These Ultramarathoners Tackle Epic Trail Runs to Connect With Indigenous Populations

Eme Morato (left) and Mauricio Díaz (center) run along the border fence with a member of the Tohono O'odham tribe. Credit: Daniel Almazán Klinckwort

On a warm morning last July, a 29-year-old man with a voluminous black beard named Mauricio Díaz began chatting with an elderly member of the Hopi tribe as they both watched children run a 5K on an Indian reservation in Arizona. Díaz was on the last night of a three-day trek across the Arizona side of the American-Mexico border, trail running in the ancestral land of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The man, Díaz says, must have been in his 70s. “I only know how to describe him as having the look of a wise old Native American,” he says. They talked about running, and its influence on Hopi culture. In particular, they discussed the “snake ceremony”—a dying tradition in which tribal members participate in a footrace to honor their gods. Díaz asked the man how many miles the races usually lasted.

The man started laughing, then responded, “Measuring distance and taking time is something white men invented, for we only chase after the fastest of the group.”

The quote struck a chord with Díaz. It vocalized a philosophy he’d been brewing for more than a year—learning how to shed a reliance on time, distance, splits, and Strava Kudos.

To do so, he and two of his friends founded Aire Libre (“Free Air” in Spanish), a Mexico City-based creative project that aims to connect people with indigenous populations and their land through running.

“We are trying to inspire people to be active and connect with nature,” Díaz says. “Because we know that if they do that, they will be happier, which will create a positive chain reaction.”

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This was not the initial intent of the group. In December 2015, a 29-year-old programmer and ultrarunner named Eme Morato was bored. So he planned a 56-mile run through the Sonoran Desert in northwestern Mexico, inviting a few friends to join including Díaz and professional photographer Daniel Almazán Klinckwort. Along the way, the group met with members of the native Seri tribe to discuss the culture’s ancestral relationship with running. Armed with stories from the gorgeous coastal landscape along with video and photographs by Klinckwort, the trio wanted to share the experience with their friends back in Mexico City.

They founded Aire Libre as a way to document the experience, uploading a travel blog, photos, and video to a website. Largely because of Klinckwort’s stunning images published on the site and Instagram, the group built a cult following. People began asking when the trio’s next adventure would happen.

“Being from Mexico, we have a deep connection to the indigenous cultures here,” Morato says. “We wanted our projects to always focus on some sort of ancestral tradition—to use running as a vehicle to bring these cultures back into the city because their knowledge is super valuable.”

The goal was not, then, to simply plan a trail-running vacation between three friends. But instead, to explore a locale where they could connect with indigenous people. In August 2016, that philosophy took them to Sierra Norte de Oaxaca, a forest-laden region in Mexico inhabited by tiny native villages nestled in mountainous terrain. Over three days, the members of Aire Libre ran through six towns, with Klinkwort capturing photos along the way.

Nearly a year later, this past July, the trio took part in their third project, visiting the Tohono O’odham nation along the Arizona border. They chose the terrain because of the current political climate. The tribe’s protected land is cut down the middle by a vast border fence. Members of the tribe must present their own specific identification to cross back and forth—often to visit family on the other side.

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In order to camp inside the protected land, Díaz, Kinckwort, and Morato had to obtain special permits from the leaders of the tribe. On the identification cards under “Purpose for Visit,” it read “to run across the land.”

Over three days, they trekked roughly 35 miles along the border fence and through a mountain range considered sacred by the Tohono O’odham.

“The desert sunset turned the landscape into the orange and pinks; it would start raining suddenly then stop and then you would have this crazy lighting,” Morato says. “It made for this surrealist landscape.”

“Los corredores eran como nuestros antiguos teléfonos”, nos platicó Amy, una maestra local de cultura. En un día común, 100 años atrás, hubiera sido algo normal que un joven O’odham se levantara muy temprano, se ajustara sus sandalias o calzado y saliera corriendo con dirección a alguna comunidad vecina de su Nación. Su propósito habría sido probablemente entregar algún mensaje importante, ya que esa era la manera en que las noticias y novedades circulaban en aquella tierra desértica. 🔝 Conoce más de esta historia visitando el link en nuestro bio 🔝 . "Runners were like our old phones," Amy, a local O'odham culture teacher, told us. On a typical day, 100 years ago, it would have been normal for a young O'odham to get up very early, adjust his or her shoes, and run to some neighboring community of his Nation. The purpose would probably have been to deliver some important message, since that was the way the news and news circulated in this desert land. 🔝 Visit the link in our bio to know more about this story 🔝 . Photo x @jeremy_bernard_photography Text x @ememorato . #hijosdelsendero #TRAILCULT #somosoutdoors . . . #run #arizona #travel #nomad #nature#usa #spiritual #landscape #america#wanderlust #adventure #vsco #vscogood#vscovisuals #vscophile #vscotravel#gooutside #outdoors #instagood #Oodham #running #trailrunning#adventure #spirituality #spirit #running #imarunner

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Often, the trio was joined by children from the tribe. They taught the Aire Libre members about the Salt Run. The ceremony, which signifies entering manhood, is performed by running nearly 100 miles to the coast to collect shells. The tradition has largely died out, but two of the children who joined Díaz, Morato, and Klinckwort committed to attempting it—inspired by the Aire Libre’s visit.

“The tribe saw us coming as an opportunity to visit and inspire their young people to start running more,” Díaz says.

As they ran to new locations, the group also discussed political tensions in the region with members of the tribe. Díaz says the tribe universally denounces President Trump’s proposed border wall. That, he says, is part of the reason why Aire Libre decided to visit. Twice, the trio was stopped by border patrol agents. They saw slippers and Mexican pesos in the sand during one of their runs, left by immigrants crossing the wall.

“Seeing that made the run feel kind of tense,” Díaz says. “But that is part of what we wanted, to get a sense of what is happening in the region.”

Emprendimos una aventura que nos llevó a las profundidades de la Tohono O’odham Nation, una comunidad tribal de Nativos Americanos cuyo epicentro geográfico es uno de los lugares más controversiales del mundo: la frontera entre México y Estados Unidos. La siguiente semana estaremos publicando toda la aventura en nuestra página www.airelibre.run 🔥🔥🔥 . #trailcult #hijosdelsendero #somosoutdoor . 📸 @jeremy_bernard_photography . . Aire Libre set forth on an adventure that took us into the depths of the Tohono Oódham Nation, a Native American tribal community whose geographical epicenter is one of the most controversial in the world: the Mexico – USA Border. Next week we will be publishing the whole story on www.airelibre.run 🔥🔥🔥

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This type of socially conscious running is something Díaz and Aire Libre plan to continue in the future. The group already organizes trail running retreats in Mexico for members of the general public, and they are planning their next large project—running from the coast all the way to Mexico City while carrying a fish. The trip will recreate a legendary run once completed by the Aztec people so that Montezuma—whose empire was located in center of the country—could eat fresh fish every day.

They have not solidified a date for the next adventure, but they are just beginning to plan logistics. What they are hoping not to do, Díaz says, is count the miles.