It was less than two years ago that I first met the near-mythical Micah True, also known as “Caballo Blanco,” Spanish for White Horse, and the central character of the bestselling book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen.
He recently made headlines when he was found dead four days after disappearing during a routine solo trail run in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. Among the search party was Christopher McDougall, the author of “Born to Run.” McDougall’s original curiosity about the elusive Micah, who chose to live among a reclusive small tribe in Mexico, inspired his book and brought him literary acclaim.
I met Micah True in a roundabout way through pack-burro racing, Colorado’s indigenous and unusual sport, in which human competitors run up and down mountain passes alongside burros. A mutual friend talked Micah into racing a burro in an upcoming event at Leadville, and I offered to provide the burro.
Micah was open to new adventures, and everyone he met quickly became his friend and potential running partner. We met at a friend’s ranch and went for a run with a burro called Spike. I still remember the laughter as the black burro got away from the White Horse a couple of times on the downhill. We quickly became friends, and he ended up running in two burro races.
Little did I know that within two years, Micah would become the first person I’ve ever known — and considered a friend — whose death would be reported as major news. He would be eulogized in public memorial services across the country, and the world would learn perhaps more about this remarkable person after his death than had been reported during the 58 years of his life. What’s unfortunate is that while many writers tended to dwell on the how and why of his death, they didn’t tell more about the how and why of his life.
It was widely reported, for example, that Micah was the race director for the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in Mexico. True, but rarely has there been mention of the fact that he organized the race as a benefit for the tribal people who inhabit the area. The race brings in 100,000 pounds of staple corn for the Tarahumara, and $14,000 in prizes. Every runner who finishes the race is awarded 500 pounds of corn. Using his fame from “Born to Run,” Caballo traveled the United States — and indeed the world — on his “Talking Horse Tour,” raising awareness about the plight of the Tarahumara, one of the world’s last indigenous running cultures.
The Raramuri, which roughly translates as "Running People,” evolved as runners in order to travel quickly through their rugged homeland, get messages between villages, and hunt. They continue to celebrate this tradition through ceremony and competition.
Today, the Tarahumara are feeling the harsh encroachment of modern culture, with its violent drug wars and intensive mining and logging. The tribe’s love of running, Micah believed, was the thin thread that still held the culture together. One writer characterized Micah as the only person who could possibly help the Tarahumara. "Born to Run,” tells the story of Micah, beginning with his career as a champion prizefighter living in Boulder, Colo., to his virtual disappearance from society. He’d first become acquainted with Raramuri runners at the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon in the 1990s. Shortly thereafter, he more or less vanished into Copper Canyon, living in a mud-and-stone hut and spending his days running among the Tarahumara.
Though he took exception to some of the descriptions in Born to Run, the book’s release in 2009 drew Micah out of his seclusion in the depths of the canyons. It gave him a sense of mission and the visibility that he needed to help him make a difference. His relative fame, however, never went to his head. “Just trying to keep it real,” he told me. “Run free.”
He stayed true to that credo, living practically out of the back of his truck, traveling to speaking engagements and running, always running, on behalf of the Tarahumara.
How many of us are willing to turn our passion and good fortune into a lifelong mission of helping others? How many of us will die doing what we love in a place that we love? It seems that Micah True found the perfect trail to the other side. Those of us who had the good fortune to know Micah True, either personally or through his legend as related in “Born to Run,” can celebrate his life and honor his message.
Run free, Caballo Blanco!
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.