The Tarahumara is a tribe of indigenous people in Central America, more specifically in the Copper Canyons of Mexico; they are known for running incredible distances. I think we all know who the Spartans are at this point since that historically inaccurate movie came out. Ultra-athletes are people who compete in insane endurance competitions which can take place over a variety of disciplines. I discovered the Tarahumara and Ultra endurance competitions just recently when I began reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It is a great book (so far) and I will venture to say from what I have read, it should be on every must read list whether you are a runner or not.
Early on in the book McDougall makes a claim that there have not been better athletes since the Spartan warriors. This, of course, quickly got me scouring my knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and wondering if that was a fair comparison. First I should note that there are plenty of other tribes in the world which have shown excellence in endurance activities such as the Bajau people of Indonesia who are incredible apneists (great greek root there), holding their breath for long periods of time and showing great free diving ability. So it is probably not the case that there have not been better athletes since the Spartan warriors, but the comparison still intrigues me.
The Spartan warriors are famous in modern times because of the 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae who are legends for their military prowess. Most scholars agree that it was not just 300 Spartans at this battle, but I will leave it at that as to not burst the bubble of myth lovers. That being said there is a lot of evidence of the amazing athletic ability of Spartans. Those selected to be warriors were put into training at the age of seven. The Tarahumara start running as soon as they can although it is not exactly regimented training as was the case in Sparta. The Tarahumara are not an attacking people. They choose to retreat into the hills and use the terrain to stay hidden from enemies. Many will jump and say that is the main difference between the Spartans and the Tarahumara, but I want to remind you of Herodutos’ account of Thermopylae (book 7 around 222). He talks about the retreat into the hills and ensuing battle in a narrow pass advantageous to the Spartans. At the same time the poet Tyrtaeus claims that men in Sparta were trained neither to run away nor surrender. Born to Run says that the Tarahumara have people who are very old running alongside people who are very young without notice of a difference in step. The Spartans were enlisted until age 60 and had to maintain fitness up through the age of 65 because they could be called upon up to 65 in war times.
Both groups wore a sandal-like footwear while doing their athletics for those of you on the barefoot running train.
As for comparing the actual athletic ability of the two it is a very difficult thing to do. The Spartan warriors are in fact warriors and are known for their athletics in terms of war. When we talk about distances they can march or run those numbers must be considered differently than marathon runners since they are weighed down by armor and equipment. I have looked all over the texts I have for anything referencing a numerical value that I could use to compare the speed of the Spartans to that of the Tarahumara and I can’t. Pure athleticism will have to be left debatable, however the comparisons above should give an idea in terms of lifestyle about how the two measure up.
NOTE: The Athenians are actually granted credit for the term Marathon as they sent a messenger, Pheidippides, back to Athens from the battle of Marathon, a reported distance of 26 miles. The messenger collapsed dead upon completion, obviously not an ultra-athlete (Plutarch, On the Glory of Athens). It is said that the last two tenths of a mile were added to accommodate a viewing box for the Queen of England many years later. I have no source for this information; I know it only as a legend passed around some running circles.
SECOND NOTE: I have not included any of Thucydides comments on the Spartans, but he provides a very different view, in fact he calls them weak a lot. The reason for this is most likely his historical bias, but I should note that his opinion on the Spartans is out there and can be found.
For more on the Bajau people see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009j7nc