of the roll.

We passed the first bus and the first bus passed us several times on this one lane precipice. Each time the runners in both vehicles gave energetic waves. From our vantage point, the truck ride, though arguably the most frightful, was surely the most comfortable with the open air and relatively spacious quarters. The temperature dropped maybe 20 degrees Fahrenheit during this ride up the canyon and my parents and I soon found ourselves safe at our destination, Cabanas San Isidreo about 15 miles down from Bauichivo. About three weeks ago, at the Wolf Law building in Boulder, CO, I heard Scott Jurek speak of this ride in 2005, where he and several other runners rode atop a bus down the canyon.

At one of the pit-stops, our truck driver stopped the bus as it passed to borrow a bottle of antifreeze.

Later I would hear that Suman was one of several other runners had rode atop Diego’s van in a somewhat similar manner. On this day after the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon of 2011, we, like those runners traveling to the first Copper Canyon Ultramarathon of 2005, had to take periodic pit stops as the driver pulled over to fill his radiator with antifreeze. In the end, I concluded that we were very fortunate that the bus threw a U-joint on the way up the Copper Canyon. It made for a spectacular journey that couldn’t have been experienced in any better way.

At one of the pit-stops, our truck driver stopped the bus as it passed to borrow a bottle of antifreeze.

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