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In Documentary, Filmmaker Explores Mexican Indigenous Group's Running Culture


The Copper Canyon race is no ordinary run. It is an ultramarathon - 50 miles, five-zero, so nearly twice as long as a marathon. And you want to talk hills? The course features rocks, gravel, incredibly steep terrain, also incredibly beautiful views of forests, of rivers snaking along the bottom of the canyon. It's a bucket list race. The Copper Canyon is in Chihuahua, Mexico, home of the Tarahumara people.


IRMA CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KELLY: That is Irma Sanchez speaking in the new documentary "The Infinite Race." Sanchez is a Tarahumara rights activist. In the film, she talks about how foreigners who swoop in for the ultramarathon are surprised by how far, how fast her people can run. They shouldn't be. Sanchez says the formal organized race format may be newish (ph) to the Tarahumara, but running - it's fundamental to her culture.


CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KELLY: We don't call them winners or losers, she says; rather, the person who endured the longest. Mexican American filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz says he wanted to dispel the myth that the Tarahumara are superhuman runners, as many think they are. When we spoke the other day, Ruiz linked the popularity of the Copper Canyon race to a decade-old book.

BERNARDO RUIZ: It's a very dramatic race that's been happening, you know, for years now. It's a 50-mile race, an 80-kilometer race. And it's a race that, you know, was organized by a kind of eccentric figure made famous in Christopher McDougall's book "Born To Run."

KELLY: This is the 2009 book "Born To Run," which introduced a lot of Americans, runners and non-runners alike, to the Indigenous people the Tarahumara and helped spark the whole barefoot running trend that swept running circles in the West for a while.

RUIZ: That's right. And one of the things that we explore in the film is how the popularity of Christopher McDougall's bestseller drew international runners from all over the world and really changed what was this small race in a part of the world that doesn't get a lot of attention into this big, international bucket list event. And part of what we explore in the film is the impact of this kind of rush in tourism.

KELLY: The rush in tourism. Well, I mean, focus for - before we get to how the race has changed things and the international popularity of the race has changed things and just speak to how the landscape, the running and the culture of the people who live there - how those are intertwined.

RUIZ: Sure. So, I mean, I think for a lot of people who live in Mexico, the Tarahumara are these legendary runners. You know, prior to the Spanish conquest, there's, you know, documentation of running traditions. But really, it's only been in the last decades that the community has received so much attention.

You know, I think there has been some fetishizing and some romanticizing of the community, people calling them superathletes or even superhuman. And I think part of what we try to do in the film is debunk some of those myths and show how it's not so much that the community is made up of superathletes but rather communities that live an entirely different, you know, non-sedentary lifestyle and that these are traditions that run deeper than any one individual race.

KELLY: This is a poor part of Mexico. There's a lot of poverty. And your film makes clear many of the Tarahumara who are signing up, for example, to run this famous race - they're running because among the prizes are vouchers for food, and they need it.

RUIZ: You have kind of bad on top of bad when it comes to poverty there. There have been droughts. You've got the ecological challenges happening in that part of the world as well as the presence of organized crime, the kind of general neglect of of governments on both side of the border. That means that races like the ultramarathon that we document in the film have become these ways for Tarahumara runners to obtain vouchers for corn and other foodstuffs, sometimes, you know, the equivalent of six months or even a year of what someone in the community would make in a normal year.

KELLY: Just to describe some of the scenes, the Tarahumara run in sandals that lace up - leather sandals that lace up made from old tires. And there's a great scene where you show Silvino, who's one of the - maybe the most famous Tarahumara runner, this great champion. And he's watching footage of McDougall, the author of the book, and another American running barefoot in Central Park in New York.


SILVANO CUBESARE: (Speaking Spanish).

KELLY: And he kind of watches them and says, what are they thinking, running barefoot? That's crazy.


CUBESARE: (Speaking Spanish).

KELLY: I mean, you're making the point that the Tarahumara are running with what they have (laughter) out of necessity, not because of alleged performance benefits.

RUIZ: I'd always wondered whether someone had gone back and asked the Tarahumara, who refer to themselves as Raramuri, what they thought of this barefoot running craze. And so I thought this was a perfect opportunity to show some visual evidence of how it had become so popular - you know, something that I had seen in New York, people running barefoot through Central Park or down a Manhattan street. And so I thought, I want to get Silvino Cubesare - this veteran runner, as you point out - I wanted to get his reaction to this.

And what he says in the film is, you know, look. I grew up having to run barefoot. Why do these people suffer unnecessarily? I don't understand it. So I think that does point to this this bigger issue of, you know, what do we do sometimes as outsiders? Do we fetishize or romanticize a part of people's culture? I think, you know, more than cultural appropriation, what do we take away? Do we understand the full picture?

KELLY: Were there any moments that were uncomfortable for you as you made this film? I mentioned you're Mexican American. You have one foot in both of these cultures.

RUIZ: It's such a good question. I'm not an Indigenous filmmaker, but one thing that I do have a lot of experience in is telling stories about the places where insiders and outsiders negotiate power. And for me, the best example of that is the 2015 race that we documented in the film. In 2015, the ultramarathon was disrupted by cartel violence. There was a gunfight and killings. And you had this moment where the international race organizers really felt like they needed to cancel the race in order to protect the safety of the runners who'd come to the canyon to compete.

At the same time, the local Mexican organizers felt like, wait a second. Who are these gringos, these outsiders, to determine whether or not a race gets canceled? This is our town. It's not up to them to decide. And in the middle of all of this, the Indigenous runners are saying, wait a second. We came here to run so that we could get these vouchers so we could feed our families. So I think in the 2015 race, you have this moment where the power dynamics are laid bare, and you see how everybody sees the situation differently based on where they come from. And so for me, that's really the most fascinating part as a filmmaker and as a Mexican American filmmaker, you know, the way - looking at the way that people can view the world so differently based on where they come from.

KELLY: Bernardo Ruiz, thank you.

RUIZ: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Bernardo Ruiz is the director of "The Infinite Race," which premieres today on ESPN.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORRES SONG, "THREE FUTURES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.