In June 2017, Lorena Ramírez became the first Tarahumara woman—a group of indigenous people from Mexico known for their long-distance running talents—to compete in a European ultramarathon. Before going to the Canary Islands in Spain to run the Tenerife Bluetrail ultramarathon, the 22-year-old runner had never traveled outside her native Mexico. It was also the first time she had ever seen the ocean.
Before that, she had left the deep canyons surrounding her home in the northwest of Mexico just a few times. At home, her community of superathletes who run as a lifestyle prefers to call themselves the Rarámuris, which in their native language means light feet.
Ramírez arrived before midnight to the starting point of the Tenerife Bluetrail, ready to run 63 miles of unknown terrain. She had been told she would cross the largest of the Canary Islands, departing from sea level and reaching more than 11,600 feet after ascending Mount Teide, the highest peak in Spain.
As a guest of honor, Ramírez waited for the signal in the front of the line, alongside her brother Mario and hundreds of professional runners from all over the world. Much of the media attention was focused on her. Not only because she was wearing a long, white skirt—which she made herself, as she does all of her traditional clothing—and a pair of black plastic sandals with pink socks. But also because those same sandals had just gotten her a victory on another long-distance race, a 31-mile run in central Mexico a couple of months before.
Ramírez, who is now 24, has since started running national and international races in countries such as Japan and the United States. On April 28, she participated in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, where she finished the half marathon in 1 hour, 50 minutes, placing 19th in her division of women aged 20-24. Her name has become widely known in Mexico, after winning ultramarathons and appearing in some big brand commercials. She also starred in a video by Jorge Drexler, an award-winning singer and musician from Uruguay.
I met Lorena in 2017, in her brother’s home, when they were getting ready to cross the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. I traveled with a photographer from Mexico City all the way up to the Copper Canyon System, in the state of Chihuahua, the Mexican neighbor of Texas and New Mexico. We wanted to talk to this woman who, against all odds, was apparently starting an international running career.
It was not easy to communicate with her. As a proud Tarahumara, she was extremely shy. And as a girl in a very poor family of nine children, she was never sent to school. Because of that, she only speaks her native Rarámuri. Luckily for us, her older brother Mario, now 28 and also a runner, is an extrovert and has become her companion and translator. Their father, Santiago, 48, and two other sisters, Juana, 22, and Talina, 19, are long-distance runners too.
During the day we spent with them, we saw her and Mario run uphill like it was the most natural thing. They’ve moved across these canyons—which are collectively longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon—since they were little kids, helping their parents carry food from the closest town and herding the family’s goats. That is still their only way of training for a race. The Tarahumara people, unlike most professional runners, don’t usually follow a formal training. Their daily diet includes beans, tortillas and pinole, a mix they carry during races that’s made from roasted corn ground into a flour and combined with water and sugar.
Mario described his sister as “strong, admirable, kind, serious and direct.” During our visit, we were able to get a few answers from her. She told us she was excited to travel to Spain (even though her facial expressions would not reveal it), and she explained why she preferred her sandals over running shoes: “When I run with sneakers I feel I can slip anytime. I feel a lot more comfortable wearing my sandals because they are lighter,” she said. She also shared that she feels really grateful whenever she approaches the finish line and wins a race.
At age 18, Ramírez started to stand out in Chihuahua’s long-distance races, such as Caballo Blanco Ultra and Ultramaratón de los Cañones. Every year, many Tarahumara runners participate alongside chabochi runners, which in their language means the foreign or not Rarámuri people. They run because they enjoy it, but they’re usually also motivated by the cash prizes they can earn if they win. Mario explained that whenever a family member wins a race, they share the benefits with everyone in the family, usually to buy food.
Before heading to Oklahoma this April, Mario told me on the phone he thought his sister’s career was only just starting. He said they are hoping to find sponsors in order to keep running and shared that his sister also dreams of having a handcrafted goods store in Chihuahua in the future.
That first time Ramírez entered the Tenerife in Spain in 2017, she ran about 34 miles and almost reached the summit of Mount Teide when she had to quit the race due to intense pain in her knee. Her brother Mario also quit. But she did not see it as a defeat. The next year, in June 2018, they returned to the Canary Islands, this time knowing what to expect. She placed third in the senior category (18 to 39 years old) and fifth in the women’s category, after running 63 miles in 20 hours, 11 minutes and 37 seconds.
There were more than 2,400 racers from 38 countries. Ramírez did not have any of the special gadgets used by runners today, and still, she beat most of them wearing her traditional dress and a pair of plastic sandals.