Going the Distance: Running Club Embraces Environmental Activism

In southern Mexico, Cerro Meyapac is a key water source and wildlife habitat, but officials struggle to maintain it. Last year, a running club stepped in.

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Going the Distance: Running Club Embraces Environmental Activism

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

The Jule Jule Runners group finishes a race in Ocozocoautla de Espinosa, Mexico.

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OCOZOCOAUTLA DE ESPINOSA, MEXICO — The sun’s rays inch above the peaks of Cerro Meyapac. Jesús Alberto López Hernández’s watch reads 6:30 a.m., but the runners’ senses are already wide awake. They warm up with little hops, and stretch their feet, legs, arms and hands. “One, two, three. Let’s go, Jule Jule!” López Hernández bellows as the runners sprint from the city to the nearby forest.

López Hernández is the founder of Jule Jule Runners — rough translation: “Hurry Up, Runners” — a group of about two dozen men and women who regularly bound through the green spaces near Ocozocoautla de Espinosa, locally known as Coita, in the central plateau of the Mexican state of Chiapas. Such sports groups are increasingly popular in Mexico, says Adolfo Alejandro Sarmiento Zenteno, a state wildlife official, but these runners, bicyclists and motorcyclists often inadvertently damage their favorite lands by trampling vegetation or chasing away animals. Jule Jule members have taken a different route: planting trees, picking up trash, building a trail — small acts of resistance against urban encroachment.

López Hernández, a 49-year-old teacher and father of three, started the group in 2019. “My little girl wanted to run, but because she was small, she couldn’t keep up with the adults,” he says. “If we went, we were left behind.” He recruited friends, neighbors and co-workers to join them. “A group where we all run together, a group where the enjoyment is being all together and not just winning.” Once or twice a week, they meet at Cerro Meyapac, a tangle of trees and shrubs near the entrance to Coita. Runners relish its hills and the improvised trails that give it an air of adventure.

But the area also has ecological import. Its 1,294 hectares (about 3,200 acres) are part of a state government-designated conservation zone, where construction is banned so wildlife can flourish. Home to the region’s main water reservoir, Cerro Meyapac is a haven for white-tailed deer, lowland pacas, Mexican agoutis, weasels, striped hog-nosed skunks, gray foxes, fruit bats and Inca jays, says Sarmiento Zenteno, the director of natural areas and wildlife at the Ministry of the Environment and Natural History.

At first, the Jule Jule runners didn’t know any of this. However, like many Mexican cities, Coita has boomed in recent years, its population climbing from 28,000 to 43,000, its urban core devouring so much cropland and forest that the runners took notice. “The city is taking over the hills, the nature. Each time, more trees are taken away. The forests are being chopped down to put in houses and streets,” says Yessica Patricia Cruz Sarmiento, 38, as she limbers up before a run.

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Members of the Jule Jule Runners group relax after finishing a 7-kilometer (4-mile) race in Ocozocoautla de Espinosa.

Government agencies are responsible for taking care of conservation areas, but many don’t have sufficient money, Sarmiento Zenteno says. Technically, 10 state officials oversee Cerro Meyapac, but that’s in addition to 28 parks. It’s difficult to keep up, so the Jule Jule runners stepped in.

Since last year, they have planted about 300 trees, including orange trees and flowering matilisguate trees, to mark the border between Coita and Cerro Meyapac, a grove that the runners continue to water and prune. They have organized waste-collection events, as well as races to raise environmental awareness. In December 2022, they even carved their own trail through Cerro Meyapac. “We wanted to blaze it ourselves and do it in a careful and organized way,” says runner Maricela Castellanos Jiménez. “Then it will prevent other people from blazing paths or trails and damaging the ecosystem.”

Castellanos Jiménez, 44, compares the club to a seedbed, planting in participants a love of sports and the outdoors. “We put our sneakers on to change our lives through sports and to care for the nature that surrounds us.” Neighbors appreciate their efforts. María Elena Camacho Méndez grew up next to Cerro Meyapac and, over time, noticed the green swaths shrinking. “The actions of the Jule Jule runners are important. They take care of their health and that of the forests.”

As far as the runners know, they are the only sports club-turned-environmental club in the region. In general, Sarmiento Zenteno says, he supports their efforts. But the runners did not talk to wildlife officials before planting trees, for instance, which Sarmiento Zenteno says could introduce species that could harm the wildlands they love. The runners say they will consult officials in the future.

Clara Luz Ramírez, 45, joined Jule Jule before the coronavirus pandemic. She’s grateful for how the group dragged her out of the house and into nature, which helped her cope with the stress of quarantine. “Before I had nerves, I felt without energy, sometimes depressed and anxious. Now that I run, I feel happy and cheerful and healthier,” she says. So she helped the group plant trees in Cerro Meyapac. “The hill gives me health, gives me joy, energy,” she says. “I return care.”

Adriana Alcázar González is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Chiapas, Mexico.


Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.