Missoula marathoner Dean McGovern recently returned from Mexico where he completed the 51-mile Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, which he calls "the most epic adventure I've ever been on." But he isn't referring to just the grueling race itself.
To get to the Copper Canyons, a remote wilderness near Mexico's Pacific Coast, McGovern and fellow Missoula runners Kiefer Hahn, Kevin Twidwell and Rick Wishcamper flew to Los Angeles, Calif., then to Mazatlan, Mexico, took a seven-hour bus ride to the coastal city Los Mochis, then a six-hour train ride to the rim of the Copper Canyons, and hopped on another bus for two and half hours to reach the canyon floor.
"We got off the bus and we were like, 'Oh my god, how are we going to run in this?'" McGovern says.
The quartet was inspired to compete after reading Christopher McDougall's New York Times best-selling book Born to Run, which tells of an indigenous tribe in the Copper Canyons called the Tarahumara, or Rarámuri, known for its members' superhuman endurance.
"The Montana guys," as they came to be known, handed out snazzy microfiber Missoula Marathon T-Shirts, and those shirts would contribute to one of McGovern's most memorable experiences.
"During the race I was climbing a hill, it was super hot, I'm just dying, and this Rarámuri runner comes barreling down around a corner at me, flying down this hill in huarache sandals, huge smile, and a Missoula Marathon T-shirt on," McGovern says. "It was just really cool, because you feel like you're a million miles away, and these people feel like centuries away, and he's wearing this technical shirt—one foot in the present and one foot in the past."
McGovern finished the race in about 13 hours. Hahn, winner of two of the last three Missoula Marathons, completed it in about nine hours, good for third place among all gringos.
"I think all of us, really, what we cared about was going there and having a wild experience, which indeed it was," Hahn says. "None of us really cared that much about how well we did."
The locals cared. In exchange for the T-shirts, they delivered a butt whooping. The overall winner was a 21-year-old Tarahumara runner who finished in about seven hours—an incredible pace of just over eight minutes per mile.
"I think the big difference was they were acclimated to the heat," Hahn says. "It was too much to ask of our bodies to deal with that."