Why the Tarahumara Run Ultra-Long Distances
The Tarhumara of Northern Mexico, or "Rarámuri," which means “light feet” or “runners on foot," are known worldwide for their ability to run ultra long distances. Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book "Born to Run," popularized the concept of the Tarahumara as superathletes.
Harvard anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, Daniel Lieberman, views the Tarahumara's running achievement with a different perspective. As the lead author of “Running in Tarahumara (Rarámuri) Culture," he and his co-writers point out that there are many more social and contexual layers to the Tarahumara's running culture.
This argument aims to discredit notions of the Tarahumara being able to run such long distances because they are unaffected by Western Civilization. Instead of this outdated perspective, there are instead social and spiritual reasons that foster a culture of running. In this paper's abstract, they argue the following:
"To place Tarahumara running more appropriately into its larger social and functional contexts, we combined our own observations and ethnographic evidence with interviews of 10 elderly Tarahumara runners about running during hunting as well as during footraces. We detail how running played an integral role in persistence hunting, in which groups of hunters employed a variety of methods to chase animals on foot. Running during hunting, moreover, is linked to men’s and women’s footraces, and both kinds of running are considered powerful forms of prayer. Long-distance running is also related to endurance dances that have important spiritual dimensions. Although the Tarahumara do not train to run in any traditional Western sense, and not all of them are great runners, the Tarahumara, like many Native American peoples, consider running, along with other endurance-based activities, to be important social and spiritual pursuits."
Award-winning journalist and science & endurance writer, Alex Hutchinson, writes an analysis of the academic paper called "Reexamining the Mythology of the Tarahumara Runners." He alludes to these social and spiritual elements here:
"There are some beautiful passages in the article where the Tarahumara elders “likened the effort of guiding the unpredictable ball over the lengthy race to navigating the complex, chaotic journey of life.” It’s a form of prayer and of forging social ties within and among communities."
While the view of the Tarahumara as superathletes can be misconstrued and can perpetuate a crude fallacy, the label of a superathlete can be better understood and appreciated with cultural and social context. For example, my grandfather has a close connection with the Rarámuri. He's been an interpreter for them for decades. Moreover, pinole, a ground corn superfood that is used a fuel for their long distance runs has been a part of my family food tradition for centuries.
When thinking of the Tarahumara as superathletes and attempting to share information about the Tarahumara on social media, there can be empowerment to the term superathlete. There can be great pride and respect. The difference, though, is explaining that the superpower isn't innate, and that there's cultural and social context to consider.