A small group of avid Missoula runners had just completed a 13-hour double crossing of the Grand Canyon in March when they began brainstorming their next running adventure.
Having all read the book "Born to Run," a New York Times best-seller about the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico, the choice seemed obvious - the true story culminates in an epic, 51-mile foot race through the deep, rugged canyons of the Sierra Madre.
Soon after they were back in Montana, Kevin Twidwell, Kiefer Hahn, Rick Wishcamper and Dean McGovern, all members of the Garden City's running club, Run Wild Missoula, signed up for the race, which is called the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon.
Organized by Micah True, also known as Caballo Blanco, a central character in Christopher McDougall's "Born to Run," the CCUM began as a means to promote and preserve the Tarahumara's traditional culture of running fitness, which has been threatened by poverty, road construction and the increased dangers presented by narcotics trafficking.
"We were intrigued with the race and the possibility of raising money for the Tarahumara Indians who live in Copper Canyon and were featured so prominently in the book," says Twidwell, a Missoula attorney.
Tarahumara Indians, or Raramuri in their own language, reportedly suffer fewer running injuries than North Americans, despite frequently racing ultra-marathon distances in thin rubber sandals.
But with the popularity of "Born to Run," businesses near the start of the race began charging the Tarahumara runners for food and shelter. Because the Tarahumara live simply and don't have a lot of extra spending money, this capitalization undermined the spirit of the nascent race.
For the Missoula runners, the decision to sign up was simple.
After filling out a short application form and making a donation in an amount of their choosing - in keeping with the Tarahumara concept of "korima," which roughly translates to English as "circle of giving" - the group began receiving e-mails from True and other "mas locos," runners who have run the CCUM in years past.
During a run one day, someone commented to Wishcamper about how novel it was to be receiving e-mails from Caballo Blanco. The conversation soon turned to the plight of the Tarahumara, and how rewarding it would be to raise even more money for their cause.
Soon, what began as yet another adventure for the Missoula runners evolved into a larger philanthropic undertaking, with Wishcamper, who owns the Wilma, offering to donate the theater for an event.
"We chewed on that for a half-mile or so, and Wishcamper said, ‘Dude, we should have Caballo come speak at the Wilma,' " says Twidwell.
By the end of the run, the group decided to see if they could convince True to visit Missoula in an effort to raise enough money to feed and house the Raramuri runners at the race next March.
"We exchanged a few e-mails with Caballo, and before we knew it, Caballo was quoting Frank Zappa about coming to Montana to be a dental floss tycoon," said Twidwell. "The deal was done."
Wishcamper is also donating a condo at the Wilma for Caballo to use while he is here, while Run Wild Missoula bought a plane ticket, paid for a modest speaking fee and had posters designed by artist Dariusz Janczewski.
Runner's Edge, Momentum Athletic Training, the Garlington, Lohn & Robinson law firm and the Wilma have agreed to provide matching funds to supplement money raised by the presentation.
"Anybody who draws attention to something as simple and beautiful as running, in this age of high-tech happiness, is always welcome with open arms," said McGovern. "I think he and his philosophies will fit easily in Missoula."
Conversely, True feels the Missoula runners and other stateside participants in the CCUM are a good fit with the Raramuri way of life.
"The runners that come down have all been very respectful," True said in a recent e-mail.
Still, challenges persist, not the least of which are threats to traditional Raramuri culture, particularly as development and modern influences infiltrate the deep canyons of central Mexico.
"Los Zopilotes, opportunists wanting to do business, continue to circle," True said. "I choose to focus on the beauty of the Raramuri culture, rather than focus on the struggles."
"Certainly, the Raramuri could use assistance to help themselves to continue to run free," he continued. "And I have little doubt that they are survivors, and might just be around after the rest of the ‘civilized' world is gone."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.