Katie Hall: Running the Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco
I asked Katie Hall, aka Blondie, for her report on the Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco, a 50-mile foot race in Mexico. She ran the race with her partner Graham Kelly, aka Beardy.
The Ultramaraton Caballo Blanco is also known as the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon,which was made famous by author Chris McDougall who write the book Born to Run. More recently, in memory of the late ultramarathon runner from America, Micah True (nickname Caballo Blanco, or whote horse), the race was returned to the name by which it was always known in the Mexican Canyons.
Running the Ultramaraton Caballo Blanco
Katie writes: What can you say about a race that has inspired runners the world over – and been top of my bucket list since 2014 – that could possibly do it justice? I’ve been pondering that very thing for the last five days! I guess all I can do is tell it how I saw it, as everyone has their own story.
The race today is different from how it was in 2006 when the first gringos ran it (as in the book “Born to Run”). The route is different: It’s much bigger and there’s more safety cover and aid stations. But what hasn’t changed is what is at the heart of this race.
It brings people together in a way that’s hard to describe if you’ve not been there. Everyone is so happy; there’s just so much love, joy and friendship deep in those canyons. The Ráramuri have a term for it, Kuira Ba (“we are one”). It’s so true…
Ultra Caballo Blanco Race start
Race morning arrived and we prepared ourselves for the day ahead before rambling the short way to the start line. Mariachi music filled the air, disco lights flashed and everyone shared hugs and smiles as we waited for go time.
About 6:10 (aka 6am Mexico time!) we were off… 1000 pairs of feet, some in fancy trainers, most in sandals, began beating their way up the Main Street to wild cheers and applause from the spectators.
I had a moment to think: “OMG! This is actually happening! I’m running through Urique!”
Soon we cleared town and crossed the bridge and headed out on the first loop, to Guadeloupe. The race loops out into neighbouring canyons and passes back through town twice before repeating the first loop again to complete the course, but it would be 32kms before the first pass through town, so I had a bit of work to do first.
I tried to take advantage of the cool temps before the sun came up and push the pace a little, but that is not easy when it’s up and down then up, up, up. I was running in a pack with Beardy and having loads of fun. The canyons are spectacular and the colourful dresses and shirts of the Ráramuri runners were so bright. It was a constant reminder of where I was and feelings of gratitude kept overwhelming me.
It wasn’t long before the leader, Miguel Lara, was approaching at a blistering pace, heading back to the bridge and the second loop. We must be close to the turnaround, I thought, but we weren’t! He was absolutely flying!
A few miles later we arrived at Guadalupe and collected our first bracelet or “pulsera”. They were to make sure you visited each turnaround point on the course. We ran around the little church and then back on to the course.
About halfway back I started to pull ahead slightly from Beardy as he was being cautious on the downhills due to running in his Lunas (sandals). I arrived back at the bridge with about 15km complete and feeling awesome.
Setting off on loop two
The start of the second loop to El Naranjo is a long climb on a dirt track road, so it was mostly power walked with some chat with other runners. At the next aid station I stopped to restock my Tailwind and Beardy appeared and passed me.
The route splits off the road here on to some gorgeous single track trails that weave their way higher up the canyon. I got held up behind a group of young Ráramuri girls who where walking and chatting at a very social pace.
Being keen to close the gap on the Beard, I eventually managed to squeeze past and started to pick up the pace. I do wonder what they make of us foreign runners with our beeping sports watches, hydration packs and Lycra.
With Beardy just in sight I managed to close up the gap and we passed through the El Naranjo checkpoint together and started the descent back down. The views from here were just stunning, but with the day warming and lots of miles ahead, I didn’t linger too long. The descent was fun, with a long, winding, rocky road to bounce down… eventually bringing me back to the road and the bridge, to hugs and cheers from pals, Citlali and Noel.
I jogged the rest of the way into Urique, looking forward to the spectacle in town after a few quiet hours on the trail and it didn’t disappoint. So many people and cheers! The locals and visitors were lining the streets, clapping, whooping and shouting for the runners. It was awesome.
I detoured into our digs for a quick loo stop, grabbed more tailwind and headed out for the next five miles to the bridge at La Laja. This section was the part I had been least looking forward to. We had travelled it on Friday in the back of a truck and it was long, mostly exposed and too runnable.
Beardy had passed by again while I’d been in our room so I caught him up and we ran for a while together, both staring in disbelief as Miguel once again passed us going the other way. Holy smokes! He’s already been out and back to Los Alisos! Unbelievable! (It would be the last time we saw him as he didn’t relent on pace and finished in an insane 6:18 with a new course record).
Anyhoo… Once again the gap between us widened and I made it to the checkpoint at the bridge just ahead of Beardy and got my first taste of “pinole”, the corn drink favoured by the locals for its energy giving properties… I hoped it would work for me as the hardest climb was to come.
As we’d hiked this section on Friday, I knew what to expect and was glad of the recce. It was now approaching midday and the temperature was continuing to climb. Thankfully, a breeze was blowing through the canyon which was just heavenly, and the rain on Tuesday meant the streams were flowing with refreshing, cool water.
The climb is only 5km but it’s steep and on narrow trail. Runners coming the other way we’re clearly savouring the down hill and I had to leap out of the way once or twice. It was around this point I started noticing Ráramuri runners sitting or snoozing next to the trail… pace and timings clearly of no concern to them, unlike us gringos.
I passed them with a smile and a pang of jealousy… an afternoon kip sounded ideal.
It’s worth noting that many of them were running in JEANS! As the heat of the day increased, I just couldn’t imagine that over 50 miles.
The checkpoint at Prospero’s ranch, Los Alisos, was buzzing with runners and volunteers, and Prospero himself was stirring a huge pot of fresh Pinole and I gladly took another cup. This is a very special place as it is the spot that some of Micah’s ashes were spread during the race weekend in 2013. I sat down on a rock underneath the giant fig tree, a quarter of succulent grapefruit in my hand, closed my eyes, and thought about all the times I’d imagined being in this place, in this race and a lump rose in my throat.
Opening my eyes, I looked at all the happy, laughing people around me and smiled at the notion that one great man with one great idea had brought all these people here, from all over the world, to this tiny corner of a remote canyon in Mexico. I raised my chunk of grapefruit to El Caballo, before sinking my teeth into it, savouring the sweet taste. It was a perfect moment.
A new running friend
Starting the descent, I fell into stride with Olly, another Brit runner we’d met earlier in the race. Olly currently lives and works in Mexico with his family, speaks amazingly good Spanish and is working on a project to provide sandals to Mexican schoolchildren (Sandals4Schools).
Listening to his stories, hearing about other parts of Mexico, plus finding out that this was only his second Ultra and that he’d fractured two ribs a few weeks earlier in a boat accident in Guatemala made for some very easy miles indeed.
I made it back to La Laja a few minutes ahead of him so I stopped to refill my bottles with water and Tailwind, and to prepare my head to tackle the 8km back to Urique.
It was now blazing hot, easily 35 degrees, and it was starting to take its toll. I got moving again and Olly caught up. We walked the inclines and jogged the flats and downhills as much as possible.
I had started to cramp up in my feet on the inclines, my left foot in particular. The arch would cramp badly, straining the tendons painfully and reduce me to a hobble. Olly offered me salt tablets more than once, but I’d never used them before and was wary of taking something untested in training. It was a decision I was going to deeply regret later. Olly would come to know my stubborn nature all too well…!
Through Guapalyna again, with the kids at the aid station dousing us in cold water and giggles… those smiles will stay with me for a very long time. Olly and I agreed to jog through town but it was getting harder to maintain an increase in pace for very long.
When he stopped to talk to his friends, I pushed on, gritting my teeth and sucking the sauna hot air into my lungs. Running through town was a joy yet again but knowing I had another 15km to do was mentally difficult to process, and seeing pals drinking frosty beers was almost enough to make me cry.
I left town again, almost nine hours since the start, which now seemed a long time ago. I watched runners coming towards me, finishing their race and I envied them. The look of relief was etched on their faces. It was hot, so hot, dry and dusty.
Hit by nausea and cramp
Suddenly, I felt lightheaded and nauseous. I looked around for somewhere to rest and plonked myself down on a rock, breathing hard. My vision was blurred and I closed my eyes. Feeling better after a moment, I glanced to my right and was shocked to notice my shadow. It was swaying from side to side. Oh dear, that’s not good!
Olly appeared next to me and asked if I was ok. I told him I was dizzy but fine. Let’s go then, he said. Ok. The next few hours would follow a pattern… Olly would make a deal, run to the next tree/rock/incline then walk. I was able to maintain a decent walking pace, but an increase in exertion on the inclines would bring waves of dizziness and nausea. I had to sit down for a minute after almost every incline.
The pace was slow and I told Olly more than once to push on. He told me that he was happy to help me. So we got into a rhythm where we’d walk for a bit, I’d find a shady rock to rest on, refuse salt tablets (idiot!), Olly would extend one of his walking poles towards me, I’d grab it, pull myself to my feet and we’d press on.
The cramp was now creeping from my feet to my calves and hamstrings. After a slow 8km we arrived at the last aid station, back at Guadalupe, collected our final pulsera, looped around the church, then I sat down, feeling trashed, weak and emotional.
When Olly appeared with a cup of cold Coca-cola I could’ve wept. It was all homeward now and every footstep would bring us closer to the finish line in Urique. Looking up, I spotted Julie entering the checkpoint. The last time I saw her she’d been running with Beardy.
Hoping that he was still running well, I got to my feet, and with Olly, set out on the long march back. Only moments later, I spied the Bearded One coming towards us! Woohoo! Hugs all round (and a quick exchange of how f***ed we both were) and we parted again. I knew he’d catch up soon considering my current pace.
The final push to finish
There was a definite shift in morale knowing we were almost done, I even managed some very dodgy jogging, which I’m sure Olly was impressed by! It wasn’t long before Beardy caught up and “dos” became “tres”. I was disappointed that I couldn’t maintain my lead, but way more than that, I was delighted we’d finish together.
It turns out that Beardy had managed to develop nasty blisters on the soles of both feet, on the climb to Los Alisos, and the descent had torn the skin off and he’d been running on raw flesh since then. He’s a hardcore bitch. 😉
I filled him in on my race since then and how awesome Olly had been looking after me. I think Beardy was just glad some other poor sod had had the pleasure this time!
The sun was now starting to slip behind the canyon ridges, the light was fading and it had dropped at least 10 degrees. I was glad of this respite, but with none of us carrying a torch, we couldn’t afford to drop any more time. The nausea was still coming in waves and I was still getting lightheaded with any increase in pace.
Soon the bridge was in sight and beyond it, the last kilometre into Urique. But from one side of the bridge to the other, we lost daylight. It was as if someone had flicked a switch. One moment it was dusk, the next, dark. But we could hear distant cheers and music… one final push. Lifting into a jog, the three of us entered Urique side by side, trail weary, grimy, knackered and sore. People cheered and shouted, voices from the dark: “Vamos! Vamos!”.
The music drew us forward, the drumbeat in time with our feet, the flashing lights like a beacon… this was it! We were about to complete a dream, the culmination of years of wanting, planning and training. Our hands joined together and we crossed the line as one.
Caballo Blanco Ultra finisher
So that is my story. I’m a Caballo Blanco Ultra finisher. I have now left the Copper Canyons behind and I’m finishing this report in Schipol Airport waiting for our connecting flight to Glasgow. I feel like something has been finished there, yet only just begun.
Humanity is amazing, we have strength in unity and love is powerful. I will be back to Urique (it’s already in the planning…!) because something magical exists there. Viva Urique! Viva Caballo! Kuira ba. 💜
Post-race notes (especially about salt)
If you made it to the bottom of this report, well done. ☺ I wanted to add a few things about my post-race experience. I felt grim after the race, and upon returning to our room, was floored (literally) with the worst cramp I’ve ever had.
This wasn’t your “ha ha ooh that’s sore” cramp. This was full body, screaming in pain “she sounds like she’s in labour” cramp. And it lasted six hours. Even my fingers cramped!
I know now that I was hyponatraemic, I guzzled lots of water in checkpoints but failed to replace adequately my salts and electrolytes. Over the first few hours in agony I consumed Gatorade, Tailwind, salted chips, cashews, bananas and 13 s-caps.
Running in that heat is uncommon for us Scots but I will never, ever, run again without salt or ignore the warning signs. Please let my mistake be a lesson! I wouldn’t wish that nightmare on anyone!!!
On the upside… that huge intake of salt overnight sorted me right out… zero DOMS the next day! I felt great!
Cheers to everyone who made this trip the wonderful, beautiful, hilarious and life-affirming experience it was. The biggest thanks of all goes to Beardyman, for showing me that dreams can come true. Love ye. 💜