Is rarajipari the next new game in endurance sports?

For the indigenous people of Mexico made famous in the bestselling book “Born to Run,” rarajipari is just another day of gettin’ ‘er done. For Americans, the traditional endurance sport, which recently made its competitive U.S. debut, is bringing a new perspective to what it means to run for fun.

Indigenous runners practice rarajipari in Mexico’s Batopilas canyons. Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Sweeney

Closely associated with the Tarahumara (or Raramuri, which translates to “light-footed people” or “the running people”) of the Barrancas del Cobre, in Chihuahua, Mexico, rarajipari is a team game played by flicking by foot a handmade wooden ball (or bola) forward over long distances.

Handmade and stamped bolas await finishers of the Born to Run Ultra Marathon race. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Miller

In the rugged Copper Canyon of Mexico, a stick, cupped slightly at one end, is used for extracting the bola from scrub or high places and gathering it toward the foot, but never to advance it forward. Rarajipari running games can last for more than 24 hours and cover distances of over 100 miles at elevations as high as 8,000 feet.

A form of the game traditionally played by women, called ariweta, is played with a hoop instead of a ball, but demands similar stamina.

Men play rarajipari and women play their own version of the endurance game, called ariweta. Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Sweeney

“Rarajipari is typically used for a purpose — to get somewhere or for working — but they [the Raramuri] would prefer to play these games than just to do an ultra-distance run,” Michael Miller of Mas Korima, a company that manufactures maize-based endurance fuel in partnership with and supporting the Raramuri, tells GrindTV.

“They may be going for a day or multiple days out into the fields to herd goats or running a 1,000-foot climb to get to their mother’s place, for example. Men and women are running these distances in $4 plastic slippers, cut-up tires or no shoes at all.”

Miller is part of a non-profit bringing to U.S. runners both a Raramuri revenue generator — indigenous corn-like pinole fuel — and the culture of what’s arguably the world’s oldest endurance sport.

Rarajipari looks a little different in America than in the remote canyons of Mexico, but Miller and Luis Escobar, creator of the Born to Run Ultras in Los Olivos, California, are proving that the sport can create community among all endurance athletes in what is otherwise considered a rather solitary pastime.

“It holds a lot of upside for fun,” Miller says. “Where here endurance running is an individual sport, rarajipari involves running and team. It’s about the connection with other people, community and the social aspects of getting together in nature.”

An American runner poses with Tarahumara teammates at the rarajipari event at the Born to Run Ultra. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Miller

After many years of visiting the shy, unassuming Raramuri, Escobar and friends have introduced rarajipari across the border accordingly, through an occasional exhibition race at an established U.S. or international ultramarathon.

But as more indigenous Mexican runners access visas and showcase the sport stateside, the more American runners seem to be intrigued by the communal nature of the endurance game.

“The event challenges both the physical and spiritual strength of the athlete. They honor the ancients with the faith of their prowess,” executive producer of the movie “Run Free,” Maria Walton, tells GrindTV. She has participated in several rarajipari events.

“With the Raramuri, as a team, everyone wins,” Walton says. “The winners share their prize winnings with their entire community.”

This May, the rarajipari debuted in the U.S. with a mix of competitive teams advancing a bola around a spectator-friendly loop. “You’re only as fast as your slowest runner,” Miller explains, meaning if a teammate gets lapped, they’re out and you’re down a man, but still must continue moving the ball forward while running for some incredible distance.

You can see why this ball-flicking game is much easier in sandals. Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Sweeney

Teams, lengths and laps vary, but there’s no two ways about it: “It’s hard,” says Miller, who notes that most Americans are used to running in heavy shoes.

“It’s easier with huaraches [a traditional sandal worn by the Tarahumara], so you have more control and can flick with the top of the foot.”

While it may take time and technique to integrate rarajipari in the States, so far distance runners seem open to learning the roots of their sport — and maybe something more.

Says Miller, “The Raramuri are subsistence farmers. They’re living in a half adobe, half lean-to with no indoor plumbing, but they are always laughing. They have mountains, simplicity and perspective, and we just want to share a little bit of this healthy, happy life.”

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