ABOUT 2:30 ON A CHILLY MORNING IN THE MOUNTAINS east of Salt Lake City, two men in loincloths, T-shirts and tire-sole sandals trot toward the finish line of the Wasatch Front 100-mile Endurance Run. For most competitors, the race, conducted over forest trails and mile-high mountains, is a body-breaking test of conditioning and willpower. For Gabriel Bautista, 25, and Martimiano Fuentes, 43, Tarahumara Indians from northern Mexico's Sierra Madre, it looks like an easy jog. After 21½ hours of running, with only 10 five-minute breaks, they have barely broken a sweat and are showing no visible signs of pain or fatigue. As they breeze across the finish line an astounding 90 minutes ahead of the next runner, Bautista and Fuentes clasp hands in a gesture of solidarity. Moments later, they nonchalantly move beyond the lights, spectators and friends to sit and wait for Felipe Torres, 25, a third Tarahumara, who will finish sixth. Quietly sipping beer, they seem unimpressed by their victory. "I like the United States," Bautista says in Spanish, smiling. "I want to come back. But now it's time to go home."

For Bautista and his teammates, who live in a remote mountainous area about 800 miles northwest of Mexico City, just getting home is a challenge; scratching out a living there is tougher than any 100-mile race. Health workers estimate that 60 percent of the population of 50,000 Tarahumara has tuberculosis, and half of all babies die in infancy, many from malnutrition. Three years ago, Rick Fisher, a Tucson-based outdoor guide and amateur anthropologist, started a campaign to use the tribe's legendary long-distance runners to publicize the Tarahumaras' plight and help them buy food. Since then, Fisher, 43, and his wife, Kitty Williams Fisher, 37, have brought 30 or so of the best runners to the U.S. to compete in ultramarathons. So far those runners have won or finished in the top five in seven races—without the benefit of modern training, high-tech running shoes or corporate sponsors. Most of the races offer no monetary prizes, so Fisher raises money through private donations to pay each racer a stipend, which in Utah was $500. "They're running so they can feed the family back home," says Fisher. "It's not just a sport with them. It's a matter of life and death."

You wouldn't know it from their running and training style. In addition to the homemade sandals, the three racers sport colorful leather waist-belts decorated with jingling bells. "I like to hear the music," says Bautista. "It helps me focus." While their 150 or so well-trained, carbo-loaded opponents wash down their energy bars with sports drinks, the Tarahumara prefer bean burritos and pinole, a watery bean-and-corn mixture they drank from an orange-colored gourd. They don't stretch before races; instead they might be found smoking filterless cigarettes and drinking lots of beer.

And who's to argue? In the Utah race, Bautista and Fuentes—whose victory was unofficial because Fisher missed the sign-up date—ran slow and steady for the first 50 miles, then took the lead at 56 miles. By the 70th mile—around 9 p.m., 16 hours after they had started—they found the energy to speed up again. One American runner said he felt he was standing still when the Tarahumaras passed him. "It's like they warm up after 80 miles," says Fisher. "That's when they get their strength, and that's when they leave everybody behind."

After the race, Rick and Kitty, a runner herself, drive the Tarahumaras hundreds of miles back to their homeland, an isolated region of deep canyons and pine-forested plateaus. In the past, the remoteness of their tribal lands has helped the Tarahumara preserve their culture and simple way of life. Now forces beyond their control threaten to change that. The government has built roads into the canyons, and logging companies have begun to cut down the forests. Marijuana growers have also taken a liking to the area because it's hard for drug officials to patrol. All of this has pushed the Tarahumara, historically a nonbelligerent tribe, deeper into the canyons and farther away from the towns where they can get food and health care. "Deforestation chips away at the forest they call home," says the director of state services for the Tarahumaras, Luis Hijar. "They must learn to live by new rules." But as Bautista suggests more poetically, "If you cut down the trees, who will call the rain?"

One set of rules at the heart of their culture is unlikely to change: that of the footrace. They call themselves the Raramuri, "Those Who Run," and believe that their ancestors fell to the earth as raindrops and started sprinting as soon as they hit the ground. As it turned out, long distances between villages encouraged running. In particular, during festivals the men of one village often challenge those in another to a race through the mountains that can last several days and nights and extend up to 150 miles, with contestants kicking a small, wooden ball. "I've been running all my life," Bautista, a frequent participant, says. "I run to get somewhere and to have fun." Their running prowess also helps them chase prey. "Sometimes we will run for days, following a deer," Torres says. "Then when the deer gets tired, we catch it."

At first the Tarahumara found competing in the U.S. baffling. In 1992, when they entered their first race, the runners had a hard time grasping the idea of running without kicking something. So they just stopped, less than halfway through the race. "They were bored," says Williams Fisher. "There was no ball." During that first race they also strapped on belts carrying water bottles, which were unfamiliar, so they never took a sip from them. At aid stations, they wouldn't accept food because they considered it rude to take things from strangers. In another early race, at the midway point, the Tarahumara entrants kicked off the running shoes a well-intentioned Fisher had bought them and slipped on huaraches. "Little details, but it's all part of the culture," says Fisher. "Who else can smoke a filterless cigarette, put on a pair of sandals and run 100 miles?"

Back home from Utah, the runners hike several hours up valley trails to reach their families, carrying sacks of cloth and items purchased with their racing stipends. Torres lives in a dirt-floor, 12-foot-by-12-foot log shack with his wife, 3-year-old daughter, infant son, his wife's parents, brother-in-law and sister. He must feed them all with his outside earnings, since his meager crop of corn appears to be a failure. However on his U.S. trip he did buy a $6 digital watch that plays "Dixie."

As for Bautista, who unlike many Tarahumara prefers to wear trousers, he also shares a shack with his family, along with some goats, a rooster and a hen. He bought a white cowboy hat and a transistor radio, but plans to. share his food purchases with needier villagers—a Tarahumara custom. His home is perched on a picturesque mountain slope, and though he admits times are tough and that the outside world seems to be closing in, he doesn't believe that his culture—and its running tradition—will disappear. "Those things don't affect us," he says proudly. "We are Tarahumara. We know how to live."

RON ARIAS
BETTY CORTINA in Utah and the Sierra Madre

  • Contributors:
  • Betty Cortina.