Beyond running

A man runs in traditional Tarahumara clothing. Photo courtesy of Will Harlan

Twin events aim to help Mexico’s Tarahumara people

What do a Harvard professor, the editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, an Asheville expatriate living in a canyon in Mexico and a local film director all have in common? They’re all fascinated by the Tarahumara, the indigenous people of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. While their interests in the culture vary, the four men are collaborating with one another to support a common aim: providing the Tarahumara with access to seeds and education through a local nonprofit organization called Barefoot Seeds.

Two events take place this week to support their efforts. On Friday, May 23, at 7 p.m., Dan Lieberman, chairman of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, will talk about his recent book, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease at Malaprop’s. Known as the “Barefoot Professor” for running marathons in minimalist sandals, he has conducted experiments with running cultures around the globe to support his hypothesis that humans are adapted to run.

And on Saturday, May 24, at 10:45 a.m., at the Fine Arts Theatre, local director and producer Rod Murphy will present the rough cut of his documentary, El Chivo, (the goat, in Spanish) which chronicles Will Harlan’s experience with the Tarahumara and his champion long-distance running. Harlan, editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors, founded the nonprofit Barefoot Seeds to provide the Tarahumara with seeds and a scholarship program for student runners. Former Asheville resident Mickey Mahaffey now lives in the Urique Canyon with the Tarahumara community and acts as a liaison for the organization. Mahaffey and Harlan will also speak at both events.

The Barefoot Professor

Lieberman says he had known about the Tarahumara for decades. In 2004, he published a paper called “Born to Run,” which appeared on the cover of Nature arguing that humans were adapted to run. One of the classic cases cited was the Tarahumara, a people who engaged in persistent hunting, running down prong-horned antelope for food. Because of his research, he was interviewed by Chris McDougall, the author of Born to Run, a book that brought the Tarahumara and barefoot running to international attention.WELLNESS_LiebermanSTORY[1]

The scope of Lieberman’s new book isn’t limited to running but takes a broad look at how our bodies have evolved over millions of years and how modern culture has butted up against our adapted traits.


“The key phrase is mismatch,” explains Lieberman. “Our bodies are imperfectly adapted to many aspects of modern life. There are advantages but also a lot of disadvantages. And this mismatch can lead to a bevy of diseases. … Heart disease, for example, is the No. 1 killer of Americans, and in most cases it’s preventable because we are using our bodies in a way that isn’t compatible with evolutionary history.” An example of a mismatch, he says, is that humans never evolved to eat food that is low in fiber. When we eat food that is high in starch and sugar, our livers and pancreases can’t handle it, resulting in conditions like fatty liver syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, etc.

Lieberman is an adviser to Harlan’s nonprofit, Barefoot Seeds — a project he says he is especially passionate about. “When you have someone get help from somebody, you also want to help them back. You want to be reciprocal,” he says. “We’ve learned a lot from [the Tarahumara], and I’ve also enjoyed going down there, but I’ve also seen just how fragile their existence is and how they are really on the edge of change. They’re struggling to maintain their way of life in the way of change that’s being thrust upon them whether they like it or not.”

El Chivo

As an ultramarathon runner, Harlan’s interest in the Tarahumara was less about biology and more about sport. He won the 80K Ultra Caballa Blanco in Urique Canyon in 2009, beating Arnulfo Quimare — the hero in Born to Run. The experience led him to found Barefoot Farms in Barnardsville, an effort, says Harlan, to emulate the Tarahumara’s simple lifestyle. Murphy documents Harlan’s champion long-distance running as well as the Tarahumara culture in El Chivo.

“Obviously, we are a far cry from the genuine ways of life that the Tarahumara live,” says Harlan of his off-the-grid organic farm, “but we are trying to live as humbly and as simply as we can.” Barefoot Farm is also a nonprofit, and all of the proceeds and fundraising goes to Barefoot Seeds, helping the Tarahumara have the tools and materials that they need to survive, he says. While he was initially fascinated with the Tarahumara’s running ability, it is clear that his relationship with the people there goes deeper than running.

“There was a lot of interest after Born to Run, and Chris McDougall wrote a phenomenal book that really captured the spirit of the Tarahumara runners, but a lot of that interest translated into new footwear perhaps, or different running techniques, but not a lot of help has trickled down to the canyons,” he says. “The Tarahumara have not benefited from the book as much as people might expect, so that’s where we’re trying to step in and create more awareness and more help.”

Donations will be accepted at both events to help fund Barefoot Seeds. Learn more at


About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

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