Husbandry and Running: Thoreau Meets the Tarahumara


This paper will compare the ancient art of running as seen in Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, with the art of husbandry as discussed by Henry David Thoreau in Walden. There are clear and strong similarities between the two, especially regarding a spiritual connection to the land and benefits that come from this connection.
There are other strong connections between the works. Thoreau’s “Walking” is strongly seen all over McDougall’s research. Going on a long distance run is much like going for a hike, or sauntering, as Thoreau discusses. Runners often set out in a direction simply because they want to see something beautiful or get a feel for the land surrounding them. This is much like what Thoreau discusses.
The decision was made to focus on two similarities between running and husbandry that are clear in both texts. The first is the spiritual connection to the land. The second is a product of this connection where a person benefits in gaining positive virtues essentially bettering themselves through the land. The Tarahumara, as shy as they are to outsiders, do not really give interviews. Therefore it is essential to see ways as interpreted by McDougall and his crew of accompanying ultra-runners.
This is frightening at first, as it is necessary to interpret emotions and sentiments out of actions. Yet in the ensuing lives of McDougall’s crew, there is overwhelming evidence that the American runners continue to live their lives inspired by the ways of the Tarahumara. Scott Jurek, possibly the best runner on earth, designed a minimalist shoe inspired by the near barefoot running Tarahumara. Jenn Shelton continues to run and discuss the connection with bettering herself. Billy Barnett perhaps is the clearest example as he dropped competitive running altogether, yet continues to run extremely long distances. In his blog he discusses very clearly what a deep and meaningful spiritual connection he is granted with the earth as a product of running and connecting to the earth. Not to mention Micah True, who dropped everything in order to move to the Copper Canyons with the Tarahumara before the book was written.
I find confidence in these runners since their experience with the Tarahumara, that the interpreted spiritual connection is strong. That running does serve to better their lives. These two aspects are notions very similar to what Thoreau discusses as a part of husbandry. This should not be surprising, since running is an even more ancient art than husbandry itself.

Husbandry and Running: Thoreau Meets the Tarahumara

Deep inside Mexico’s Copper Canyons lives a Native American tribe called the Tarahumara. Protected by an environment considered treacherous by outsiders, the Tarahumara, also known as Raramuri, cling to their ancient beliefs and way of life. For the most part the Copper Canyons, in the Sierra Madre mountain range, serve to shield the tribe allowing it to resist modern technology so that they may continue living according to their values. For this, the tribe remains a mystery to the world.
However over the last decade the tribe has gained a kind of cult fandom. The upsurge in curiosity about the Tarahumara is largely due to one particularly fascinating tradition in their community. Raramuri, from children to the elderly, run for transportation. Due to vast distances between their settlements, they will regularly cover hundreds of miles to get from place to place, often taking days to get there.
This astonishing athleticism inspired journalist and amateur runner Christopher Mcdougall to travel to Mexico, eventually writing a book documenting his experience called Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. What McDougall finds over time is that running, while an important method of transportation, is not solely used for practical purposes by the Tarahumara. Instead he discovers a deep spiritual element as to why the ancient tribe continues to run in seclusion, tucked away in the familiar confines of the Copper Canyons.
The Tarahumara’s insistence on staying connected to their land is similar to Henry David Thoreau’s view on planting his garden. In Walden, Thoreau states that the beans he plants “attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Anteaus” (107). The reference is to the Greek mythological character Antaeus who is infinitely strong while touching the earth, but weak when operating separated from it. The message that Thoreau sends in using this analogy is that by participating in this toil with the earth, a person can achieve a spiritual connection when one’s soul interacts intimately and intricately with the land that they occupy, just as the Raramuri do by running in the Sierra Madre.
In order to learn more about the Raramuri, McDougall decides to visit an American runner who lives amongst the Tarahumara. This man, Micah True aka Caballo Blanco (White Horse), McDougall learns, has left the United States to build a hut in the Copper Canyons. Of this decision, True tells McDougall, “I decided I was going to find the best place in the world to run, and that was it” (109). McDougall explores where this need to find the best place to run comes from. In getting to know True, a convert to the Raramuri way of life, McDougall is in essence able to gain inside knowledge as to why the Tarahumara run, why it is a part of their identity, and how it connects them to the earth.
McDougall decides to lead a crew of elite ultra-runners into the Sierra Madre Mountains to participate in a race set up by True. Scott Jurek, Luis Escobar, his father Joe Escobar, Jenn Shelton, Billy Barnett, and Ted McDonald aka Barefoot Ted are the runners brave enough to saunter with McDougall into the Mexican wilderness.
Jurek is considered an ultra-running god, winning virtually any event he enters from simple 30 mile races to 100 miles through the desert usually setting course records along the way. He is a quiet personality, and brings along his friend Luis Escobar. Escobar is also an elite runner and the leading photographer of ultra-running. Hearing about the expedition, Luis’ dad Joe, not a runner, insists on going on the adventure as well.
Jenn Shelton is, at the time of the journey, a budding phenomenon in ultra-running. After only a few races, Shelton cemented her spot as one of the three best 100 mile runners in the United States. Shelton convinces her boyfriend Billy Barnett to skip college exams in order tag along on the journey. Barnett is a great runner in his own right, quickly climbing the ranks of young ultra-runners. The youngest members of the crew, the trip is particularly impactful on these two.
Barefoot Ted is a former injury prone, novice runner. When he couldn’t shake injuries by buying better shoes or paying for more advanced medical treatment, Barefoot Ted took his shoes off altogether. Running barefoot, he discovers that he is all of a sudden able to run for hours with no pain. He has quickly risen to be one of the fastest barefoot ultra-runners in the country.
Over the course of their experience in Mexico and in reflecting on it afterwards, each of these runners evolves. Even if they shared certain values with the Raramuri before they arrived, they are forever changed by appreciating firsthand the integrity of the tribe. They may not have renounced their belongings, but in their actions after having left the Copper Canyons, they have shown what a deep impact the tribe continues to have on them.
The event is touted as a matchup of the best Americans against the best Tarahumara. The result is a fascinating interaction between the ancient art of running and the new generation of American ultra-runners. Although there is an obvious clash of cultures, McDougall is surprised to see striking similarities between his American colleagues and the Raramuri. Most obvious is the spiritual connection between person and place that is mutually shared amongst all involved runners.
This shared connection, perfected by the Tarahumara but also embodied by the American runners, is a husbandry of sorts. Henry David Thoreau discusses husbandry in Walden as the method of farming in ancient Greco-Roman society. “Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and crops merely” (114). Where it used to be done sincerely and admirably, with the purpose of self-sufficiency, husbandry has turned into farming that functions regrettably focused on creating financial profit.
Thoreau specifically discusses a form of small scale farming, where people use the land only with the purpose of self-sufficiency and not for profit. Moreover, according to Thoreau, one will indeed become braver, more sincere, and more truthful once they fully embrace husbandry (113). As such, the goal of husbandry becomes to look introspectively into oneself and to discover an identity. In this act of introspection, achieved through working the land, a husband is granted the opportunity to become a better person.
The Tarahumara view their running similar to Thoreau’s perspective on husbandry. Running, to the Tarahumara, is about a spiritual connection, which cannot be quantified by money. This is seen in the tribe’s decision to stay firmly rooted to the Copper Canyons. In an era where members of the tribe and in fact the tribe itself could profit financially to no end by competing and dominating professionally, the Tarahumara remain in the mountains. This can only be viewed as a sincere belief in their values and a deep sense of belonging to their land. Their spirit is satisfied to run and connect to the land that is their home.
In creating the running event, race, in the Sierra Madre, Micah True invited the bravest American runners to match up with the mysterious legends of the Raramuri. It is a difficult proposition to drag Americans across the border into the Copper Canyons where if they survive the violent drug cartels, their inexperience in the Mexican wilderness is sure to kill them.
But that is nothing compared to the impossible task of convincing the Raramuri to partake in the event. The Tarahumara are notoriously shy and reclusive due to years of abuse from outsiders from conquistadors to the present Mexican government. Yet True, an American, is able to prove himself as a real Tarahumara convert. His soul and spirit belong to the trails and so he is able to forge deep and lasting friendships with the mysterious Tarahumara. In successfully convincing the Tarahumara to race, Micah True has been elected as spokesperson to the outside world on behalf of the tribe.
A husband of the land, True’s advice is “Don’t fight the trail, take what it gives you” (111). Displaying his connection to the earth that his feet step on True embodies Thoreau’s sentiment of working the land. A person, whether running or farming, should not oppose the land. The land must be cooperated with as it will provide nourishment for the body and soul. Both the Tarahumara and Thoreau exhibit ways in which their souls are fed as they interact with the land.
True’s words also allow for an understanding of why the Tarahumara choose not to participate in the outside world’s endurance competitions. They are content with their place and task on earth, taking what it provides, not spoiling it. The tribe has no desire to move socioeconomically from the depths of perceived poverty. True explains “The Raramuri have no money, but nobody is poor” (109). This explains what appears to be a lack of effort on behalf of the tribe to gain financial wealth. The reason is that the Raramuri simply do not feel impoverished by a lack of money.
It cannot be argued that they are too sheltered to understand their superior athletic abilities. In the 1980’s American shoe executives sponsored Tarahumara runners in one of the most challenging ultra-marathon races, the Leadville 100 in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Here, they handedly beat off the competition despite no race specific preparation, unfamiliar food, and a race environment unlike any they have ever encountered. Not to mention brutal Colorado mountain cold.
Despite their success in Colorado, they were put off by the competitive struggle to market them in order earn money. Where these runners could have been made rich by the American shoe companies, the Tarahumara retreat back into the Copper Mountains, hold their own races, and continue living as they deem fit. They encompass no aspirations for money. What they require is peace and freedom to run on their trails in their land.
The comfort that they feel in the Sierra Madre comes from a deep sense of belonging to the land. In the face of financial gain and a sports marketers dream, the Tarahumara stay true to their value system. When they run, they learn the virtues that Thoreau discusses in Walden. They are compassionate to each other, sensitive, and brave. The Raramuri culture is completely dependent on cooperation within the tribe.
This cooperation is learned at a young age through the popular Tarahumara relay race. The competition, in which entire teams compete over long distances, is the most popular form of racing for the Tarahumara. In these races, it does not matter what individual finishes first, but rather what team finishes together. This ancient tradition, while seemingly a fun game, has crucial value to the tribe. It enforces a sense of compassion for all members of the community. While one runner might be stronger than the rest, all are equally valuable in the relay. The strong must help the weak, as they are dependent on their survival.
Thoreau discusses husbandry as a method where a person working on the land would gain admirable virtues. In the Tarahumara race tradition, it is noticeable that the same virtues that Thoreau discusses are learned through the tribe’s favored method of running. Perhaps the Tarahumara go a step further than Thoreau. Where Thoreau discusses virtues of the individual, the Tarahumara emphasize the importance on helping the collective good. In their running, the Raramuri focus on being good people to each other.
McDougall experienced this compassion from one of the most experienced Tarahumara runners. On a short hike, the tribesman would not budge until McDougall moved in front of him. McDougall, a snail compared to the fastest Raramuri, was perplexed to find that this man Silvino was dead set on ensuring that the group successfully completed the journey together. Silvino needs no help in completing hikes through the canyons, but the virtue of compassion and community is so deeply engrained in him, that he instinctively feels that the group’s success is the only success.
Dr. Joe Vigil, a leading American Olympic marathon coach understood the connection between being a good runner to being a good person. Vigil studied the Tarahumara and interpreted their ideology. In his office Vigil had a saying posted on his wall “practice abundance by giving back” (119). Using Tarahumara values of life and running, Vigil coached Deena Kastor out of obscurity and into an Olympic bronze medal in 2004. Kastor won the first American medal in the event in 20 years. She also went on to win Humanitarian Athlete of the year in 2002.
The messages of Thoreau and the Tarahumara come through in the young Jenn Shelton who, even before Mexico she tells McDougall “I started running ultras to become a better person” (149). Thoreau, might have said the very same in his day, only substituting the word running for husbandry. Thoreau strived to better himself through his work on the land, just as the Tarahumara do.
The influence of the Tarahumara is perhaps strongest in Billy Barnett. The young runner states: “I think of running as an expression and there are many ways to draw new lines and do old things in new ways. The vast and wide open landscape felt like a giant canvas for me to paint with my strides as I ran” (Barnett, Barnett runs inspired by his experience in Mexico with the Tarahumara. As such he considers his running to be artistic just as the Raramuri.
In almost identical fashion to Barnett, Thoreau states of the creativity available in husbandry, “Here comes such a subtile and ineffable quality, for instance, as in truth or justice, though the slightest amount or new variety of it, along the road” (113). Thoreau does not call for generations of husbands to farm as their ancestors have. Rather he argues similar to Barnett that a husband should make the project personal. In the smallest details of husbandry, a creative difference can add immense value of virtue to the husband.
The strongest mirror that Thoreau offers to the Tarahumara running philosophy, interpreted by distance running specialists True, Vigil, Shelton, and Barnett is in his thoughtful outlook on those who focus their farming on yielding profit: “we should never cheat and insult and banish one another by our meanness, if there were present the kernel of worth and friendliness. We should not meet thus in haste. Most men I do not meet at all, for they seem not to have time; they are busy about their beans” (113). Concentrating on how much profit a crop yields has ruined husbandry according Thoreau. People should be compassionate to each other. But most do not have the time as their only concern is making money.
The Tarahumara feel the same. Instead of making millions, they returned to husbandry and running, remaining true to their spirit and identity. Money spoiled running, turning it into an industry focused on profit, just as it did to farming. Yet the Tarahumara, like Thoreau, would never give in to it.

Works Cited
Barnett, Billy. “The Frog Blog.” The Frog Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.
McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David, William John. Rossi, Henry David Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry David Thoreau. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessments, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

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