Tarahumara Runners: 5 Key Traits of The Ultra-Running Tribe

If you’ve read the book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” by Christopher McDougall, you will know a bit about the Tarahumara runners, an indigenous group of super-long-distance runners that live in the mountains of Mexico. 

For those who haven’t, prepare to be amazed as we take you through the history of these amazing people and look at what makes them run as fast as they do. 

What is it that makes the Tarahumara such elite long-distance runners?

Let’s take a look!

The Tarahumara: Who Are They?

Secrets of the Tarahumara runners
Secrets of the Tarahumara runners

The Tarahumara are an almost-mythical tribe that makes their homes in the Copper Canyons in Mexico. While their existence was all but unknown, a rare appearance of a group of these people at an Ultramarathon in 1993 made the world stand up and take note of the Tarahumara. 

Running in loincloths and leather sandals made from old tires, the Tarahumara runners took up first and second place in the Leadville Trail 100, setting new records and leaving spectators scratching their heads in confusion at the newcomers. 

While they were each given a pair of Rockport cross-trainers for the event, the men completed the run in their sandals, requiring no warm-up beforehand. 

It would seem that these men were almost superhuman in their running abilities, leading to many questioning why they were so good at running and what traits they possessed to make it all possible. 

The Unique Traits of a Tarahumara Runner

Many sportsmen and women believe that you have to have high fitness levels to compete in ultramarathons and other running events. But, for the Tarahumara, this is simply not true. The winner of that first Leadville Trail 100 in 1993 was a fifty-five-year-old farmer who stood around smoking his thick black tobacco mere minutes before the start, hardly what you would expect from a marathon runner!

There has been much speculation about the physical attributes or conditioning that the Tarahumara would need to possess to run the way they do, and critics were skeptical about what made them so good. Was it their diet? Did they train incessantly for months on end? Were they built differently? 

The answer would come as a shock to everyone. 

The Tarahumara: Natural-Born Runners

Let’s take a more in-depth look at the most popular factors that would increase the ability of a long-distance runner and see how this compares to the Tarahumara. 

The Copper Canyons, home of the Tarahumara runners. CC via Fl1pper
The Copper Canyons, home of the Tarahumara runners. CC via Fl1pper

#1: Body Type or Fitness Levels

Nothing stands out as significant when analyzing the traits the Tarahumara possess that would make them so good at long-distance running. While some tribe members are tall, lean, and muscular, others are short in stature, slightly heavier, and with no muscles in sight. They do no training, and it would appear that running comes naturally to these men and women. 

#2: Running Gear and Apparel

The “gear,” or lack thereof, seems to have no reflection on their running abilities either. This seemed odd to many long-distance runners and the ultramarathon community. While everyone else was spending thousands of dollars on cross-trainers and special clothing to help them beat the heat and run faster, the Tarahumara arrived at events wearing their loincloths or skirts and a pair of sandals made from tires salvaged from the junkyard. 

#3: Diet

The Tarahumara are by no means diet-conscious and have a diet consisting mainly of beans and corn. While many runners would scoff at eating only carbohydrates and no protein, this natural organic diet seems to do wonders for the Tarahumara. There have also been reports of the Tarahumara drinking so much cactus moonshine that they would arrive at events still inebriated from the night before. Maybe that’s how they manage to run with no training!

#4: Sport

One would think that having the ability to run long distances so easily would require a hectic running training program. But for the Tarahumara, this is not necessarily the case. Living in a large canyon region in Mexico, the men and women of the tribe would often have to cover large distances to get from one place to another, which has been said to be a major factor in their running ability.

Their main sport, Rarajipari, is much like soccer but also incorporates a relay-type running that could have the game continuing for days on end. 

5 Traits of the Tarahumara Runners

Now that we have ruled out body type, gear, diet, and sport as a reason for the Tarahumara being such good long-distance runners, let’s highlight the real factors that make them great at what they do. 

  1. A lot of hard work
  2. A very active lifestyle
  3. Social and spiritual reasons and practices
  4. Determination to succeed in what they do
  5. Running is just a way of life for them

We don’t need to go into much detail when we look at these traits as they are self-explanatory. But, what is important is to note that it is values that we all possess that make the Tarahumara excellent runners. 

An active lifestyle is one of the key attributes that all runners must possess if they want to succeed, but the time constraints and generally busy lives of those in the modern world seldom leave time for runners to focus on their passion. 

The Tarahumara people live an enviable lifestyle. Their simple way of life is what makes them the best runners, leading to many others that they, too, could live their lives this way.

Perhaps it is because they have the time to focus on these aspects while the rest of the modern world is focused on getting things done as fast as possible. Or is there another secret that we are just not aware of? It seems we will never know.

Tarahumara Ultramarathon Greats

Long-distance running is something that all Tarahumara people do. Adults, children, men, and women tackle long distances daily to go from one place to another or to hunt for food and other resources. 

Let’s look at a few of the running greats of the Tarahumara people:

Maria Lorena Ramirez

First up on our list is Maria Ramirez, who made her mark in the ultramarathon world when she won the torturous Ultra Trail Cerro Rojo 50K in Mexico. Never having competed before, this win would put Maria on the map and start her running career. 

Maria was the first woman to compete in the European Ultra and Tenerife Bluetrail events and has made such great strides in her career as a long-distance runner that she was featured on a Netflix documentary in 2019 titled Lorena, Lightfoot Woman. No other man, or woman, has had this honor, making Ramirez one of the running greats of the Tarahumara. 

Silvino Cubesare

Young Silvino Cubesare was featured in the now-famous book “Born To Run.” Born in the copper canyons of Mexico, Silvino competed in the first-ever Ultra X Mexico. He is also a famed Rarajipari player and has taken part in marathons in countries like Brazil, Spain, Costa Rica, France, and of course, his home state of Mexico. 

Silvino came from humble beginnings and is a sandal maker and farmer. 

Miguel Lara

Miguel Lara is, by far, the most-famed Ultramarathon runner hailing from the Tarahumara people and boasts an impressive 20 wins including some of the world’s toughest ultra marathons. Taking part in and winning the Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco, Ultramaraton de Los Canones, and the Born to Run series, Miguel is a household name in the marathon community. 

Lara has since competed in the world-renowned Boston marathon, won the Ultra X Mexico in 2019, and is set to compete in the Ultra X World Championships. He is definitely the one to watch, and we cannot wait to see what this man does next.

Arnulfo Quimare

Arnulfo’s impressive ultramarathon career was much-featured in the book Born to Run, and has been described by top marathon runners as the “greatest living Tarahumara runner.” He embodies the art of marathon running and is considered a legend by many who have followed his career. 

Born To Run book cover
Born To Run: one of the most popular books about ultra running

The Tarahumara People: Born To Run?

Ultramarathon running is no joke and is a feat that will challenge your mental and physical strength like no other. For the Tarahumara people of Mexico, running comes naturally, and as we have seen, there is just no way to determine what exactly makes them great. 

The Tarahumara are fascinating people, and with determination and hard work, the young men and women of the Tarahumara go on to be running legends. 

They are the ones to watch in the future as a whole new generation of Tarahumara people takes part in these ultramarathons. 

Author Profile

Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

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