SPORTS

Drug violence throws future of Mexico's Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon up in the air

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CA - JULY 16:  Harvey Sweetland Lewis III sprints hard, leaving his support crew behind, toward the finish to take fourth place in the AdventurCORPS Badwater 135 ultra-marathon race on July 16, 2013 outside of Death Valley National Park, California. Billed as the toughest footrace in the world, the 36th annual Badwater 135 starts at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, 280 feet below sea level, where athletes begin a 135-mile non-stop run over three mountain ranges in extreme mid-summer desert heat to finish at 8,350 feet above sea level near Mount Whitney for a total cumulative vertical ascent of 13,000 feet. July 10 marked the 100-year anniversary of the all-time hottest world record temperature of 134 degrees, set in Death Valley where the average high in July is 116. A total of 96 competitors from 22 nations attempted the run which equals about five back-to-back marathons. Previous winners have completed all 135 miles in less than 24 hours.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CA - JULY 16: Harvey Sweetland Lewis III sprints hard, leaving his support crew behind, toward the finish to take fourth place in the AdventurCORPS Badwater 135 ultra-marathon race on July 16, 2013 outside of Death Valley National Park, California. Billed as the toughest footrace in the world, the 36th annual Badwater 135 starts at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, 280 feet below sea level, where athletes begin a 135-mile non-stop run over three mountain ranges in extreme mid-summer desert heat to finish at 8,350 feet above sea level near Mount Whitney for a total cumulative vertical ascent of 13,000 feet. July 10 marked the 100-year anniversary of the all-time hottest world record temperature of 134 degrees, set in Death Valley where the average high in July is 116. A total of 96 competitors from 22 nations attempted the run which equals about five back-to-back marathons. Previous winners have completed all 135 miles in less than 24 hours. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)  (2013 Getty Images)

The ultra-marathon in Mexico founded by Micah True, known as Caballo Blanco and made famous in Christopher McDougall's 2009 New York Times bestseller, "Born to Run," has been cancelled due to threats of drug violence.

The race has been held annually for the last 13 years in the rural town of Urique in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The race course wound its way through the majestic and rugged Copper Canyon, which is known for both its natural beauty as much as for its hidden poppy and marijuana fields.

While the threat of violence related to the drug cartels operating in the region had always been a threat, it wasn't until recently that the menace hit home.

Rumors began circulating that rival cartels were feuding in the days leading up to the race. Then the ultramarathon's co-director, Josue Stephens, saw two men, later identified as local police officers, being taken away.

The police officers bodies were later found burned in a car outside of Urique and local authorities said that a local drug trafficking organization was behind the killings. Race organizers found out about the killings as they were handing out running-bib numbers and shirts to racers.

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Maria Walton, co-director of the Ultra-Marathon Caballo Blanco, told AZ Central that race organizers had gathered some of the runners who had run there before and knew True, who died while running in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico in 2012.

"(The government) called in a military presence and said the race would be protected and that (cartel members) would not harm the runners," Walton said.

Despite the reassurances by local officials, the directors decided to cancel the race and make arrangements for everyone to get home safely.

"This has always been a concern," Will Harlan, who won the race in 2009 and who helps organize nonprofit work in the region, told the New York Times. "Every time I go down there, there's military checkpoints or rumors of violence or previous violence or violence that occurs just after we leave."

In a bizarre plot twist, however, that evening the mayor of Urique told the racers that the race would go again, even though both Stephens and Walton said it would not be the official Ultra-Marathon Caballo Blanco.

"We told everyone that they have the right to choose but we are hoping that you understand the urgency to get home safely," Walton said. "We told them that at this time we can't protect you."

On Sunday, about 100 runners ran a modified route of the course, saying that "several" were attacked by bees during the race.

The race has been True's idea of a way to help the indigenous Tarahumara, whom he had lived with in the Copper Canyon. The Tarahumara, who call themselves Raramuri or running people, are known for their incredible endurance and talents at long-distance running.

Race organizers are currently mulling over its future, with the possibility of the race moving to a new home on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, New Mexico's Gila Wilderness or to Colorado. Walton said that it still could remain in Copper Canyon, but no decision has been made.

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