Like most great adventures, this one began on a whim - a half-baked idea bandied between sunburned and calorie-depleted running buddies.
Kevin Twidwell, Kiefer Hahn, Rick Wishcamper and Dean McGovern, all endurance runners and members of the Garden City's running club, Run Wild Missoula, had just completed an epic double crossing of the Grand Canyon and needed to pencil another adventure on their calendars before the lactic acid settled in their legs and they had time to reflect on the pain.
They needed something that would really ramp up their heart rates, push them to the brink of their physical abilities, and sate their desire to travel. But what?
It wasn't enough that they'd just completed the formidable Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run, crossing from the Grand Canyon's South Rim to the North Rim, and back, and covering a distance of 41.8 miles with 21,420 feet of vertical change. It's a classic route in trail running circles, and deserves to be near the top of the bucket list for anyone passionate about running on dirt.
The combination of endorphins, adrenaline and a sweeping view of the Big Ditch led to some inspired conversation, but ginning up an adventure run to top R2R2R is no easy task.
Meanwhile, another epic run was quickly gaining status as a classic among running circles, due mostly to the popularity of the book "Born to Run." A New York Times best-seller, the true story tells about the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico and details the tribe's rich history of distance running, supreme health and ascetic living.
The book culminates in a challenging 51-mile foot race through the remote and rugged Copper Canyon of the Sierra Madre, in which gringo (non-Mexican) runners mix with the Tarahumara in harmony.
The Missoula foursome had all read the book, of course, and decided the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon was perfect for their next big adventure.
That flight of whimsy was one year ago, and after training through the winter on snowpacked trails and in frigid temperatures, the runners depart Missoula Tuesday to begin the four-day journey into the heart - and heat - of Copper Canyon.
"We are all just really excited to run with the locals and absorb some of the cultural heritage while representing Montana," Wishcamper said.
A flight from Missoula to Mazatlan gets them into Mexico easily enough, but the runners must then take a series of bus rides through mountainous terrain to reach the tiny town of Urique, where the race begins and ends.
Organized by Micah True, also known as Caballo Blanco, a central character in Christopher McDougall's "Born to Run," the CCUM was organized five years ago as a means to promote and preserve the Tarahumara's traditional culture of running fitness, which has been compromised by poverty, road construction and the increased dangers presented by narcotics trafficking.
"Caballo said running has tapered off for some of the tribes because they just don't have enough calories to sustain themselves on a long run," Twidwell said. "We're really looking forward to going down there and meeting the Tarahumara, and also these people that we've talked to on chat groups and in e-mails. Everyone says you go down there and come back a changed person, because after 50 miles of running at the bottom of a canyon there really is this feeling of peace and harmony with these folks."
Signing up for the race couldn't have been easier, and was rewarding in itself.
After filling out an application form and providing details about their running resumes as evidence that they were up to the challenge, the runners each made a donation in the amount of their choosing, a sort of honor system in keeping with the Tarahumara concept of "korima," which roughly translates to English as "circle of giving."
The philanthropic aspect to the race gave the runners another idea, and soon Wishcamper, who owns the Wilma, was offering to donate the space for a fundraising event if True would be willing to speak in Missoula about the Tarahumara Indians, or Raramuri in their own language.
True obliged and in October the event raised more than $5,000, which Wishcamper donated to the Norwas de Raramuri (Friends of the Running People) nonprofit founded by True (www.norawas.org).
It also inspired the more than 750 people who attended, some of whom have personally thanked Wishcamper for helping remind them of the pleasure of fitness.
On a recent run on Blue Mountain, Wishcamper said a woman approached him to explain how the speaking event had inspired her family to begin running again. The woman's son recently completed his first half-marathon, and is enjoying the health and happiness that running has bestowed on him.
"The donations meant a lot to the Raramuri, but the event really meant a lot to Missoula," Wishcamper said. "It's been cool to see the different ways our attempts to help the Raramuri has resounded in the Missoula community, which ended up receiving a lot in the process."
Every runner who finishes the CCUM wins 500 pounds of maize, or corn, and the top finishers can win up to $3,000 and one ton of maize.
With two-time Missoula Marathon champ and personal trainer Kiefer Hahn toeing the line next Sunday at the CCUM, it's a distinct possibility that he'll take top honors. But the Missoula runners intend to donate all of their winnings to the Tarahumara, as is the custom for gringo participants.
"And that's the way it should be. It's their race," Twidwell said. "They're racing for corn and money to get them through the year. It's tradition that we donate the winnings."
As for Wishcamper, Twidwell and McGovern, they've been training out in the cold and logging plenty of mileage, but running in 85-degree temperatures in the furnace-like canyons of northern Mexico could serve as a rude awakening.
Wishcamper and McGovern have been running laps up and down the Wilma's 11 flights of stairs to train for the hills and the heat.
"It's hot in there," Wishcamper said. "The old steam boiler really cranks out heat and the stairwell retains it."
While the Missoula runners are all physically fit and look forward to the competitive rigors of the race, they are most intrigued by the notion of sharing the joy of running with a culture of people who have made the sport an integral part of their lives.
"I'm not going to be able to speak their language and they won't speak mine, but we get to share this great experience," McGovern said. "It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, you run 50 miles together and you share something. I'm so excited to share that with this other culture."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 260-4197 or at email@example.com.