Fortunately all photographic evidence has long been destroyed, but there was a time when I briefly belonged to the barefoot running cult. This was roughly ten years ago. Like millions of others, I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run and realized that I’d been duped by big running shoe companies who had sold me something that I didn’t actually need. Newly enlightened, I did the only rational thing and spent $160 on a pair of shoes that mimicked the sensation of running barefoot. I felt sorry for the idiots I saw on my daily park loop who were still caught in the cushioning-is-necessary matrix. I exchanged nods with the local hippie guy who always ran in sandals. After a few weeks, however, I became disillusioned. The anticipated breakthrough in my running never came. What’s more, none of the top professionals seemed to be ditching their plush footwear and going minimalist. If they weren’t doing it, why should I? In the end, I was relieved to go back to wearing regular old running shoes; my feet were really starting to hurt.
The seismic influence of Born to Run also haunts The Infinite Race, the latest installment of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, which is slated for release on December 15. Directed by Mexican-American filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, the film leans heavily on first-hand accounts from the Tarahumara. In case you happen to be one of the ten people who didn’t read McDougall’s book, these are the indigenous residents of Mexico’s Copper Canyon whose stupendous feats of (minimally shod) endurance have been relentlessly mythologized since Born to Run became a bestselling hit in 2009. Among other things, The Infinite Race seeks to de-exoticize its subject. Late in the film, there’s a scene in which Silvino Cubesare, a Tarahumara farmer and quasi-celebrity on the international ultrarunning circuit, is watching footage of McDougall and a New York Times journalist jogging barefoot in Central Park. “I don’t know what they’re thinking,” Cubesare says. “Why do they want to run barefoot? I think they are crazy.”
While Cubesare is merely incredulous that anyone with the means to purchase functional running shoes would willingly go without, Irma Chávez, a Tarahumara activist and moral conscience of Ruiz’s film, is more cynical. She regards the barefoot running industry as an insult—an attempt to profit off a misconception that the Tarahumara run with minimalist sandals because of alleged performance benefits, rather than out of necessity. This, in Chávez’s view, is consistent with a long legacy of external forces projecting their narratives on her people. Even the name “Tarahumara,” for instance, came from the Conquistadors; natives call themselves the Rarámuri. As for the ultramarathons, Chavez says she does not regard them as part of her heritage. Running, on the other hand, is essential, though traditional Tarahumara “races” are collaborative efforts. The men’s version, called rarajipari, involves repeatedly punting a wooden ball over vast distances and giving chase, while the women’s equivalent, ariweta, is a similar concept with a stick and hoop. The Infinite Race begins and ends with glorious, sweeping aerial shots of the Tarahumara engaged in this activity. It is suggested that what we are looking at is not a competition, so much as an act of preservation.
“Running,” Chavez says, “is our resistance to imposition.”
Imposition from whom? For one thing, there are the narcotraficantes. Due to its agricultural potential and remote location in the mountains of the Mexican border state of Chihuahua, Copper Canyon has long been plagued by drug violence, with the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels vying for territorial control. Over the years, the Tarahumara have had their lands seized; its people have been coerced into smuggling drugs into the United States.
Less menacing is an insidious uptick in ultrarunning tourism, as an ever-growing number of Born to Run-inspired “locos” make the annual pilgrimage to the town of Urique for the “Ultra Maratón Caballo Blanco.” In The Infinite Race, we meet an American adventure blogger and über-bro named Ryan van Duzer. When he travels to Urique to attend the 2015 event, he is wearing one of those Colorado logo hoodies and sticks his head out of a train window to scream “yee-haw” into the Chihuahua countryside. “I didn’t think they’d have a race store,” Duzer says later on, while brandishing a Caballo Blanco shot glass. “This is great!”
Not everyone feels the same way. The dilemma at the heart of The Infinite Race is whether the fundraising initiatives and positive impact of the Caballo Blanco ultra on the local economy has also forced the region to sell some of its soul. The ambivalence is embodied in Cecilia Villalobos, Urique’s former director of tourism and co-organizer of the town’s famous race. Initially, Villalobos says, the ultramarathon benefitted the region, but soon foreigners were “coming in like mold.” (No wonder she’s the former director of tourism.)
Most of these interlopers didn’t actually end up participating in 2015. After a surge in drug violence forced a controversial last-minute cancellation of the race—a decision that, according to Villalobos, was unilaterally made by the non-local contingent of the organizing team—an abbreviated version was staged by the municipality of Urique, which wanted to salvage some version of the event. “I didn’t see the face of a single foreign runner,” Villalobos says of the ad hoc event. “And I thought, how ironic. Where are all those folks who support the Tarahumaras?”
Josué Stephens, one of the foreign (and now also former) directors of the Caballo Blanco ultra, isn’t portrayed all too favorably in The Infinite Race—though one can hardly blame him for canceling the event after witnessing armed cartel members raid the Urique police station and kidnap several officers. As Stephens notes in the documentary, the move by local leadership to override the decision to cancel and stage an event anyway was almost certainly motivated by a fear of negative publicity.
In the wake of the 2015 debacle, the Caballo Blanco ultra has been primarily organized by the municipality of Urique. Likewise, The Infinite Race can be viewed as an attempt to reclaim part of the Tarahumara myth on behalf of the Rarámuri. Throughout the documentary, we see footage of McDougall promoting Born to Run (whose subtitle reads: “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”) in various high-profile media outlets. Thanks, it must be said, to some rather selective editing, we repeatedly hear McDougall say that he “discovered” the Tarahumara—a people he at one point refers to as a “Smithsonian exhibit come to life.” And yet, the documentary is less a dreary sermon about the perils of cultural appropriation, so much as a reminder that there’s always another side to the story.