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A Hidden Tribe of Superathletes

The Tarahumara are an indigenous people of 50-70,000 who inhabit a small part of northwestern Mexico known as the Copper Canyon. Unlike many Native American tribes in Mexico during the 16th century, the Tarahumara were able to avoid the Spanish conquistadors and preserve their traditional lifestyle of farming, raising cattle, and living in natural shelters.

Oh, and running. A lot.

Tarahumara, or as they’re also known, Rarámuri, means “swift of foot”, “running people”, and “he who walks well” in their native tongue. But when you consider that their elite athletes are able to run distances of 400+ miles in just over two days (read: 15 marathons in two days), superlatives seem more fitting than epithets when describing this superhuman tribe.

But the Tarahumara don’t just possess superior long-distance running abilities. A 2008 study by National Geographic found that they are invulnerable to most diseases, as well as many of the sociological problems that plague “modern” society:

“When it comes to the top 10 health risks facing American men, the Tarahumara are practically immortal: Their incidence rate is at or near zero in just about every category, including diabetes, vascular disease, and colorectal cancer…Plus, their supernatural invulnerability isn’t just limited to their bodies; the Tarahumara have mastered the secret of happiness as well, living as benignly as bodhisattvas in a world free of theft, murder, suicide, and cruelty.”

A hurried view of the video below would suggest that in order to achieve a similar level of enlightenment, all we have to do is drink a lot of beer, and go run outside without shoes. But since I’m sure many of us are already no strangers to just such an activity, it seems there must be something we’re missing. While it’s likely we won’t understand their superhuman health anytime soon, many suggest that the Tarahumara’s method of toe-strike running may be a key to their incredible endurance.

And while I tend to agree with the sentiments of our 1880’s brethren, for those interested, there is an entire web community dedicated to running barefoot. If you’re fearful of stepping on sharp rocks and debris during your morning jog, there’s always the Crocs of the running world, Vibram Five Fingers. Or, like the Tarahumara, you could fashion sandals out of old tires tossed into the Copper Canyon.

If you have some free time over the holiday break, check out Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, as well as this feature in National Geographic.

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