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Run! Super-Athletes of the Sierra Madre

March 27, 2012, Volume 58, No. 27

Run! Super-Athletes of the Sierra Madre, a new exhibition of 30 contemporary color photographs by Diana Molina, opens at the Penn Museum on Saturday, March 31 and runs through September 30, 2012.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Christopher McDougall, author of the national best-selling book and epic adventure Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (2009), offers a public talk and book-signing at the Museum’s Annual Petersen Lecture on Wednesday, April 11 at 6 p.m. ($5 admission; free for Penn Museum members.)

Considered to be the world’s greatest long-distance runners, the Tarahumara people live in a remote region of Chihuahua, Mexico. They call themselves “Rarámuri,” the Uto-Aztecan word for “foot runner,” and for them, running is not a hobby, but a way of life. Living within the deep canyons of the Sierra Madre mountain range, the simplest mode of transportation is by foot, and running competitions are rooted in tradition. Races are often day-long events that can exceed 100 miles.

Although known as barefoot runners, the Rarámuri run today in homemade sandals made of tires that protect the soles of their feet. Their running style of striking with their toe, as opposed to the heel, is natural for barefoot runners.

Today, a host of pressures, including environmental issues, displacement, and drug wars, face the Rarámuri people. In 2001, the Copper Canyon Ultra-marathon, set in the heartland of the Sierra Madre mountain range, was founded by Micah True (a.k.a. Caballo Blanco) to celebrate and help protect the endangered Rarámuri way of life. In 2011, 230 Rarámuri and 40 international runners participated in the grueling race, covering 47 miles of remote, mountainous terrain.

Texas-born photo-journalist Diana Molina has documented the Sierra Madre and its people for almost two decades; more than half the photographs in the new exhibition were taken at an Ultra-Marathon there in March 2011, and many of the remaining images were taken in the 1990s. She has lived among the Rarámuri people in northern Mexico documenting customs, community, and politics. Her photographs have appeared in exhibitions nationally and internationally, including at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Texas; the Albuquerque Museum of Natural History and Science, New Mexico; and the World Museum of Art in Rotterdam, Holland. Rarámuri, the Footrunners of the Sierra Madre, her original exhibition about the Rarámuri, is currently showing at the Centennial Museum, University of Texas, El Paso, through May 5, 2012.

In addition to the contemporary photographs, the exhibition features nine 120-year-old Rarámuri artifacts, including racing equipment and traditional garments, from Penn Museum’s renowned American Collections.  Dr. Carl Lumholtz, a Norwegian ethnologist, explored the uncharted territories of the Sierra Madre from 1890-1910 to make collections for the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Lumholtz lived among the Rarámuri for over a year and donated the exhibited objects to Penn Museum in 1893. His book, Unknown Mexico (1902), described the indigenous peoples of the region and the Rarámuri way of life.

La tia




Clockwise from top left: a Rarámuri racer rounding the corner of his 21st mile in the 47-mile Copper Canyon Ultra-Marathon; a female runner in the Ultra-Marathon; an example of Rarámuri sandals; a Rarámuri competes in the race; la tia (aunt) soothes a Rarámuri racer's muscles at a station along the Ultra-Marathon route. Photos by Diana Molina.

Almanac - March 27, 2012, Volume 58, No. 27