Caballo Blanco: Adventure to the Copper Canyons March 2017

Hey, friends! Many of you have been wondering about details from my trip. I've sought to share in person with many people, though have yet to fully recount the experience to any one person. Here is my attempt to process and share. I'll share three overlapping pieces of my journey: 1) The timeline of events and experiences, 2) my own internal processing and seeing of the trip and, 3) the takeaways and lessons learned; where do I go from here? I'll flow from one to the other intermittently, so know that going forward. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, and my experience with all the pictures I've shared so far is the image doesn't even come close to representing the experience. So much life, vibrancy, beauty, and transformation I was able to be present for on this trip, now the challenge is to articulate it. Challenge accepted. 


On Thursday, March 2nd:

I got up at four AM, drove from my in-law's house to my parent's house to meet my dad so he could drop me off at the airport. Buzzing with energy and feeling a combination of nervous and excited, I was looking forward to two flights to process and write before ending up in El Paso later that day. I sent probably one dozen texts or so to different friends, saying all my thank yous and goodbyes before getting on the plane. If there was one way of being I wanted to embrace this trip, it was being present, and that may require a good deal of being unplugged. When I boarded the plane, one of the flight attendants, Stacey, asked me, "How are you doing this morning?" "Wonderful!" I said. "Wonderful? I don't know anyone who is doing wonderful this early in the morning? Why are you wonderful?" "I'm going to run in the Copper Canyons for an ultra marathon..." "WOW!" she said, "Can I give you a hug?" So would begin a series of brief yet amazing encounters throughout the trip. After that, it was time to WRITE.

Ideas just flowed; for my book, related to the trip, upcoming workshops and the like. So many of the blog posts I've cued up for the next several weeks were written on the plane. I thought about the fact that I couldn't think of a single time in recent memory that I had over three hours set aside to sit in the same place and write. So, committing that to memory, I seized the opportunity. After a brief layover at DFW, I flew to El Paso. After finding out that Lucas wouldn't be arriving in town until late in the evening (almost 10pm!), I decided I'd get the rental car and figure out the next step. I got excited when I saw Enterprise had some 4x4 Jeep SUVs, but after I reminded the employees I was going to Mexico, I found out those were off the table. My options, minivan or minivan. I went with the minivan. 

Next thing I needed was a place to land for a while to get some food, plan where Lucas and I were staying, and see where we could get stores for the drive to Urique. There weren't that many coffee shops, but one in particular stood out to me as the place to be. "Kinley's House" seemed like a cool spot already, but then I found a guy who had a marathon tee shirt on and before I knew it, we were headfirst into conversation about ultra running, barefoot running, and living from your sense of purpose and passion. My new friend, Jim, and I talked for well over an hour. When he left, I reoriented as to why I was here: To find out where the hell Lucas and I were going to sleep! The KOA just outside of town was already closing for the day, so I headed that way. I met the KOA owner when I got there and he helped me find a spot to park and set up camp, then I had some hangtime. I charged my laptop and phone, did yoga under the very starry sky, and journaled a bit to pass the time. Then it was time to get Lucas. We rejoiced at seeing one another, then debated about what we would eat (we were BOTH really hungry), so of course it would have to be a trip to Whataburger. Following the food comas and getting back to camp, that was the end of a long day of traveling, and we were together at last. 

Friday, March 3rd: Slept in to 630am, apparently needing the sleep. We took our time getting up, looking around a little bit, Lucas showered and I packed up camp. We went back into El Paso to Kinley's to plan out the next steps (like where we were getting cash, Pesos and food for the drive), and we met some more cool people at the shop. After grocery shopping etc, it was already past noon before we were crossing the border into Mexico. Our drive included two police stops, three tolls, and SLOW SPEED LIMITS on roads that went straight and seemed to go on forever. The first time we were stopped by police, they asked for our papers and the officer (speaking only Spanish) told me I didn't have the documentation we needed to have a rental car in the country. All I had were the papers Enterprise gave me and I signed, so I tried to ascertain where we could get these mystery documents, and he never answered the question. After much going back and forth, he waved us on. The second time we got stopped? The officer asked if we had cervezas. "Nada. Solamente agua," I said. We were waved on. The drive was taking far longer than anticipated, and as the roads wound into the mountains, we realized we were not going to stay awake long enough to make it to Urique. Oh, and I almost forgot about our amazing GPS, which suggested we take a dirt road fit for a jacked-up Wrangler... suffice it to say we didn't go that way. About 930pm we pulled off to the side of the road and called it a night, sleeping in the van. 

Saturday, March 4th: 

Woke up early, hit the road, and THEN things got interesting. It had rained and snowed during the night. The roads were getting more and more treacherous, until finally we were on rocky dirt roads that were clay mud. I took over driving just in time for the road to begin winding down into the canyons. There were no guardrails and only occasional places where the road was wide enough to pull off to one side and take a picture. I was a little nervous, but the driving was getting really dicey. I was pumping the brakes, and still the car was sliding downhill. I was trying to figure out what was going on when Lucas reminded me that our tires were caked in mud at this point. It wasn't a braking failure, there was just no traction. To keep the car rounding the corners, I was doing some e-brake drifting, but becoming less able to slow down. We narrowly missed a Coca-cola truck that was stuck trying to head uphill, and about three turns later, I steered into the inside bank to avoid skidding off the edge. I turned off the car, caught my breath, and Lucas and I worked to start clearing as much mud off the tires as possible. A few minutes later, a 4x4 pickup with military police in the back with big guns. The driver said he'd be back in "cinco minutos." When they returned, we hurriedly packed our water, camping gear and what we could carry, threw it in the back of the pickup, and began our whirlwind trip down into Urique.

Sitting on the back of the truck, at various points I could look straight down the side of a cliff. I didn't feel afraid, these guys obviously knew what they were doing. I never felt threatened, even though the guy next to me had a pistol and a machine gun. The view driving into the valley was amazing, the ride a blast. When we got down into town and parked the truck, we stuffed as many water bottles into our bags and set off on foot. It wasn't a long walk, just a short walk into the center of town where a fenced plaza had a stage, a Caballo Blanco poster, and an emcee with a microphone. I knew we were in the right place, at last! I just had no idea what was going on, where to register, or how long things would take. At least we could sit. I saw some runners and some familiar faces. Barefoot Ted came over to us, said hey, and gave us each a Luna buff. Then, lots of kids from the village were coming into the plaza and being given race medals, t-shirts and candy from some Luna reps and runners. I joined in the fun. A friendly local guy, Antonio, let us know that registration would be behind the building where we were, and asked if we needed anything. "That food looks amazing. Where did you get it?" I asked. "I'll find it for you! My wife got it for me," he said, and within minutes, took me to the place. We had amazing gorditas, I got registered for the race, and then we went to find the hostel where several other runners were staying. On the way, we met some runners who were looking for where to register, and they offered us a spot next to them to camp, for FREE! It's the little things! Next to a bunch of Tarahumara families and under an Arizona flag, we set up camp. Then, I went to see if we could have help getting our van, which was still up the road along the side of the canyon. The emcee and race administrator helped me get two guys who were willing to drive up to get my van, and we had a great time. I was remembering more Spanish all the time, so the conversation was getting more natural and fun all the time. These guys made driving these roads look like a cake walk, and now that the roads were dry, we flew up the side of the canyon. One of the guys, Omar, drove our car down with me riding shotgun. After getting the car parked in town, Lucas and I worked to see if we could change flights, extend the rental, and make all the calls we needed to. I wasn't able to change my flight, but was hopeful that it could be figured out tomorrow. We got some more amazing local food for dinner and went to bed early.

Sunday, March 5th:

RACE DAY! I woke up at 3am to the sound of a rooster, tried to sleep more, and by 4am decided it was time to be awake. I read all the pre-race notes from my team, trying to focus on how great it was just to BE here, not thinking about how nervous I was for this event. Each of the notes spoke to a different need, and all the words were nourishment for heart and soul. At about 5am, I decided it was time to get ready. I changed into my running clothes, made sure my hydration pack was filled with water and snacks, and wolfed down two whole avacados. The dark was immense, and the stars filled the sky. About 50 feet away, Tarahuma runners formed a line to get pinole. Making our way to the starting line, I made some more friends. Every encounter I had this trip had an immense feeling of depth, even from only a few minutes. Kinship needed not quantity, but quality of interactions. I got my wrist band for the race, and helped the Luna runners do the same right before the race started. There wasn't room to line up at the start line without crowding into the side alleys. I got some last minute yoga in, and then the countdown, and then we were off! 

I tried to keep a slow pace, but after the first mile or so, I still felt I was moving too fast and would have to slacken the pace soon. I was pacing with my new friend, Ryan, a runner from Boulder, Colorado, who was joyfully talking to his GoPro while running with me. I wasn't feeling quite as jovial. How am I tired already? I thought. The sun wasn't even up yet, but I was already hot, so I took a brief moment to take off my shirt and get back to running. I just need to run my own race at my own pace. My own run. My own way. The elite runners at the front of the pack got further ahead, I settled into a comfortable pace. We're only a mile or two in, I've got a long way to go. Running along the river, the trail began to wind uphill. The sound of sandals thwack against the ground drew my attention to a peculiar fact, most of the runners here were in sandals, and I was one of them! Tarahumara women in flowing skirts, Tarahumara men, some in traditional dress (brightly-colored chiffon shirts with white "skirts") and most in Caballo Blanco race tees. Some people were running in jeans, like the six-year-old I was pacing for a while. I ran with no watch and no way to measure distance. I was never worried about the course, because there was always someone in front of me so I could see where we were going next. I knew when we were ten miles in because Mike, a longtime runner of these canyons, had a gps watch that beeped to tell us so. He passed me on the increasingly steep inclines and I committed to walking. Just keep moving forward. 

Things got steeper and the roads got narrower. At one point, it was like climbing criss-crossing and rocky stairs. The single track would level off and wind around a hill and then turn straight up. Just keep moving forward. This was one of the most beautiful and also one of the most challenging parts of the run. During this, I had a hard time not being in my head. I had to pay attention to where my feet were being placed, but I wasn't moving fast, and I was tired. It was about this time that the thought came to me, my flight hasn't been changed, and I'll have to make a choice. Do I finish the run and miss my plane, or do I leave the race early to catch it? After reminding myself that this is the worst case scenario and I could cross that bridge when I got there, I was happy to see the creek intersecting the trail.

Throwing off my pack and my sunglasses, I jumped in. The water was cold and refreshing, and I sat there for about 20 seconds before deciding I should keep moving. More steep climbing, getting passed by a few more friends, and a few snacks (okay, SEVERAL) consumed while traversing uphill. I also found a walking stick to help with the ascent. Finally, things leveled off a bit, and I got back to running. Not much further was an aid station, and not much beyond that before the trail started winding downhill. The views were so expansive from this high up, it was BREATHTAKING. With the trail winding down, I was also able to pick up the pace. Rather than "ride the brakes," I flew. It felt fun to go fast, and it was everything I could do to make sure that my feet went down in a good spot in front of me. I caught several runners who had passed me at this point and would vary my speed from a sprint downhill to a comfortable jaunt on the level or slight inclines. Again, this was SO FUN! The trail came to the creek again, but this time, not deep enough to jump or wade, so I did a reverse push-up to linger in the water. Pacing with my friend Michelle for a bit, I told her how much I enjoyed her company, to which she said, "I love you!" Ah, such sweet serenity and connection on the run in the growing heat of the day. The trail wound down, then up, then flat, then repeated its winding and up-and-downing, until I could see the bridge in the distance that was just a few kilometers from town. Almost done with the first loop. The thoughts came back to me about my flight and about the transition. What time is it? Will I be able to find Lucas? He was right near our camp, extra bladder of water in hand, then we figured out the plan. 

I had run over 20 miles to this point, and it had already been over four hours. No luck on the flight. Meaning, if I were to finish the race at a similar pace, there is still no way I would catch my flight. After some deliberation walking and talking together, I told him I would call it a day, meet him back at camp to pack up. I ran down the main street through the finish line, thinking about how I wouldn't be looping through here again to finish the race later that day, not seeing another option, and not liking the consequences of missing my flight. I darted off the main road and race course to double back to camp on the street that wound along the river. A few guys asked me if I was running. "No mas para mi." I was feeling a whole host of emotions. Joy for being here and doing this at all, discouragement for quitting early, frustration at my lack of foresight and poor planning, and delight at the thought of seeing my family after what had already been quite the adventure. I walked back to camp, stopping briefly on the bridge that crossed the river to take in the views. While packing up camp, I stopped to cry. Lucas was reassuring, and after we packed up our gear, we walked through the main part of town. I said bye to a few runners I recognized, told them why I was leaving and wished them luck. I told the admin for the race that I was done, which he promptly announced over the speakers, to the sound of a small applause from people around. I was working to be proud of what I had achieved, and I also had the sense of some unfinished business I would be leaving in the Barrancas del Cobre. 

We got some gas and hit the road. Winding easily up the dry dirt roads through the canyons. I took in the views, knowing I would miss this place I had only been for 24 hours or so. The drive back towards El Paso was much faster, as my phone served as our primary GPS. It was laughable how bad the GPS in our car was, always advocating for the slowest route. Lucas showed me a lot of cool instrumental music and artists he liked, I got lost in thought. I stretched some in the back, journaled some, talked some. Thankfully, he did most of the driving (about 10 hours straight)! I eventually took over, and about 12 and a half hours after we left Urique, we were in Juarez. 

Monday, March 6th:  Just after midnight. Still awake, rerouting directions to find the correct border crossing after Google led us on a wild goose chase, we were FINALLY in line at the US border. I took a photo of our dashboard clock at 12:30 am. In front of us, I could tell the driver in front of us was getting frustrated, although I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t until I saw him get out of his car, raising his voice to get the attention of the driver in front of him who wasn’t moving. Our hypothesis: the driver keeps falling asleep at the wheel. After many attempts to rouse the driver and have them move forward, the man driving the car in front of me has lost his patience. A gentleman next to us makes room for the silver car in front of us to dart around the dark sedan and continue moving forward. I’m all too eager, as Lucas and I have been in line for what seems like an eternity (in reality, may only have been 15 minutes). As we inch slowly forward, a cascade of honks continue. I can only imagine it is the narcoleptic border crosser at work again. We make it through the border, head straight to Whataburger (the perfect chiasm to our time together), clean out the car, take it to the airport, and head in. After an hour and a half of waiting for airline staff to arrive, we get our passes, move through security and head to our gate. At this point, I'm wired, even though I haven't slept in 24 hours. I run around while no one is there, then get some food and coffee. Lucas and I bid each other farewell, and I'm off to get some writing done before my flight boards. 

After my flight to DFW, I've got a long layover. I make a few calls, do some yoga, get some food, and then write for a while. On my flight home, the same flight attendant who greeted me warmly is there, and we had some good conversation. My seatmates are awesome, and we talk about everything from faith, to the race I did, to gardening, to our deepest dreams, to how amazing our families are. Before I know it, I'm landing at SeaTac and it's snowing outside. Back to life as usual but I'm not the same. 

While not an exhaustive list, here were a few lessons I learned on this journey:

  • Create space. The boundaries of time I set on the trip defined the trip. On my run, I didn't allow myself to feel pressured by time and was able to be in the moment. Because of the timing of my flights and travel, I didn't give myself more space to BE.
  • Train hard. My level of preparedness (or lack thereof) reminded me that consistently pushing myself beyond my comfort zone is the key to any training program. Not just occasionally, but consistently. 
  • Be in the moment. Enjoy it. Stay with the flow. I felt like I did a great job of this on this trip. Everything that happened, everything that came up, I just stayed with it and stayed in it. That's how I want to live my life. I also saw how training hard and creating space help to sustain this kind of in-the-moment living, freeing me to be joyful. 


With a trip like this, there's always more that could be said. If you have any questions or thoughts on my adventure, feel free to comment below or email me with those. I don't think this will be my last trip to the Copper Canyons, or my last 50 miler. So many new friends, new memories, new stories. Looking forward to the next adventure. 

To living life like the adventure it is, 

Ben