The men who live forever
Salvador, our Mexican guide is throatily butchering something about a bra-full of bad news named Maria when the song abruptly dies. His eyes are fixed on a red ute ahead on the dirt gully of a road.
"Narcotraficantes," he mutters. Drug runners. Salvador edges our truck as close as he can to the cliff's crumbly edge, giving the red ute every bit of road he can spare. "No trouble here" is the message he's trying to send. Just minding our own, non-drug related business. How would we explain what the hell we're doing out here in the badlands of Mexico's marijuana country? We're not Federales, we'd have to stammer. We're not searching for dope, but for a people who are guarding something far more valuable - the secret of perpetual health and happiness. The phantom Taraumara Indians are said to have found a way to party all their lives, living on a diet of carbs and beer, but still rehearsing this speech when I notice that the truck has rumbled past. Salvador watches in the rear-view mirror till the ute is again swallowed up by dust, then slaps the steering wheel. "Bueno!" he shouts. "Andale pues, a más aventuras!" Excellent! On to more adventures!
Gradually, parts of me that have been clenched tight enough to crack walnuts start to loosen - not, I suspect, for long. We set out yesterday from Chihuahua, driving all night across the desert to a maze of twisting gorges called the Copper Canyons. There are no roads there or even mapped trails, which is just the way the Tarahumara like it.
We went off-road long ago and are now crunching over a bed of pine needles, winding deeper and deeper into a darkening forest with no sign that any human has passed this way before. Salvador, however, is still belting out tunes, making urns based on trees he thinks look familiar.
We're screwed, I'm thinking.
And then, just as the sun sets, we run out of planet. We emerge from the woods to find a crack in the earth so vast that the far side could be in a different time zone. Standing nearby are three Stone Age men, motionless as the mountains, as if they've been there forever.
This tribe may be one of the most ancient cultures on the planet, but its members actually have a lot in common with the average man.
Tarahumara men have a taste for corn snacks and beer, for instance. They're hard workers, but come downtime, they party like a rap-star's roadies. According to one of the few outsiders to witness a tesguinada - a full-on Tarahumara rave - women were ripping the tops off each other in a bare-breasted wrestling match, while their husbands watched in glassy-eyed, drunken paralysis. They'll stay up all night to watch a game and down enough beer in a year to spend every third day buzzed or recovering.
Sound familiar? But here's where we and Tarahumara men part company. Many Westerners will be killed by heart disease, stroke and gastrointestinal cancers. Almost no Tarahumara will.
When it comes to the top 10 health risks facing Western men, the Tarahumara are practically immortal, Their incidence rate is at or near zero in almost every category, including diabetes, vascular disease and colorectal cancer.
Age seems to be no problem either. The Tarahumara who won the 1993 Leadville ultra-marathon in Colorado was 55. And they have mastered the secret of happiness as well, living in a world free of theft, murder, suicide and cruelty.
So, how is it that we - in one of the most advanced nations in the world - can recruit armies of scientists whose sole task it is to improve our lives, yet we keep getting fatter, sicker and sadder, while the Tarahumara, who haven't changed much in 2000 years, don't just survive, they thrive?
That's the mystery that brought me here, to the deep Mexican outback the three ambassadors from the past face us dressed in white toga skirts and bright, billowing shirts, their faces hard and angular, jet-black air chopped low over their eyes in bowl cuts, On their feet are thin sandals, lashed high around their calves with leather thongs.
The Tarahumara speak an ancient, pre-Aztec language so obscure that it ended up accidentally changing their name. They actually call themselves "raramuri" or "The Running People", which was misunderstood by the conquistadors, who invaded Mexico in the 16th century.
Luckily, we all know enough Spanish to be understood and once they learn we're not members of a local, murderous drug cartel, one of the men, Alejandro, agrees to guide us by foot to his village.
"If we leave in the morning, we should make it by dark," he says, then takes a second look at me "if we leave very early."
By dawn, we're ready to set out. The descent is so steep that every step is a one-legged squat, but that doesn't bother 52-year-old Alejandro. Even though I have running shoes he's in open-toed sandals, with a 10-litre jug of tequila on his shoulder, he flashes right past me.
I find him standing by a tricky twist in the trail, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette while waiting to make sure I'm not lost.
This cat-and-mouse chase goes on all day until finally, just as the sun is dipping below the canyon walls and I'm ready to drop along with it, we reach a flat clearing near a river. Alejandro leads us behind a cluster of cacti where we find a small, three-sided hut, with nothing else in sight in any direction.
As far as Tarahumara settlements go, this is about as bustling as it gets. The Tarahumara are even reclusive with each other, keeping their homes concealed and shouting distance apart.
One anthropologist remarked: "The Tarahumara are so bashful, even between spouses, that if they didn't get drunk, they might not be able to perpetuate the race."
But, despite their shyness and distrust of "white evils", the Tarahumara are warm. The owner of the hut, Avelado, invites us to scoop from the family's pinole bucket, a tub half-filled with a soupy mix of water and ground corn.
It's surprisingly tasty, like instant oatmeal with the aroma of movie popcorn. Pinole to the Tarahumara is like rice to Asians - it's the major component of every meal, occasionally topped off with pinto beans or mice or a chunk of rabbit.
We'd have caught an amazing party if we'd only been here a few months ago, reveals Avelado, as we relax against the cool brick walls of his hut. He and his brothers had represented their village in a rarajpari - a ball race - against another village from across the canyon.
It was wild, reveals Avelado. They drank all night, then started the race at sunrise. Each team had to move a hand carved wooden ball along the trail as they ran, passing it from runner to runner, like an endless counter-attack drill,
"How long was the race?" I ask.
Avelado raises a single finger.
"One mile? One hour?"
Avelado shakes his head. "One day."
I don't understand: how come they're not hobbled by injuries? How do they get away with beer and all that carb-loaded pinole? And I have no idea what this has to do with cancer, suicide and stroke, even if there is a bullet-proofing benefit to being in amazing shape. How are the Tarahumara pulling it off with a diet and training worse than mine?
Then, they tell me about a stranger named "White Horse". A lone runner of the High Sierra, "Caballo Blanco" often visits the village during his long rambling journeys through the mountains. When I track Caballlo down he turns out to be an American named Micah True.
Ten years ago, True met a Tarahumara runner at a race and it changed his life forever. Shortly after the event, he left behind his life in the US to move down here, slowly turning himself into the world's only gringo Tarahumara.
Tall and lean, with sun-bleached hair jutting out from under his straw farmer's hat, caballo opens up with surprising eloquence, verve and wisdom.
"I saw a 95-year-old Tarahumara man walking across these mountains," reveals Caballo. "Know why he could do it? Because no one told him he couldn't. If you put your body into a situation, it will figure out what to do,"
So that's what Calballo did. Instead of trying to analyse the Tarahumara miracle, he leapt in, figuring he'd either pick it up quickly or go down trying.
Even though he'd been dogged for years by ankle problems, he ditched his running shoes for sandals. He began eating pinole and carrying it with him in a hip bag during his 50km runs over the mountains.
During these epic, all-day treks, Caballo lives by the Tarahumara culture of Korima - the power of unconditional living. He depends on people volunteering water, the food he'll need to get home, shelter if he's caught out overnight and help if he falls.
The result? He's now healthier, stronger and freer of injuries than he's ever been. As proof, he describes a run he likes to do between two canyon towns. Horse riders do it in three days; Caballo does it in seven hours.
He's unsure how it all came together, what proportions of sandals and pinole and korima were needed, but is certain it will work for just about anyone.
"You can do it too," Caballo assures me. Maybe - but does it mean I have to live in a hut and consume corn mash or is there a more man-friendly version of the Tarahumara method? There's one way to find out.
In 12 months, Caballo is holding a 75km race against the Tarahumara here in the canyons. I'm currently 9kg overweight and can't run more than 8km a day without injury, let alone 50km in sandals. So why don't I go home, Caballo suggests, try leaping into the pool, then see what happens on race day? Thus begins My Year of Living Tarahumarically.
The whole experiment will live or die by cartilage. I need to find a way to ramp up my running distance without being levelled by injuries.
So I call ultrasport coach Eric Orton, who specialises in the long stuff, like the Ultraman (a double Ironman) and Desert RATS (Race Across the Sands), six-day foot-race. Orton grills me for details of my trip, then echoes Caballo's advice - lose the shoes.
Orton is part of a growing movement of "Free Your Feet" rebels, who believe it's not running that causes injuries, but running form and economy of training.
One of the more vocal - and surprising - members of this group is Dr Gerard Hartmann, an exercise physiologist who works with the world's greatest marathoners and also consults for Nike.
Hartmann says the vast majority of running-related foot injuries are a result of too much cushioning and motion-controlling - so much so that they allow our muscles to atrophy and tendons to shorten and stiffen. Without strength and flexibility, injuries are inevitable.
"The deconditioned musculature of the foot is the greatest issue leading to injury," he explains. "If I give you a collar to wear around your neck in four to six weeks, we'll find 40 to 60 percent atrophy of musculature."
One of Hartmann;s star clients, English marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe, has been training in the Nike Free, a minimalist slipper designed to mimic the range of motion of a naked foot.
Alan Webb, America's best miler, also works out in the Free. He had been hobbled by foot injuries early in his career, but after he started bare foot exercises, his injuries disappeared, and his shoe size shrunk from a 12 to a nine.
"My foot muscles became so strong, they pulled my arches up," reveals Webb. "Wearing too much shoe prevents you from tapping into your natural gait."
Perhaps this was what I saw while trying to keep up with Alejandro. Watching him run, I was surprised to find that instead of the long, galloping stride I'd expected, he kept his knees bent and fore feet padding down directly under his body, as if he were riding an invisible unicycle.
"Exactly!" observes Ken Mierke, an exercise physiologist and the creator of the barefoot-modelled Evolution Running technique. He believes there is a perfect, Tarahumara-like-foot strike that guarantees you will run longer and drastically reduce injury. The key is to stay off your heel and to use your leg as a piston-like shock absorber.
"You wouldn't jump off a ladder and land on your heels," Mierke says. "It's the same with running. If you land on your heel, the impact is smashing into one joint after the other. Land on your fore foot with the leg bent and the elastic tissues absorb the shock instead of bone."
Orton suggests this visualisation. "Imagine your kid is running into the street and you have to sprint after him or her in bare feet. You'd automatically lick into perfect form - You'd be up on your forefeet, with your back erect, head steady, arms high, elbows driving and feet touching down quickly on the fore foot and kicking back towards your butt."
Then, to build the strength and balance to maintain that form over long distances use the heel, hips and hills principal:
- 1. Wear the most neutral, low heeled running shoe that feels comfortable.
- 2. Keep your hips directly under your shoulders and above your feet.
- 3. Use big hills to iron out the rest of the wrinkles. "You can't run uphill powerfully with poor bio-mechanics," Orton warns. "Land on your heel with a straight leg and you'll tip over backwards."
But for a technique that's supposed to be natural, I find it awkward. Orton eases me into it with light distances for the first few weeks and by assigning me hills and speed work, plus some core conditioning to make my lower back, instead of my quads, support my weight.
However, by month two, he's sending me off on two-hour weekend runs and adding a long midweek run. Barely eight weeks in, I'm already running further - and much faster - than I ever have in my life. I keep waiting for all the old ghosts of the past to come roaring out - the screaming Achilles, the ripped hamstring, the plantar fasciitis. I start carrying my mobile, convinced that I'll end up limping along the side of the road.
Whenever I feel a twinge, I run through my diagnostics: back straight? Check. Knees bent and driving forward? Check. Feet landing under the hips? There's your problem. Once I adjust, the hot spot eases and disappears. By the time Orton bumps me up to fie-hour runs, the ghosts and the mobile are forgotten.
Last year, a 32-year-old Seattle physiotherapist named Scott Nurek pulled off a stunt that was just this side of impossible. First, he won the Western States 100, the most prestigious and hotly contested ultra-marathon in the world. Two weeks later, Jurek descended from the freezing mouuntainsto Death Valley, one of the hottest places on the planet and not only won the Badwater Ultra, but broke the record, racing 217km in just over 24 straight hours in temperatures north of 48ºC.
Judging by Olympic marathoners, who take at least four months between races, there is no way Jurek'' wasted muscles should have been able to rebuild that fast. But they did -and without a speck of animal protein to help. Since he went vegan eight years ago, Jurek has won Western States an astounding seven years in a row!
"I used to ea at fast-food joints three times a week," he laments. "I went vegan before I won Western States the first time and was worried I'd be too weak. But I found that I actually feel better, because I'm eating foods with more high-quality nutrients."
If any runner in the world shares the Tarahumara's ultra-running ability, it's Jurek. And he believes it's no coincidence that he also shares their approach to eating. By basing his diet on vegetables, fruit and whole grains, Jurek says, he's deriving maximum nutrition from the lowest possible number of kilojoules, so his body isn't forced to carry or process any useless bulk.
And because carbohydrates clear the stomach faster than protein, it's easier to jam a lot of workout time into his day.
It actually isn't suprising that Jurek hasn't suffered muscle loss or recovery problems, since vegetables, grains and legumes contain all the amino acids necessary to build muscle from scratch.
"Plant sources can be as powerful as meat sources," says Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian and the author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook (Human Kinetics, $35.95).
- § She reveals that meat provides easily absorbed zinc and iron, which are crucial for moving oxygen from your lungs to the muscle and healing your immune system. But you can remedy that by downing a little wheat germ or an enriched breakfast cereal, like Kellogg's Sultana Bran.
"Do you think horses and elephants worry about not having any animal protein in their diets?" asks Dr Ruth Heidrich, a six-time Ironman triathlete and a vegan for the past 24 years.
"Elephants are bigger and stronger and they'll probably outlive you."
Heidrich may be pushing it with her inter-species comparisons, but she's onto something important. While everyone knows the protective powers of fruit and vegetables, according to a number of recent studies, whole grains are also edible medicine.
US researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, for instance, conducted a review of 17 studies and found that consuming whole grains on a regular basis can reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease by as much as 40 per cent.
Like wise, a University of Utah study showed that eating whole grains can lower the odds of rectal cancer by 31 per cent. It's worth noting that when Cornell University researchers analysed corn, wheat, oats and rice, they found that corn, the source of pinole, had the highest content of phenols, powerful disease-fighting plant chemicals.
Buy the notion that pinole is stone ground magic dust, but can't I get enough of the benefits without going the whole hog? Just part of the hog is all I need. Unlike vegans, not only don't I mind eating things with faces, but I'll eat the faces as well if they're grilled.
Whatever compromise I settle on, it's critical that I make some kind of change to my diet. Balancing my body weight with my core muscles makes a 10km run feel like an afternoon of atomic crunches and Orton's hill workouts had me puking tortillas.
"Ever had salad for breakfast?" asks Heidrich. "You should try it." Because a monster salad is loaded with nutrient-rich carbs and low in fat, I could stuff myself in the morning and not feel hungry when it came time to work out.
Plus, greens are great for rehydrating after a nights sleep. And what better way to down your five vegies a day than all at once?
Next morning, I wander around the kitchen with a mixing bowl, throwing in my daughter's half eaten apple, some kidney beans of questionable vintage, a bunch of raw spinach and a tonne of broccoli, which I chop into splinters, hoping to make it more like coleslaw. I also douse it all with gourmet poppy-seed dressing, figuring I've earned the extra fat.
After two bites, I'm a convert. A breakfast salad, I'm happy to find is also a sweet-topping delivery system, just like pancakes and syrup. Best of all, I can cram myself till my eyes turn green and still work out an hour later.
Twelve months have come and gone, and only now - at kilometre 67 of a race I never thought I'd be able to run - I make my big mistake when I allow another guy to drink my water instead of his urine.
Seven American runners have turned up for Caballo's crazy ultra-race, including Jurek and "Barefoot Ted" McDonald, such an advocate of Shoelessness that he's run several marathons unshod.
Fourteen Tarahumara are running with us and to be sure that they're challenged, Caballo has mapped a brutal course. He has us crossing rivers, climbing 60-metre hills and scrambling up scree-covered trails that are so shark-toothed, even Barefoot has made the concession of wearing a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, which look like rubber foot gloves.
After nearly 12 hours in the sun, I'm exhausted, but almost at the turnaround for the last 10km. That's where I cross paths with Barefoot. Hems so thirsty. He's filled one of his bottles with hot urine and is about to drink it. "Here you go," I say offering my last water bottle, since I figure I can refill at the turnaround ahead. Only after I arrive there, does it dawn on me why Barefoot was dry in the first place - all the water is gone.
Damn it! Until this moment, my Tarahumara training had been paying off beautifully, I've stuck to the barefoot-style running technique an even though it initially cramped my calves, I've run an entire year without injury. I worked my way down from the super-cushioned spectrum of running shoes to the neutral, low -heeled Nike Pegasus.
I even stuck to my breakfast-salad diet and found that the more difficult my workouts grew, the less garbage I craved. While rooting around in a drawer for my wedding ring, I realised that the stash of emergency junk that I usually keep there had been gone for months.
And after five years of choking my circulation, my ring is now loose. I wasn't Tarahumara-slim yet, but I was 10kg closer.
Like Caballo, I'd begun to feel the logic of the Tarahumara secret before I understood it. Because I was eating lighter and hadn't been laid up once by injury, I was able to run more because I was running more, I was sleeping great, feeling relaced and watching my resting heart rate drop. My personality had even changed. The grouchiness and temper I'd considered part of my Irish-Italian DNA had ebbed so much that my wife said she'd tie my shoes for me.
I knew aerobic evercise was a powerful antidepressant, but I hadn't realised it could be so profoundly mood stabilising and - I hate to use the word - meditative I realised that if you don't have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain't getting them.
But none of that wisdom has prepared me for this. Orton warned that running low on water during a 12-hour race in 30ºC heat would be crucial and now with my pee the colour of convenience-store coffee, I'm too dehydrated to finish.
"So much for korima," I mutter as I slump down on a rock "I give something away and what do I get? Screwed."
As I sit, defeated, my heavy breathing from the hard climb slows enough for me to become aware of another sound - a weird, warbling whistle that's coming closer and closer. I pull myself up for a look and there, heading up this lost hill is Bob Francis, a 60-something mate of Caballo's who came down for the race
"Hey, amigo," Bob calls, fishing two cans of mango juice out of his shoulder bag. "Thought you could use a drink."
I'm stunned. Old Bob has hiked 10km in 30ºC heat in his thongs to bring me juice! Then I remember something. A few days earlier, Bob had admired my Victorinox knife and without even thinking, I'd given it to him.
Maybe Bob's miracle delivery is just a lucky coincidence, but as I gulp the juice and get ready to run to the finish, I can't help feeling that the last piece of the Tarahumara puzzle has just snapped into place.
Let us know your thoughts, and share your tips on endurance training in the comments below. For any general enquiries please feel free to contact our team.