TILACO, MEXICO — The road back to this town in the remote, sparsely populated Sierra Gorda mountains of Queretaro state is a hard one for a runner.
There are steep climbs through rocky valleys. A desert must be crossed.
Every December, 50 men, women and teenagers from Tilaco leave Mexico City for home, carrying a torch to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe. All are residents of the town and its surrounding hamlets, construction workers and farmers who aren't used to jogging. But they believe that the pain they feel at the end of their collective 250-mile journey is a good thing.
Next to the daily ache of being a mom raising three children alone, a few sore muscles hardly hurt at all, 35-year-old Aurelia Ponce says.
And when you've lived the deep, lingering sorrow that comes from leaving home for months at a time, to earn your living in the United States, a few blisters on your feet are nothing, says Eugenio Fernandez, a 41-year-old laborer.
"They say that faith moves mountains, but it isn't until you see it happen that you know it to be true," said Javier Alvarado, 29, another Tilaco runner. "There are times when you're sick and you don't even want to get up, and you trust yourself to God and the Virgin. And they really do help you."
When times get tough in this town of 600 people with few jobs and a single telephone line, the people pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Suffering a little in her name once a year, they say, is the least they can do.
The torch relay from Mexico City to Tilaco is one of several December pilgrimages undertaken in veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. From Sunday through Wednesday, when the pilgrimages reach their climax, about 8 million people are expected to visit the shrine on a hillside in northern Mexico City.
Wednesday is the anniversary of the day in 1531 when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Juan Diego, a Nahuatl Indian, on the hillside.
Tilaco's torch relay is neither the first nor the longest in Mexico. But Tilaco probably is one of the smallest towns in the country to organize such a pilgrimage.
Fernandez returned home from Texas to help lead this year's torch run. And to be reunited with his wife and sons.
"My heart breaks every time I have to leave," said Fernandez, whose recent journeys have taken him to construction and other jobs in Florida, Ohio, Nebraska and Missouri. "My kids are still small, and it's hard to say goodbye. One day, when they're bigger, they'll understand."
Fernandez also returns to the sights and sounds of his hometown, which sits at the bottom of a valley surrounded by verdant mountains, amid fields of corn, beans and squash.
The town residents leave Sunday on a bus for Mexico City.
They light their torch in the plaza before the shrine and start the relay back home, exiting the capital past the teeming suburb of Ecatepec and into the cactus-lined fields beyond.
A bus carrying the rest of the runners trails the torchbearer. Each member of the relay team runs a short distance and hands off to another runner.
They pass through the rural commercial hubs of Ixmiquilpan and Actopan in Hidalgo state, with local police often providing escorts. They stop around midnight and start again at 4 a.m.
Soon they enter the state of Queretaro, and a desert of mesquite shrubs and taupe-colored mountains.
The runners climb sinuous roads and reach a mountain pass carved out of solid rock that the locals call "the Gates of Heaven," because it opens to a patch of clear sky.
Finally, they enter a valley of pine trees, where the poorest people live in log cabins. They are almost home.
"Once we reach Jalpan," 30 miles from Tilaco, "it starts to get easy, because you forget the pain in your muscles," Fernandez says. "The reaction we get from the people along the road really gives us energy."
On Wednesday, when the torch relay arrives in Tilaco, fellow residents will organize a Mass and a large feast.
Most of the runners get flowers from their families: Aurelia Ponce will get her bouquet from the three children she has raised alone.
People will come from the remote settlements around Tilaco and bring candles to be lighted from the torch. They thus transport the flame carried from Mexico City to other villages and homes where the people pray to the image of a woman also known as the Queen of Mexico.