The Rarámuri are an Indigenous People who live in the canyons of northern Mexico. The name means “those who run fast”. Long-distance running has been an integral aspect of the Rarámuri culture, both for necessities such as communication and hunting, as well as for social activities such as ceremonies and competitions.
The Rarámuri have been known to run up to 200 miles in one session, typically over a period of two days. Part of the Rarámuri’s success is due to how they view running. American culture tends to puts an emphasis on competing individuals, so when it comes to running we tend to maximize one outcome (speed) for one person. The Rarámuri run in a group, which provides support and camaraderie, a method to pace themselves, and a learning environment where running style can be learned slowly and perfected.
Research by scientists such as Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman shows parallels between the knowledge produced in modern ergonomics labs and the Indigenous practices of the Rarámuri. For example, along with their traditional styles, the use of thin leather sandals called huaraches-- rather than the thick rubber sneakers of conventional runners-- encourages certain changes in posture: significantly more flexed knees and hips, and significantly more plantarflexion (downward pointed toes) at the ankles. In addition to maximizing the efficiency of their running posture, the Rarámuri use dietary innovations to maximize available energy, such as pinole.
Pinole, a mix of corn with lime, toasted grains, and spices, is a nutrient rich food invented by the Rarámuri and other Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. In the early 20th century thousands of Americans were dying from pellagra, caused by vitamin B deficiency. It turns out that lime (calcium hydroxide) releases vitamin B from corn. By removing the lime from native corn recipes like pinole, we had unintentionally removed the vitamin B. The American quest for efficiency backfired. The more science advances, the more we see the need for respecting Indigenous knowledge.
Books about the Rarámuri created the barefoot running movement, and inspired the creation of the new the “Nike Free” line of footwear, “toe shoes” and other innovations worth millions of dollars. You can even buy pinole snack cups! And yet none of this wealth is returned to the Rarámuri. Around the world today, groups are attempting to establish intellectual property rights for Indigenous cultures. That is one reason why efforts to “translate” between Indigenous knowledge and science is so important.
Catalina Rascón, a 15-year-old Rarámuri runner, is training among a group of 25 of her fellow Rarámuri to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She says that the most difficult aspect of her training is adapting to shorter distance races, “I already miss the long-distance races…My first competitive race was against adults, on a 60km course, when I was 12. I won that one. These suit my natural style: the tiredness becomes mental after a while, and the freedom I feel when I run makes it easy.” Catalina hopes to win gold at the 2020 Olympics.