Running: Let My People Burn Rubber

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1995

Running: Let My People Burn Rubber

As controversy swirls about their gringo coach, have we seen the last of the Tarahumara?
By John Tayman

After negotiating unseasonable snowdrifts and equally unseasonable 105-degree heat--not to mention 100 miles of mountain trails--the runners who finished the Western States 100 endurance race in Auburn, California, last July gathered in a high school auditorium for an awards ceremony. Not a lot of pomp (ultramarathon is a glitterless sport), just an occasion to congratulate Tim Twietmeyer, winner for the third time in four years, and to hand out silver belt buckles to all who completed this year's race.

Four competitors, however, were noticeably absent: the Tarahumara Indian runners Madero Herrera, Martin Ramirez, Martimiamo Cervantes, and Gabriel Bautista, three of whom finished in the top 12, with 24-year-old Bautista taking third. Earlier, in a scene oddly reminiscent of big-haired boxing promoter Don King working the angles at a heavyweight bout, Rick Fisher, the Tarahumara's American sponsor and chauffeur, had stormed the finish line after the last of his team crossed, accusing just about everyone in sight of cheating the Indians out of victory. Fisher also accused the race organizers of verbally and physically harassing them and--bizarre as it may sound--trying to "steal the Indians' blood." (Western States runners are asked to give a small blood sample after the race so that the effects of distance running on the human body can be studied, but Fisher believes that there are less ingenuous motives. "The Tarahumara blood is very, very rare," he's said. "The medical world wants to get its hands on it for genetic testing.") So instead of joining in the postrace bonhomie, Fisher passed out photocopies of a handwritten protest, and then he and the Tarahumara runners climbed into a motor home and left town.

In some sports, such goings-on are just another day at the track. But in ultramarathon--notorious for its feel-good, everybody's-a-winner ways--Fisher's behavior was like someone letting the air out of the pigskin at the Super Bowl. In the weeks following the race, moreover, Fisher upped the stakes, calling for an investigation into whether competitors stole course markers so that the Tarahumara would lose their way, claiming that race volunteers colluded to thwart a Tarahumara sweep, and suggesting that one top runner abused steroids. He also compared the Tarahumara's treatment by the ultramarathon community to the genocide that the "Tibetans suffered at the hands of the Chinese" and announced that, after this year, he wouldn't be bringing the Tarahumara back to the United States to race.

Fisher's tirade marks a curiously sad end to an experiment that began three years ago with what seemed like the best of intentions. A 43-year-old writer, explorer, and guide, Fisher had spent nearly a decade exploring Mexico's Copper Canyon and befriending its indigenous Tarahumara people when he seized on the notion of escorting a few of them north to compete in ultramarathons. The Tarahumara rarely ran outside Mexico, but their culture is famous for its traditional 50 to 200-mile footraces, and Fisher thought some publicity for the runners might focus attention on their troubles at home, such as famine and the deforestation of Copper Canyon.

Obtaining a little gas money from friends and sponsors, Fisher and Team Tarahumara descended upon the 1992 Leadville 100-Mile Run, a high-altitude race on terrain similar to the Indians' own stomping grounds. They were a hit. Racing at first in black Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers and later in their standard tire-soled sandals, the Tarahumara runners charmed the crowd and impressed fellow contestants, effortlessly leading the race until the 40-mile mark, where they dropped out. The next year, with a better understanding of the course, Tarahumara runners took first, second, and fifth places.

But even as they found success--a Tarahumara named Juan Herrera won the Leadville race in 1994 as well--their accomplishments were overshadowed by Fisher's overzealous style, which, as he explained often, was necessary to keep "white guys" from taking advantage of the Indians as "they've done for generations." According to other competitors, Fisher's method of protecting his charges involved everything from vehement protests to charging individuals as much as $20 to be photographed with them--even forcing his body between them and anyone who approached to shake their hands or pat their backs. "You must not touch them in a controlling way," he says, "or you will pay. In their culture that's considered criminal assault."

While race directors enjoyed the increased competition and media exposure that the Tarahumara brought to ultramarathons, some say they soon began to dread Fisher's outbursts--and hence the Indians' appearances. "Frankly, he's a difficult character," says Antonio Rossmann, president of the Western States 100. "There's something loose with the guy, and it comes off as greed and a sense of guardianship." By last summer's Western States race, Fisher and to some extent the Tarahumara themselves had worn thin on the ultramarathon community at large. Fisher says that's fine by him. "I could care less about the ultra community," he says. "I don't care about white people. I like for the Tarahumara to kick white butt."

With access to them so jealously guarded, it's difficult to know how Bautista and the other Indian runners feel about Fisher's behavior, but Bernard Fontana, a retired ethnologist and author of the highly regarded book Tarahumara, scoffs at the notion that the Indians need coddling. "I don't understand why he shields them," he says. "It's a patronizing thing to do in any circumstances."

The Tarahumara, of course, could return to the United States on their own, although Fisher is the only person who's brought them north to date. "He won't stay away," says Twietmeyer. "He's like a guy who runs out onto the baseball field during a game so he can get on television."

For now, Fisher says he'll continue to manage the Tarahumara runners. This month he's sponsoring the first ultramarathon in Copper Canyon, a 150-kilometer race on the Indians' ancestral trails, and says that he'll take them to Europe to race next summer. "As top athletes, they're not interested in all the race and political stuff that people thrust in their faces," he says. "I'm here to insulate them from all that controversy. The Indians, man, they just want to run."

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