Born to Booze – Are the Tarahumara Worthy Role Models?

Is there a runner who hasn’t read Born to Run?

The bestseller by Christopher McDougall argues for a simpler, less numbers-encumbered approach to running.

As poster children for the New Simplicity, McDougall introduces us to the Tarahumara of northern Mexico, whose members live simple lives and run spectacular distances, shod in flowing ponchos and sandals.

The Tarahumara run single-track trails in the Copper Canyon wildlands of Chihuahua. They run with humor and joy. They don’t run for money. At their races, there are no bands blaring mindlessly, no banners, no booths. Just friendly people who live simply in close community and love to run. What could be more appealing?

The Born to Run chapter on Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100-mile race is one of the most exciting and meaningful in all of running literature. The battle between Ann Trason, mythically representing the western, rational, fiercely competitive tradition, and the visiting Tarahumara – capes flapping ghost-like in the mountain fog, padding up Hope Pass in their Goodyear Fuel Max-treaded sandals, smiling and enjoying it all – contrasts everything that’s wrong with western competitiveness, with what’s right about a more simple and enduring life close to earth and in harmony with higher things.

Yet McDougall’s portrayal of the Tarahumara is, to say the least, highly idealized. It’s an imaginative melange of Shangri-La, Xanadu, and Shambhala.

From Wikipedia: “Anthropologist John Kennedy reports that ‘the average Tarahumara spends at least 100 days per year directly concerned with tesgüino [corn beer] and much of this time under its influence or aftereffects.”

McDougall describes how the beer-obsessed Tarahumara work out their social tensions during all-night drunken benders that feature vicious fistfights and orgiastic sex with other people’s partners.

A view upward, for some perhaps, but not for yours truly.

Albert Einstein boiled down the urges that drive all human striving to two: a longing to increase happiness, and to escape suffering.

If it’s true – if we’re here to find more joy and escape sorrow, surely drunken orgies are a childish diversion at best. Stupefaction doesn’t solve problems. It’s a step backward, away from happiness – not an escape, not a victory.

In his excellent book, Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t, J. Donald Walters makes a persuasive argument that happiness comes by expanding our awareness, and that sorrow comes by doing things that are contractive.

Runners experience this every day. Overtraining is the most contractive thing a runner can do. It shrivels us, leaving us cranky and withdrawn.

Balanced training, in harmony with the body’s abilities, leaves us feeling expansive, cheerful, and able to embrace realities beyond our own. The best training feels good because it’s expansive.

The Tarahumara’s boozing and orgies stand in stark contrast to the expansive qualities of their simple cave-dwelling existence. There’s much good in the Tarahumara lifestyle, but there’s also plenty to watch out for.

It’s not a question of either/or. Life seldom is. It simply means that the Tarahumara haven’t yet discovered the secret of escaping suffering permanently and finding joy. They’ve just found a way to numb the pain and wake up with a headache.

The Tarahumara have much to teach us – but not everything. Raise a hand if you believe joy can be found by spending every third day swacked on homebrew.

3 thoughts on “Born to Booze – Are the Tarahumara Worthy Role Models?”

  1. If you agree with J. Donald Walters who “makes a persuasive argument that happiness comes by expanding our awareness”, why not use some of that awareness to try to understand that the Tarahumara aren’t trying to find the “secret of escaping suffering permanently and finding joy” through drinking, but rather just living the way they know how? We need to be more cautious when we, the western cultural modalities, prescribe what a certain culture is when it is our journalists who are the ones doing the writing.

  2. Hello Juan. With respect, my argument is not with the Tarahumara, but with Christopher McDougall, and by extension, with runners and writers who would have us believe uncritically that any tribe of people living on earth, whether in cities or caves in northern Mexico, can show us the way to ultimate happiness and success.

    I found Born to Run touchingly childish in its main argument, that running is a path to perfect freedom and joy. And like many such purist advocacies, I found that it contained a dark side – namely, McDougall’s rather slimy journalistic trick, in setting up a truly great runner, Ann Trason, to represent all that is wrong with “western competitiveness,” and how he coldly compared her, for his own purposes, to the faultlessly pure and godlike Tarahumara.

    It was my purpose in writing this article, to suggest that runners can find much better, more workable, and more ultimately satisfying models – as indeed I have personally, in the universal spiritual teachings of the world. I agree with you, however, that I would be hypocritical if I didn’t apply the same criteria to myself that I’ve applied to the Tarahumara. At 71, I surely do know that I’m a mixed bag of expansive and contractive qualities – as are we all. My point is that we can make best progress by taking what’s good and admirable from other cultures, including the Tarahumara, but turn our focus to the real source of joy which can be discovered within, not alone by imitation but by introspection, and by being aware of how life works. I.e., contractiveness produces suffer while expansive attitudes and actions invariably give us success and joy.

    Along with this way of thinking, I reject the notion that the Tarahumara, or any other culture, needs special protection because of the conformist pieties of political correctness, which I wholeheartedly reject. I believe that we benefit most by looking with clear-eyed objectivity at all cultures, noting their successes and failures. As a lifelong practitioner of voluntary simplicity, I delight in the Tarahumaras’ example at least to this extent – that they show us it is possible to be very happy in a life of extreme simplicity, at least to the extent that contractive actions (e.g., boozing) don’t erode that joy.

    I’m grateful to you for allowing me to answer the frequent critiques of this article. Of all the responses, yours is the most calm and civilized; others have been filled with self-righteous rage which is why I haven’t approved them.

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