The Shoeless Mexicans Vs. The Flying Finn

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Should I try to sneak in? Back in Denver I had sometimes sneaked into the Zaza Theatre by walking in backward when the spectators of the previous performance were coming out, easily losing myself in the shuffle. But here there would be no crowds leaving the stadium until after the race was over. Obviously I would have to devise a method more suited to these particularly difficult circumstances. I was still pondering the matter with anxious concern when the four Indians arrived in a taxi, and in a flash of piercing brilliance I found the answer to my problem—I would simply attach myself to the Tarahumaras and pretend I was with them.

Quickly moving into their collective shadow, a short stride behind, I followed the Indians up a long ramp and into a narrow performers’ entrance. I was well beyond the door when one of the guards grabbed my arm. “I’m the mascot,” I blurted. He hesitated a moment, but when he noticed my thick-lensed gringo spectacles, his face registered the flattest No I have ever seen. That’s when I offered him my quarter, a crude out-and-out bribe, which he took with a most unseemly haste. The Depression had hit East Los Angeles several months before it struck Wall Street, and he doubtless needed every cent he could get. “Now scram!” he snarled; then in a whisper, “And thanks, kid.”

So there I was, safely ensconced in the grandstand, flat broke but incredibly happy. In my frenzied expectation, however, I paid no attention to the preliminary events. It was the Tarahumaras and Paavo Nurmi who were the only genuine attraction, and the whole crowd felt the same way.

Finally the barefoot Tarahumaras loped out of a dugout and onto the track, thereby causing the loudest human noises I had ever heard. There was total bedlam in the Ascot Stadium. When it had finally subsided, Paavo Nurmi came on the scene and nodded briefly at the crowd, knowing full well that it was a somewhat partisan gathering. He seemed cool and self-possessed, however, every inch the champion. But as they all approached the starting line Nurmi momentarily lost his cool when he took his first good look at his bronze-skinned opponents—one was a teen-age girl, and they were all barefoot.

The starter’s gun sent the Tarahumaras off at a brisk lope, Nurmi trailing them at a discreet distance. He was obviously going to pace himself, run his own race as he had always done. The crowd somehow sensed that he was holding back and uneasily restrained their applause for the pace-setting Indians during that first phase. But when the Tarahumaras began to stretch their lead after several laps, the OLES and BRAVOS broke out in increasing number and volume. Someone began a chant that soon caught on and literally shook the wooden rafters ofthat rickety stadium: TA-ROO-MA-RAH TA-ROO-MA-RAH TA-ROO TA-ROO MA-RAH MA-RAH TA-ROO-MA-RAH RAH-RAH-RAHU

The Indians’ lead widened a bit more. Then Nurmi, who had been running with a steady, monotonous rhythm, suddenly exploded into a furious burst of speed that stunned all of us—especially the Tarahumaras. He caught up with them in just a few seconds and flashed past them to build up a huge lead before they realized what had happened. It was a marvelous hell-bent-for-glory sprint, his well-muscled legs churning the air with powerful loping strides that reminded me of a racehorse. Nurmi knew what most of us did not know—that this was the last lap—and he was merely following his usual formula.

He won, of course, and by a considerable margin, but he nearly collapsed after blazing past the victory tape. His trainers were crouched over him as the Tarahumaras crossed the finish line and continued running for another lap around the track. One of the officials, apparently not knowing how to speak Spanish, finally made them realize with sign language that the race was over—that Paavo Nurmi had beaten them.

We were a sad, disheartened people that evening. And what made matters worse was the fact that Paavo means “turkey” in Spanish. We had been licked by a mere turkey.