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Dr. J. on Running

The Tarahumara Way

Deer 1, Runner 0

Published October 18, 1999 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

(No animals were hurt in this production. The characters in this story, especially that of the author, are fictional.)

Role-playing is an integral part of my running. As I run or race, I often imagine myself as someone else. If I run effortlessly at a six-minute pace, or struggle helplessly at the edge of death, my form reminds me of fellow runners. I imagine myself in their running shoes.

Over the years, my running metamorphosis has placed me in the shoes of a collapsing Jimmy Carter, a jubilant Joan Benoit, a dripping Grete Waitz, a defiant Steve Prefontaine, a well-dressed Ed Stabler, a victorious Bill Rodgers, a perplexed Frank Shorter and a radiant Uta Pippig. Today, my run transformed me into a Tarahumara.

The Tarahumara are Native Americans who live in the Western Sierra Madre Mountain of northern Mexico. Legendary for their endurance, much of their lifestyle revolves around long distance running. In play or in work, the Tarahumara may run numerous miles in the normal course of a day.

For example, Tarahumara children play football by kicking a wooden ball to a distant goal, usually several miles away. Adults may place the goal posts a hundred miles or more away from the start, and the game may last several days.

Similarly, the Tarahumara hunt deer and rabbit by chasing them until exhaustion. Such wild animals with spurts of fast running are hardly a match for the efficient, headband wearing, sandal-shod Tarahumara.

It is in this deer-chasing capacity that I imagined myself as a Tarahumara. As I ran the trails during my lunch break, I encountered two deer that seemed in a playful mood. With a headband to keep the sweat out of my eyes, and my running shoes feeling like sandals, I followed their trail into the woods.

Mindful that chasing or harassing wildlife is unlawful, I contented myself with observing them from a distance and researching their pattern of movement.

I knew that deer seldom travel far from home territory. I also knew that I could observe them for a couple of miles, then finish my run. What I did not know cost me dearly. These deer were far better steeplechasers than this Tarahumara impersonator.

The first interval was elementary. The deer ran about 100 meters away. I followed their footsteps quietly until they moved again. This time, they bounded a stream and stopped on the other bank. I located a shallow crossing and waded onto dry land.

Obviously the better runners, my wild friends took time to drink water and munch on plants as I struggled towards them. Gradually, they seemed to accept my company, looking for me every time they ran further.

My fun run changed suddenly into a challenge when I realized that I was lost in the woods. With no trails in sight, power lines or houses, I came to a full stop and took a deep breath. There was no time to panic. After all, I was on a military base, and any wrong move could require much explanation.

Fortunately, I remembered a basic survival skill. When lost in the woods, running downhill carries several potential benefits. For one, it requires less energy than running uphill, and it is more likely to lead to recognizable geographical markers.

My downhill trip eventually led me to a rain-swollen stream. Calf-deep in water, I traveled downstream in search of civilization. My waterlogged sneakers gave me an appreciation for leather sandals. Ultimately, the stream led to a road crossing, which I scaled gratefully.

Upon regaining my bearings, I realized that my dry clothes and I were miles apart. It was time to revise my training plan, and to schedule a long run in mid-week. Proud and victorious, having found my way out of the woods, I resumed running. I glanced over the bridge and saw my two animal friends staring at me. If deer had a sense of humor, these two must have enjoyed the laugh of their lives.

Kamal Jabbour will stick to marked trails in the future. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains, the world leader in live track webcasting, and receives email at

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