Farewell, Caballo Blanco - Page 2
In the town of Urique in the Copper Canyon, Mexico, True awaits the arrival of Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett, after their misadventure, as told in the bestseller Born to Run. Photo by Luis Escobar.
True maintained his simple, nomadic lifestyle, even though Boulder had already become much more of a yuppie enclave than the hippie outpost it had once been. (True laughed in 2011 about how he built his own adobe house in Mexico by paying local laborers to carry rocks from a creek bed, but could barely afford to pay rent in Boulder.) As such, True had a penchant for traveling, both near and far and always doing it on the cheap. That often meant driving deep into Mexico and Central America, where he would typically immerse himself into the local culture while running to his heart’s content.
On one such trip to Guatemala in the late 1980s, he and Boulder friend Evan Ravitz spent time near the small highlands village of San Antonio Palopo, where, in three days, they racked up 75 miles with 10,000 feet of climbing on the volcanoes adjacent to Lake Atitlan.
“We’d circle Lake Atitlan, which Aldous Huxley called ‘the most beautiful lake in the world,’ Micah running, me on a mountain bike,” Ravitz recalls. “He’d take off up the first steep five miles to the top of the giant caldera the lake sits in and then I’d pass him 3000 feet above the lake where it leveled out.”
Ravitz believes he was the first one to tell True about the Copper Canyon and the Raramuri people. He had been visiting the region since 1984 and said True was fascinated by his stories.
Still sporting his flowing blonde locks, True connected with people wherever he went. He had a salt-of-the-earth demeanor that allowed him to appreciate the simple lives of less fortunate people. It was in Guatemala that True was first dubbed “Caballo Blanco” by a group of young girls he and Ravitz met at the lake.
After his early trail-racing successes, True became obsessed with training. That meant running copious amounts of miles, which led to injuries and then to burnout. By the late 1980s, he backed away from racing but was still an aerobic fiend, both as a long-distance trail runner and as a mountain biker.
However, after suffering a bad biking accident in 1993, he decided to “celebrate still being alive” that year by returning to run the Leadville 100.
At the 1992 race, a group of Tarahumara Indians had been brought to Leadville by Tucson-based wilderness guide Rick Fisher and his ultrarunner wife Kitty Williams. The story of those runners has long been part of trail running lore, as has the vilification of Fisher as a pushy promoter. Fisher and Williams started a campaign to use the tribe’s long-distance running roots as a means to publicize their plight and help them buy food. The experiment went bust the first year, partially because the original group of Tarahumara runners Fisher recruited had trouble adapting to the American customs and the unique nuances of ultraunning. As a result, each of the five runners dropped out. (The Tarahumara runners would often shyly wait at aid stations to be offered food, and Fisher had tried to get them to wear shoes donated by a sponsor.)
In 1993 Fisher brought a new group of Tarahumara runners to Leadville with great fanfare and finally experienced the success he predicted a year earlier. Clad in his preferred footwear—homemade huarache sandals—Victoriano Churro, a 55-year-old Raramuri runner, passed True at the 60-mile mark and went on to win the race. True wound up a respectable 28th, but more importantly, he became enthralled by the ancient Raramuri running culture.
In 2009, he recalled in an interview how he had been fascinated to know that these people had existed for years with running playing a significant role in their culture. He had been using running as his sustainable baseline of sorts for much of the 1980s and early 1990s by the time he went to Leadville that year. In many ways, his simple life was mirroring what the Raramuri had emulated for hundreds of years.
True was inspired anew to again run Leadville in 1994, but the increased popularity led to the race being sold out the week registration opened, a time when True happened to be on another one of his odysseys in Mexico and Guatemala. But later that spring, Fisher tracked down True and asked if he’d be a pacer for one of Fisher's five new runners that year. True jumped at the opportunity and paced Martimiano Cervantes to a third-place finish. At the front of the race, Juan Herrera ran with Ann Trason for most of the race, before taking the lead in the final 30 miles. He went on to win in a new record time of 17:40. (That mark would stand for 11 years until Matt Carpenter ran his blistering 15:42 effort; Trason’s 18:06 remains as the women’s record.)
True made the first of what would become an annual pilgrimage into the Copper Canyon later that year. The Raramuri people were known to run hundreds of miles over several days as a means of communication and persistence hunting, as well as various sporting activities.
“My Spanish was definitely limited, and so was Martimiano’s, as he is a very traditional Raramuri who speaks the Raramuri language and very little Spanish, yet our communication, under the full moon and during our whole race journey had been very good,” True wrote on his website about his experience pacing Cervantes in Leadville in 1994. “We understood each other completely. Sometimes, laughter speaks much more clearly than words.”