Running: Let My People Burn Rubber
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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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.