Micah True was a man to be run after.
When Christopher McDougall chased him down to write Born to Run, he followed an elusive trail of clues through desert canyons. Time and again he heard that True, the man called Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, had just been there. Last weekend, True’s friends ran out into the canyons after him again. This time, Boulder-based ultrarunner True had gone out for a 12-mile run toward the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico, and had not come back. After four days and hours of non-stop, high-altitude running, they found him. From appearances, he had paused on his run to sit down beside a stream and dip his feet in, and died.
“It was weird to realize, after the fact, that the guy could not have dreamed of a better memorial if he wanted to, that ultrarunners from around the country just came speeding down and spent days running around the wilderness because of him,” says McDougall, who also went to New Mexico to assist in the search after True went missing March 27. He estimated 20 or 25 runners came, as did many other people, to participate in the search.
“There was a park ranger there who said he’s never seen a search that intense before,” McDougall says.
The morning after ultrarunner Scott Jurek, also of Boulder, heard that True had gone missing, he left for the Gila Wilderness. By the time he arrived, he says, there were 50 people searching, helicopters, horse search and rescue groups, infrared technology and border patrol search dogs assisting, and a plane relaying radio signals among those parties.
“It was this thing where I’m sure Micah would have just said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ because he was not somebody for a big spectacle,” Jurek says.
This time of year, the Gila Wilderness is hot by day, and below freezing at night. The search area included 200,000 acres of high desert and canyons forested in a mixture of cacti, pine, juniper and oak. Sacred hot springs and cliff dwellings are hidden there. And for four days, so was True.
“Micah obviously was somebody who was very strong and we all had hope that he’s going to get out of here,” Jurek says. “But as the search became deeper and deeper, and it was so extensive, we just couldn’t figure out, how did he just disappear?”
True’s body was found on March 31 in terrain so difficult that it necessitated that he be carried out on horseback. There were no obvious signs of trauma.
“There was just this sort of shock when we got the message and we just sort of stood there in silence,” McDougall says. “And before I had anything to say, I just looked around at everyone and I thought, you know, I never would have known these people, I never would have been here if it wasn’t for Caballo.”
Had it not been for True, he says, he also would not have been running for hours through the desert.
McDougall was 42 when he first met True, and his time spent running was consistently impeded by injuries. The limit of his coaching had been: You’re 6’5” and 250 pounds; pick a different sport. True had different guidance to provide.
“When I met him down in the canyon, what was eerie was we were the same height, the same shoe size, and I was the same age that he had been when he first went down to the canyons, and he had been kind of broken down and struggling with injuries when he first went down there,” McDougall says. “And yet here I meet him at this point, 15 years later, and he’s like this sleek, tan, leggy, loping animal cruising through the canyons. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, easy, anybody can do it. Just learn how to run, learn how to do it right.’” McDougall went home, followed True’s advice, and returned nine months later 40 pounds lighter.
“I had gone from 0 miles to 50 miles in nine months,” he says. “I’ve come to think it’s just not that hard; the key, though, is you don’t want to practice or rehearse pain. You go out, you run hard, it’s painful and you start to associate it more and more with an unpleasant experience. Caballo did the opposite. He practiced fun, so every time he had a run, if he was tired he stopped, he had a drink of water, he was constantly associating it with pleasure and it made it easier to go further and further.”
Born to Run, which talks about the inspiration True drew from the Tarahumara tribe and the race he started in their native Copper Canyons, was one of the launch points for the minimalist running movement, the trend of thinner, more flexible running shoes and barefoot runners.
“But the bigger thing that book did is it got people off the couch out running again, if they used to run, as well as if they never had before. And I think that is a testament to Micah’s personality and his spirit and kind of his legacy that he left,” says Jurek.
Photo by Laura McNamara
Part of that legacy lies with what he tried to give back to the people who taught him to run. True started the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, a 50-mile race with an estimated 9,300 feet of climbing and equal descent, to encourage the Tarahumarans to continue to value their tradition of running as a way of traveling, despite the roads being built into their canyons as mining and logging operations expanded into the canyons. Racers from the United States and Europe run against Tarahumarans. The Tarahumarans keep the prizes, both cash and the awards of 500 pounds of corn and beans given to the top 10 finishers. True wouldn’t have liked the term “relief effort,” says Jurek, who ran the race in 2006, but the race was a way of supporting the native tribe.
“Don’t know about any of you, but, sometimes I take myself too darn seriously,” True wrote in his message from the race director for this year’s Copper Canyon Run. “Sometimes, since I have been sponsoring this run, I have felt like I am standing on the corner of Broadway and Canyon, out in cyberspace, holding a sign that reads ‘will run for frijoles.’ Kind of humbling; and humility, like frijoles, is a good thing.”
He didn’t want money, he clarified, just some “maiz” to carry the people over until the next harvest.
“The Copper Canyon run is now free, like running should be,” he wrote. “The frijoles and Maiz are on us.”
“I don’t want to make him into a Barbie doll, he was a real guy with sharp elbows, he was an opinionated, sharp-minded guy,” McDougall says. “I think why people really warmed to him was he never asked for anything, ever. He was all about just doing it. If you want to come, come, if you want to participate, participate.”
And come they did. Weeks before his death, True hosted the Copper Canyon Run with a record 500 runners who paid a donation to run courses through the canyons of various lengths, the ultra marathon course revised to reduce some of the danger and with expanded support systems. It was a blast, McDougall says.
“I don’t want to trivialize this, because he was a very healthy man who died prematurely, but there was a sense of appropriateness,” he says. “He’d just put on the best version of his race that he’d ever done. … He had come back and was making his plans for the coming year, he went out for a six-hour trail run in the Gila Wilderness, which he loves, and then, from what I understand, he just sat down by a cool stream and passed away. So, believe me, I’m sure if you gave him a choice right now, he’d much rather be alive, but on the other hand you feel like this is the way he would have wanted to go.”
And if Caballo Blanco were going to choose a place, besides the Copper Canyon, Jurek says, the Gila Wilderness would have been it. The land has long been significant to ancient tribes and ancient runners, and it was a landscape he loved.
“I think the key thing is that he wasn’t somebody who was looking to be this inspirational figure or somebody that millions of people would look up to, and I think it’s a testament to all of us that you don’t have to be a largerthan-life character or anything like that, you just have to follow your passion and live in a way that benefits other people. Caballo gave everything he had and lived very simply, and I think that’s a lesson for all of us,” Jurek says. “He was somebody who didn’t decide to put on a race that was going to be publicized to the degree that it became, but things like that just happen.”
Even after he became a well-known runner, True continued to work summers in Boulder running his one-man moving company.
“He’d come out of the canyons, back to Boulder, and fire up his old truck and take moving jobs and work like a beast for a couple months, bank his money, and then head back into the canyons,” McDougall says.
“He was very connected to the natural world and very simple. He wasn’t bogged down with a lot of materialistic things,” says Brian Metzler, editor in chief of Competitor. “To him, running was just pure freedom and pure love, and he was all about that and that was kind of the message he spread to everybody near him.”
By the time he died, he had moved beyond running as a competition, and it had become an experience to be shared, and he gave out his love of the sport, his sense of the fun it could be, and what he knew about running and the natural world even while logging the miles.
“It was really like taking a history, biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology class all in one when you went for a run with him because he would point out the plants and the geological features of the trail, and he would talk about ancient running wisdom that native tribes such as the Apache followed and the Tarahumarans and the Rarámuri,” Jurek says. “He was all about being in tune with his surroundings and showing people that running wasn’t just about going out and pushing the body or exercise, it was something that we were meant to do.”
At 4 p.m. on Friday, April 6, those who want to commemorate True are invited to do so, and as he would have preferred: with a one-hour run starting at the Chautauqua lawn. Metzler, longtime running journalist Mike Sandrock and local trail runner Buzz Burrell are organizing the event.
“I think that’s what he would have liked,” Metzler says. “He was all about just having fun and running and just being out there, so that’s probably the best way we could possibly do it.”
At 6 p.m., there will be a gathering to share a few words about Caballo.
McDougall says he thinks someone will come forward to manage the Copper Canyon Run in future years. That person simply hasn’t emerged from the canyons yet.