The Volcano Runners

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, November 1996

The Volcano Runners
No elite runners train at higher altitude, or suffer more, than the human lungs who roam these oxygen-starved slopes. And yet Mexico's great marathoners still labor under a faint cloud, still not the very best. Like the nation itself, are they cursed with disappointment, or is their time about to come?

By John Brant

"The volcano," murmurs Rodolfo Gomez, gesturing out the windshield of his Ford Explorer as if introducing a distinguished elderly relative. Xinantecatl is an ancient name, Gomez explains, bestowed by the Aztecs, who for centuries offered human sacrifices to Tlaloc, their rain god, in the harsh and beautiful dormant crater. Later, Hernžn Cortës himself watched the light change on this mountain, which the conquistadores called Nevado de Toluca. Those Nahua Indians who survived Cortës's savagery continued their crater-based religious practices, although they amended their rituals to appease a pale, new kind of God.

"We are lucky today," says Gomez, adjusting his hands on the steering wheel. "Last week, there were several inches of snow. Of course, we still ran."

At 15,016 feet, Xinantecatl is the fourth-highest peak in Mexico and the highest place in the world where elite distance runners train regularly. Nobody, not even Kenya's fabled runners or the Americans and foreigners living in Boulder, Colorado, run at such heights. Yet from this point along the highway, the mountain seems less than foreboding. Unlike Mount Hood or Mount Shasta, her volcanic sisters far to the north, Xinantecatl fails to come to a head in a classic geometrical cone. She spouts no ashen signs of imminent seismic activity, as does Popocatepetl, her grumbly and slightly higher neighbor to the southeast, nor is she graced by a year-round crown of snow. Rather than thrusting dramatically above the surrounding plains, Xinantecatl rises gradually, organically, from the tablelands of the country's high central plateau. She seems to resolve her surrounding landscape rather than dominate it. She is a volcano to revere, but also one to use.

No present-day Mexican uses Xinantecatl more faithfully or knows her more intimately than the 45-year-old Gomez, who was considered to be Mexico's first world-class distance runner. He forged his success in the crucible of this volcano back in the 1970s, basing his then revolutionary altitude training on withering, lonely three-week sojourns into the mouth of the one-by-one-half-mile-wide crater, running 20 miles a day in and out of it.

Now he's a coach, and the volcano remains at the center of his--and his protëgës'--universe. Gomez and his mountain have produced many of the world's finest marathoners, including Mexicans Andrës Espinosa, German Silva, and Benjamin Paredes, as well as Rolando Vera of Ecuador and Kenjiro Jitsui of Japan. Americans Mark Plaatjes and Ed Eyestone occasionally have come to the volcano to reap its much-touted benefits, some of which are purely physical and some, so the runners say, spiritual. In the radically thin air of Xinantecatl, a runner attempts to re-create his body at the cellular level--boosting red blood cell concentrations and increasing the ability of the blood to deliver oxygen to the muscles. Gomez calls it "natural blood doping."

Thus strengthened by their time on the volcano, Mexican runners have won four of the last five New York City Marathons and are favorites to take another this month. Despite this enviable record, however, Mexican distance runners labor under a faint cloud of disappointment and underachievement. The nation has produced no Olympic gold medal winner, no world-record holder, no Boston marathon champion--fairly or not, the requisite pedigrees for distance running superstardom. No single athlete has fixed the Mexican runner in the world's eye, much as Haile Gebrselassie has fixed the Ethiopians or Cosmas Ndeti has the Kenyans. Some might argue that Mexico's marathoners, like the nation in general, remain distinguished more by their potential than by their achievements.

We continue winding upward, and pass a hostel where two young children staff a Chiclets and tortilla and soft drink stand--the inescapable roadside concession. Stopping at road's end, well above treeline but still four miles from the crater, the sense of anticlimax vanishes, and the glory of Xinantecatl becomes manifest. Against the bleached sky, the serrated lip of the crater shoots craggy fingers of red and jet-black rock. The silence is radical, oceanic. Popocatepetl and Ajusco, two neighboring peaks, ride like ships above a dense sea of clouds eclipsing the city of Toluca and spilling east back through the valley beyond Mexico City.

A coal-eyed, sturdily built marathoner named Paola Cabrera climbs from our car, followed by the coach's son, Rodolfo Gomez Jr., who is a sophomore at Colorado State University and himself one of Mexico's most promising middle distance runners. Cabrera strips down to tights and begins running up the road beneath a mile-wide rock face, a spill of old lava and scree. For an elite marathoner she runs slowly, barely at a seven-minute-a-mile pace; with so little oxygen flushing her system, she can't run faster. Slowly, surely, she grows small against the ridge. She's up here today for a solo workout, but on other days the mountain teems with runners. They leave their family and friends, their treadmills and masseuses, to live for up to 20 days as ascetics in a cramped, primitive stone hut perched on the side of the mountain. From there, they embark on their lung-searing work, a bitter communion with rock, water, wind, and sky.

As we watch Cabrera wend up the slope and toward the lip of the volcano, Junior, who is sitting out today's run because of a stress fracture, points to an escarpment jutting into the sky. He's making out a nose, chin, and forehead in profile.

"See the face up there?" says Junior, smiling. "That's my father. The runners joke that they can never relax because my father is always here, always watching them."

The cold is the worst thing, Adriana Fernandez notes, huddled into her greatcoat, her breath visible inside Xinantecatl's hostel on this summer morning. She slices ripe mango into a deep bowl of yogurt and slathers honey over the concoction.

Other runners especially mind the loneliness, she says. And still others can't abide the sleeplessness. This pitiless, thin air does not let you sleep, she explains. Try to sleep on your chest and you wake up gasping after an hour or two. She shakes her head forlornly. The pain can be worse than the sprint finish of a 10k race.

Fernandez takes her fruit and, since the hut has no table, perches on the edge of a bunk, balancing her bowl on one knee and a mug of tea on the other. Dust motes swim in the sunshine slanting through streaked windows. Vague scurries of mice are heard coming from the room's corners. The atmosphere seems almost comically austere. After 25 years and the presence of some of the world's best distance runners, the hut remains as squalid as the day Gomez discovered it while training for the 1972 Olympics. Administered by Mexico's park service, it was built for backpackers, but almost all of its recent tenants have been distance runners.

At the stove, Fernandez's training partner, Patricia Jardon, dishes out heaping portions of scrambled eggs and green chiles. The women soon apply themselves ravenously to their breakfasts. The stark rhythms of the mountain have already established themselves, the days turning on an iron wheel of running, eating, sleeping, and more running. The women have run once into the crater this morning, and after lunch and a short rest they will run again. A quiet, self-possessed native of Mexico City, Fernandez is preparing to represent Mexico in the Olympic marathon in Atlanta (she will finish 51st). Her 2:31.59 in Houston in January and her win in the 10,000 at the Mount San Antonio College Relays in California a few weeks ago proved she was ready for bigger things. Now, for a final mental and physical boost, Gomez has brought her to Xinantecatl. Even after a little time at the volcano, Fernandez explains, huddling deeper into her coat, you feel capable of handling any kind of pain back on lower ground.

As the women finish their meal, Junior, Gomez, and I leave the hostel to begin climbing a steep trail to the lip of the crater. Junior leads the way lithely, followed by Gomez. As we climb, the talk turns to the lack of a transcendent Mexican runner, whose example might lure gifted young Mexican athletes away from more popular sports such as soccer and boxing.

Gomez asserts it's only money that stands between a Mexican runner and a breakthrough performance. "Everybody pays such attention to the Africans," Gomez complains. "The big shoe companies give the Kenyans money and support; everybody in the developed world is so eager to help them. But when they regard Mexico..." He shakes his head tersely. "Without such support, the young runners must go back to their homes and get jobs to live and feed their families," he goes on. "They forget about their training. With just a little bit of money," he concludes, moving easily over the scree, "I could save many of these young ones."

In fact, Nike does sponsor two Mexican runners, but just two: Espinosa and Dionicio Ceron, three-time winner of the London Marathon. According to Erin Kendrigan, a Nike spokesperson, more money might be available for the Mexicans if they were more dominant, "like the Kenyans."

Climbing toward the crater of Xinantecatl, however, it's difficult not to think in more sweeping, historical terms than cash donations. Many modern Mexican writers and thinkers speculate that even after five centuries, the Aztec response to the Conquest is still taking shape. They theorize that Mexico, with its vast natural resources, its massive population, and its patiently blended Indian and European cultures, stands just a single honest government administration, perhaps a few more years of NAFTA, from greatness. Others are less optimistic, observing that the endless conflict between Indian and European, and the eternal question of what it means to be mestizo, has simultaneously inspired and confounded Mexican artists, writers, and political and religious leaders. And, in their way, distance runners.

"Before I started in 1968, the only runners in this country were the farmers, the country people, the campesinos," Gomez says, calling back over his shoulder. "The campesinos, you know, are dark-skinned. They can grow no beards. Like most Mexicans, I am also part Indian, but I was from the city. I had pale skin and a full beard. The campesinos," he recalls, his face darkening with the memory, "called me Cortës."

Indeed, the role of Cortës might more properly be attributed to a Polish running coach named Tadeusz Kepka. In 1966, in preparation for the '68 Olympic Games to be held in Mexico City, the Mexican government hired Kepka to develop a team of distance runners from the host country. Trained in the rigorous, Communist Bloc style of sports science, Kepka discovered jaw-dropping potential in Mexico. Here, along the central plateau, were millions of people who had lived their entire lives above 7,000 feet. Here was a race of wiry, bellows-lunged descendants of an ancient running tradition, whose staple diet consisted of corn and beans, ideal distance-running fuel. Here, finally, were millions of young people living in the poverty requisite, the coach believed, for them to accept the deprivations of the distance-running life. Kepka, who took up permanent residence in Mexico, foresaw that the '68 Games, the first to be held at altitude and the first to take place in a developing nation, would irrevocably change the sport.

The Mexico City Games bore out Kepka's theories. Although Ethiopian Abebe Bikila had won the marathon in both the '60 and '64 Olympics, 1968 marked the full-scale arrival of African distance runners. The image of Kip Keino of Kenya trouncing a gasping Jim Ryun in the 1,500 meters symbolized the radically changed paradigm in the sport. From then on, most of the best distance runners would come from the Third World, and most would come from altitude. From his home in the northern city of Chihuahua, 17-year-old Rodolfo Gomez watched these developments avidly. When he saw his countryman finish fourth in the Olympic 10,000, Gomez bragged to his friends that he could run fast, too. A race was arranged with some of the best runners in the area. Gomez won easily and soon set off for Mexico City, determined to train with Kepka.

The middle-aged Polish immigrant and the young Mexican formed a remarkably close and productive relationship. The two began working together on Xinantecatl, and within a few years Gomez had won an athletic scholarship to the University of Texas at El Paso, a track-and-field powerhouse, and had developed into a world-class 5,000- and 10,000-meter runner. He found his true mëtier in the marathon, however, making three consecutive Olympic teams, in 1976, 1980, and 1984.

The high-water mark of Gomez's competitive career came at the marathon in the Moscow Games. After training ferociously on Xinantecatl, he entered the race in the best shape of his life and led the pace through the early stages. He failed to take enough water, however, and over the last kilometers was passed by five runners. Stale and discouraged by his sixth-place finish, Gomez was sorely tempted to quit the sport, but he kept at it for another four unspectacular years.

Like much else about Gomez's career, its conclusion seems emblematic. "[Mexicans] are taught from childhood to accept defeat with dignity," writes the Mexican Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz. "Resignation is one of our most popular virtues. We admire fortitude in the face of adversity more than the most brilliant triumph."

At last our party of three crests the ridge and peers over the lip of the volcano into the crater. Two eyes shine up at us, reflecting the sky: the Lake of the Sun and the smaller Lake of the Moon. The lakes anchor the floor of a vast natural amphitheater, overlooked by soaring, crenellated battlements. The crater seems to be made up of scores of smaller craters, a welter of chambers, crevices, and canyons. Even though we've only been walking up to now, my heart thuds against my rib cage. As my breathing slows, I can make out perhaps a dozen white crosses of varying sizes, scattered through the heart of the crater. Neighboring villagers erect the crosses in observance of saints' days and other church festivals, Junior explains, just as their Aztec forebears rendered obeisance to Tlaloc at the same site. The elder Gomez points downward, and there, moving steadily, at midpoint between the two lakes, run Fernandez and Jardon. The pounding continues, but gradually I realize it's not the wild beating of my heart, but the women's footsteps, echoing off the rocks from a mile below.

Since they can't run fast in the extreme altitude of the volcano, Mexico's marathoners come to the Desert of the Lions for their speed work. The place takes its melodramatic name from the cougars that used to prowl these 9,500-foot-high pine forests in the foothills about a half-hour's drive west of Mexico City. The desert is in fact a cool, green patch of woods, a national park honeycombed by narrow but well-cushioned hiking trails. The sprawl of Mexico City--home to one out of every five Mexicans and expected to swell to 30 million people by the end of the century--tends to gobble up sites for serious running. At the Desert of the Lions, each morning's workout takes on a heightened, almost theatrical air. In the early coolness the inevitable peddlers establish makeshift fondas, or kiosks, their bills of fare tailored to a running clientele: Blenders whir, mixing fruit smoothies, and a woman sets to work kneading dark blue tortilla dough. Nearby, a vendor displays running shoes of questionable newness.

Junior informs me that there are more than a dozen sub-2:15 marathoners gathered this morning, all of them greeting one another with heartfelt handshakes and elaborate buenos dìas rituals. Espinosa, winner of the 1993 New York City Marathon and owner of the national record of 2:07.19, jogs beside two-time defending New York City champ German Silva, who will finish sixth in Atlanta. In another group a handsome, fair-skinned, almost delicate-looking Rolando Vera trots beside a bristling, bladelike Benjamin Paredes.

"Keep your eye on Paredes," says Rodolfo, standing calmly amid the roil of commerce, conversation, and passing bodies. "The world does not know him so well," he explains. "But some day they will."

Paredes's features bear a decidedly Indian cast, with high cheekbones, a sharp nose, and a hawklike brightness to his black eyes. He is 34 and has been running only since he was 26, an astonishingly late start for a world-class marathoner. As a younger man he raced bicycles and taught physical education at a secondary school near Toluca. Gomez watches him warm up. He and the other runners shake loose their limbs, spit, exchange small smiles, and shake hands again, in unspoken recognition of the punishing work at hand; three 6,000-meter repeats at 4:10 pace with four minutes of rest in between. Anywhere in the world, this workout would be a killer; at 9,500 feet, it seems unfathomable.

Gomez nods. The runners set their watches, look up expectantly. "Vžmanos," Espinosa says quietly, and they are off.

In those first vertiginous days after the '68 Games, the distance-running community panicked. It was as if Sputnik I had just been launched, and a swift response was needed. American runners fled to the Colorado Rockies and other mountains, where the fad of altitude-training cross-pollinated with the other rage of the time: long, slow distance. Athletic talent counted for very little; what mattered was the raw will to amass great wads of miles. If those slow, torturous miles were logged at altitude, if the body was forced to furiously expand its production of oxygen-bearing red corpuscles, then so much the better.

But by the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, with the ascendency in the marathon of such track-trained whippets as Carlos Lopes, Rob de Castella, and Alberto Salazar, the pendulum swung radically back in the direction of speed rather than distance, quality rather than quantity. The object was to run fast, not to suffer. If you spent your time running slow at altitude, went the new mantra, you'd only get good at running slow at altitude.

Today, altitude is again recognized as a significant component of world-class training, but many believe its chief advantage is psychological rather than physical. Coaches are continually tinkering with their athletes, mixing and matching altitude with hill and speed and base training, trying to capitalize on the latest data from the sports physiologists. Some of the most avant-garde research, for example, suggests that from a strictly physiological point of view, it would serve an athlete best to live at high altitude, which would promote the production of red blood cells, but train closer to sea level, where he could continue high-speed, high-quality workouts.

Gomez, for his part, stays abreast of the latest fads in research but strives to keep his program simple. The volcano is always at the center. "Trust is everything with an athlete," he says, studying the runners as they pass. "The runners know that I trained on the volcano and I understand its difficulties--and that I ran in the Olympics. With time they trust me."

Paredes finishes his last repeat looking dauntingly fresh and strong. After cooling down, he invites me for breakfast at a coffee shop in Toluca. We zip away from the Desert of the Lions in a shiny red sedan that he was awarded for winning a local road race. The race and his sponsor's name are emblazoned on the side of the car. As we enter the boom and wash of M15, Paredes explains that he is mostly Nahua, with roots in a village within sight of Xinantecatl. His grandmother, he explains, was a cargador--a direct descendent of the legendary tamemes, an ancient caste specializing in distance running. He passionately begins to tell of her prowess--walking miles bearing hundredweight loads over the mountain passes--but then suddenly, as if shy about revealing too much of himself, too much about his shadowed Indian blood, he shuts down.

Acolytes of distance, runners of staggering endurance and swiftness, the tamemes trained for their calling the way other Aztecs trained as priests or warriors or masons of the mighty pyramids. Shortly after his arrival in the new world, Cortës employed tamemes as couriers and freight-carriers. Sending a message from Veracruz to Moctezuma in Mexico City, a round-trip of 600 miles traversing 10,000-foot mountain passes, Cortës would get a reply in six days. As the Conquest widened in scope and ferocity, 8,000 tamemes carried the Spanish fleet in pieces from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Texcoco, near the capital. Later they bore the fleet on their backs all the way to the Pacific. Following the invasion, Spanish gold miners would saddle tamemes with up to 100 pounds of cargo per man and drive them 150 miles at a stretch without water or food. Runners' bones soon lay bleaching along the tortuous trails of the high plateau known as the malpaìs.

Pack animals eventually spared tamemes from the worst abuses, but some regions remained too forbidding even for mules. In the midnineteenth century, more than 300 years after Cortës, tamemes still worked in the mountains around Oaxaca. Their most starkly symbolic task was to carry the sillas de cabeza, chairs bearing their European employers.

For Gomez and his runners, it's hard not to second-guess history. Perhaps in a more just world, in a nation with a less shadowed and ambiguous history, the groan of the tamemes might have echoed down through time to find a clear and vindicating voice in the present. A distance-running descendent of the tamemes would have long since won Olympic gold, just as the sons and granddaughters of Rift Valley herdsmen have done for East African nations. Benjamin Paredes is painfully aware that no such Mexican runner has yet emerged.

"I'm going to focus on the Boston Marathon," he says, weaving in and out of traffic. "Espinosa set our national record at Boston, but he finished second, so nobody remembers. They only remember the winner, Cosmas Ndeti of Kenya. I'm going to be the first Mexican to win Boston."

A few days later, I feel sufficiently acclimatized to experience Xinatecatl's training effects firsthand. Gomez, Junior, and I set out from the hostel at a pace more like a fast walk than a run. "It's OK," Junior says reassuringly. "My father says even a walk up here can be of great benefit."

Half expecting corroboration, I glance up to Gomez's visage on the escarpment. Gray clouds sift around the high rock. A cool wind smelling of rain drifts from the west. "There have been 20-day stays in which you couldn't see the sun or the mountain at all," Junior says. "You can go through every emotion during that time. For some runners, especially ones from other countries, it's too long. They can't make it."

We move beneath the ancient lava spill. No matter how many times he runs here, Junior says, he always imagines the eruption. "That was a long time ago," he says. "But nobody seems to know exactly how long, not even the rangers." He makes a dismissive swipe back toward the hostel and ranger station. "The fact is, no one knows the volcano better than the runners. Unless it's the old ones from the villages. A few still know all the rituals going back to the time of Tlaloc."

Spend much time in Mexico and it becomes obvious how the myth of Tlaloc was rooted in the vagaries of rainfall in the malpaìs, where the high peaks shred clouds capriciously, drenching one side of a slope, leaving the other droughtstruck. It was only natural that the Aztec rain god--an ally of Quetzalcoatl, who brought the forces of light to the world--was thought to be a crater-dweller.

Not surprisingly, the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City owns a striking number of canvases depicting volcanoes of various shapes, sizes, and styles. They form the central theme of a few of the pictures. But in a greater number of paintings, including those by Rivera and Kahlo and Murillo, a volcano stands powerfully but delphically in the background, shading the work's atmosphere rather than dominating it, just as Xinantecatl works in the landscape of the malpaìs and just as it works in the minds, hearts, and capillaries of its runners. As surely as Xinantecatl will one day spout again, a Mexican runner will come down off the mountain to run a shining marathon; to resolve, if even for the span of a little over two hours, the tensions thrumming in his mixed blood, enriched by his vigil at the crater on Xinantecatl.

We run along the open, treeless side of the mountain. The wind has gathered an edge, and to the west, over the crater, the clouds have bunched and darkened. The approaching weather reminds Junior of the end of an especially grim 20-day period at the volcano, weeks when the runners never saw the peak or the sun. On the very last day, the very last workout, Espinosa and Silva decided they would celebrate by running back and forth into the crater naked. They waited until Fernandez and the other women had gone for their run, but of course she'd seen them on the way back to the hostel, the whole bunch laughing and whooping like Nahua from a century past, running into the volcano wearing only their shoes.

Another ten minutes and we're into the crater. Step by step we descend into a cathedral of rock. It's a Saturday, so high above on the cloud-strewn peaks we can see climbers and hikers from the city. On the shore of the Lake of the Sun, vendors from a nearby village are unloading poles for their fonda. Junior waves to the old woman slapping the blue tortilla dough.

As we thread between the lakes, the sky turns ominous. We stop briefly to inspect a small stone chapel, a shrine to the Virgin Mary, erected by the villagers of San Juan Ticapo. From above, the crater looks like a wild, forsaken place, Junior concedes, but explore it, walk in it, as he and other runners have done on so many Sundays, when only one run is scheduled, and you find all sorts of signs and artifacts, both ancient and modern. In the scree on the far side of the Lake of the Sun we encounter a cross memorializing a girl who fell to her death from the rocks on Christmas Eve 1989.

An icy wind buffets us as we make the wide turn around the lakes and begin to run back to the hut. Another few minutes and we're almost out of the crater. The sunny open side of the mountain is in sight when we hear strange popping noises all around us. Junior, with a strained face, says he's never heard this sound before. We move another ten strides before we slacken back down to our proper pace. Junior smiles sheepishly. The noise is only the voice of Tlaloc, tiny drops of rain whispering over the rocks of Xinantecatl.

John Brant is a contributing editor of Outside. He wrote about the Cousteau family and its recent troubles in the March issue.

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