Dressed in their traditional sandals and skirts, a group of Indigenous Raramuri runners set out to win the competition of a lifetime as they begin training for the Olympic races.
Until now, the Raramuri, who are also known as Tarahumara, have trained for national and international ultramarathons in their home region of Chihuahua state. There, they traverse canyons, forests and mountainous landscape, taking first place in the 100K and 50K, among others.
"The Raramuri runners remind me a lot of the famous Kenyan long-distance runners," Carlos Ortega, a former marathon runner, told ESPN. "They've also learned how to turn the difficulties of their circumstances into a talent, the talent to run."
Despite their natural gift for long distance running, members of the Indigenous group have failed to win a number of Olympic events. According to Ortega, however, these failures come from a lack of proper training, a situation he plans to personally remedy.
“They need to learn how to run shorter distances, faster,” he said. “No one was teaching them how."
"Because of their running style and way of life, they have very strong endurance, but their cruising speed is very slow," said Ortega, who has studied Indigenous running patterns for years.
"For longer races, their slow pace eventually overtakes their competitors as they get tired, but in shorter races, the Raramuri pace isn't fast enough to win."
The potential is there and, after almost a decade dedicated to seeking financial backing, the funding for a large-scale training program has arrived, too.
With financial backing from the Telmex Foundation, Ortega together with his team of coaches have organized 16 teams of runners and initiated training sessions across the Tarahumara region.
However, the Raramuri are among the top contenders for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Among the top runners is 17-year-old Catalina Rascon, who won her first 60K when she was 12 and her first 100K at 14.
"In the sierra, since we're little, we walk really long distances every day," Rascon said. "Buses are uncommon and expensive. We don't have ways to move from one town to another. So we're used to walking. Often we just run to get there faster, but also because it's more fun,” she added.
Although she has typically always dressed in her community’s traditional clothing, she has traded her sandals for tennis shoes, taking every opportunity to make her dream of competing in the Olympic Games a reality.
"I know it's going to be difficult to compete against people that have been training their whole lives for the Olympics. But I'm working hard to be able to compete against them," Rascon said.
"The best marathon runners in the world are the Raramuri," Ortega said, "and if they learn how to effectively run shorter distances, Mexico is going to win a lot of medals in the future."
According to statistics of the Mexican National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, Mexico is home to around 125,000 Raramuri people.