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An International Race Reconnects El Paso & Juarez

American and Mexican runners finish a 10K race on the Paso Del Norte Bridge in Juarez, Mexico, looking toward El Paso, TX, August 8, 2015 (Marfa Public Radio / Tom Michael)

Each year, 6 million pedestrians and 9 million vehicles cross the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. This weekend, however, it was 1,000 men and women in running shoes. It’s a 10-kilometer bi-national race that may signal a new phase for a once-troubled borderland.

The sun is rising over the city of El Paso and Roberto Barrio is with his dog Watson at a coffee-shop. It’s race day along the border. "The run is the Run Internacional. I think that’s it going to hopefully be a great tradition that they start up again."

Due to U.S. security concerns AND Mexican drug violence, this event hasn’t been held in a decade and half. But times have changed and Barrio is taking a holistic view.  "Because El Paso – Juarez is really one city."

Chelsea Shugert will also run across the Rio Grande. The 24-year-old from El Paso grew up keeping away from Mexico. "I was barely 16, 17 when it started getting really bad, so now I’m excited for the opportunity to experience Juarez and Mexico and the friendliness of it… like my parents talk about how it used to be."

Along with the El Paso Community Foundation, U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke was a catalyst for relaunching the race. The running event caps several days of cross-border trade meetings. "Having our Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker meet with her counterpart, Ildefonso Guajardo from Mexico, who’s the Secretary of Economy there. Having the Undersecretary of Energy from Mexico. Having the head of Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske, from the United States. And then having professors and writers and people involved in culture."

The significance is not lost on race director Chris Rowley, who had the idea to end the race in Mexico, at the top of the Paso Del Norte Bridge. "And then the lightbulb went off and we thought, That’s a great idea because Then you’re finishing right there with the Mexican and the American flag right there on the boundary line."

The original cross-border race used to start AND end in El Paso, and even that raised concerns. Steven Silver was the first race director. "I remember many years ago when one of the quotes from one of the associate race directors was that this is the only race where 2,000 people start and 3,000 people finish."

Although that was a joke, the border violence of the last decade wasn’t. "You know we had it for so many years. With some of the violence in Juarez it was a bit risky but I think things have calmed down."

At the starting line, runners gather in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso. The announcer says, "Guys listen up: the second water station was stolen. We had it set up this morning and as we’re taking the volunteers out it’s not there. So make sure you get water at that first water station."

In an orange running shirt and blue cap, Gerardo Guemes is ready to run back into his homeland. "I cross to Juarez every single day, and I would say if you would have organized this race in 2010, 2011, I would’ve told you you’re nuts."

But in 2015, he says, Juarez is like the city it was 10 or 20 years ago, before the drug wars. "I think Juarez is totally safe. But within Mexico once you run over a dog you’re going to be called dog killer for the rest of your life. Juarez got that reputation, and even though things have improved, it’s still got that image."

"Juarez is a nice city. I spent all my life in Juarez." That’s Elsa Pinela, wearing a jersey that says Juarez Running, her club. "We are like 300 people. Three years ago it was very difficult to run because it is very dangerous but right now it is very nice to run in the mornings and night."

There’s no pistol shot, no starting gun as the race begins. A thousand runners wind through the streets of El Paso. The crowd is supportive. Before the event, Congressman O’Rourke predicted that crossing into Mexico would be the high point of the race. "I think when runners cross the Stanton Street bridge - the bridge is elevated and it’s curved and so when you get to the top of that you’ll have this birds-eye view of the two downtowns and just see that we are literally connected. That view is just profound and incredibly beautiful."

And that’s where we find him, running in a white cap that says “The Border Makes America Great.” The symbolism is everywhere. "Up ahead is the Stanton Street Bridge, which is curved over the Rio. And there are American flags and Mexican flags marking the international boundary at the top of the bridge. We are about 50 yards from Mexico."

Robert Barrio is also out on the course. He left his dog Watson at home. "I’m suffering out here."

But he’s still on his way to a second-place finish in his age group, about 14 minutes behind a 55-year-old from Juarez. "It’s great to see all the people out here. I was hoping this was just a run and not a race."

And for some along the border, this isn’t a run and it isn’t a race, it’s something more.


Former KRTS/KXWT News Director