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Trail running was a key component to the full life Micah True lived
“The world would be a better place if we all lived more simply”. – Micah True 2011
Photo by Luis Escobar
This article appeared in our July 2012 issue.
Living simply amid the complexities of the modern world was something that came easy for Micah True, the man who became known as Caballo Blanco, Spanish for “White Horse,” in the 2009 bestseller Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. A holdover hippie, True purposefully lived most of his life without much money or many material possessions.
But, as the world first learned from McDougall’s almost larger-than-life portrayal of him, True lived a bountiful life full of rich experiences, both as a trail runner and as a selfless humanitarian who dedicated the last 15 years of his life to trying to help Mexico’s indigenous Raramuri people—a.k.a. the Tarahumara Indians—of the Copper Canyon, where he had lived part-time since the mid-1990s.
True was an iconoclast, an individualist, often stubborn, sometimes obstinate, a bit goofy and, by choice, somewhat of a loner, too. He traveled light and moved freely through life, as he did on the trails, but his simple and sometimes primal messages made lasting impressions and connected people—both in life, and in death.
While the mystery remains about how True died, trail running on March 28 in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, his legacy isn’t in question. Those who knew True best—especially those who spent time with him in the Copper Canyon—say he lived his life by the spirit of Korima, the Raramuri word for sharing whatever you have and giving without any expectation of return.
“The thing about Korima is that it’s a circle of sharing and it’s just what comes from your heart, and Micah had a enormous heart,” Maria Walton, True’s girlfriend since 2009, said at a memorial service for True in Boulder. “He was just a simple man who had a simple vision that touched everyone with love.”
Michael Randall Hickman wasn’t necessarily born to run when he came into this world on November 10, 1953, in Oakland, California, even if there would soon be plenty of signs he had both the body and mind to become a good athlete. What was more apparent early on is that he quickly became accustomed to living a nomadic life, largely because his father was a gunnery sergeant in the Marines and the family moved all over California before eventually settling near San Jose. The second oldest of four siblings, Michael took boxing lessons as a youngster, partially to fend off bullies that hounded him for being the outspoken new kid in so many schools.
Being a teenager in the late 1960s wasn’t easy. It was a changing time in the United States, when the happy sheen of the 1950s dissolved into a decade painted by social revolution, growing economic disparity, racial tensions and the Vietnam War. It was against that backdrop that Hickman would enroll at Humboldt State and pursue eastern-philosophy and Native-American studies. To pay for school, Hickman, who sported long blonde hair throughout the 70s and 80s, began fighting for money in bars under the name Gypsy Cowboy.
His wayward path eventually led him to Los Angeles, where, among other things, he briefly worked as a stagehand for CBS while still trying to make it as a semi-pro boxer. While he was intrigued by the physical, mental and tactical challenges of boxing (and later kickboxing), he came to the realization many years later that he was probably too much of a thoughtful idealist to become a stone-cold killer in the ring. He had his share of success, though (his professional record wound up at 9-11, but some of those losses were bouts in which he was paid to take a fall, according to former Daily Camera sports reporter Neill Woelk, who wrote about Hickman as a fighter in the early 1980s). In 1980, he cashed in some of his earnings for a brief respite in Maui, where he hoped to find his purpose in life.
There, he met a running hippie named Smitty, who lived in a cave, and spent several hours a day trekking over wild trails along mountain ridges. In addition to this first foray into trail running, Hickman, then 26, ventured further into a transient, evanescent lifestyle, learning to live minimally, eating wild fruit and sleeping on the beach and in caves.
Hickman’s time in Hawaii was curtailed when he met a woman named Melinda, a vacationing graduate student from Seattle, with whom he fell in love and followed to Boulder. That affair also turned out to be short-lived, though, when she left him for another man and moved back to Seattle.
“He kind of bounced around a bit before he landed in Boulder,” says longtime friend and running companion Dan Bowers. “Even when he was here, he was never really tied down to this place. He had friends in Boulder—a lot of friends—but he was always kind of a lone wolf.”
With the idea that he wanted to live the most righteous life possible, Bowers said, he eventually changed his name to Micah True—an idealistic moniker blended from the Old Testament prophet Micah and his canine companion True Dog. He continued his career as a pugilist, and in 1981 and 1982 won his first six fights in Denver, but as he approached 30, he was in search of something else.
Although Boulder had already made a name for itself as one of the country’s top running towns, relatively few people were really running the growing trail network that covered the iconic local mountains of Mount Sanitas, Green Mountain and Bear Peak. Around the same time that his boxing career sidetracked briefly into kickboxing, True found that running those steep, unforgiving Boulder trails gave him a much greater level of strength and fitness than he had ever known, not to mention an untethered sense of freedom and a visceral connection to the natural world.
“Mountain runners are a different breed,” True told the Boulder Daily Camera in June 1986. “They’re less concerned with their times and more in touch with the mountains.”
At the time, trail running was in its infancy. Although dozens of trail races were thriving—including the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which officially became a foot race in 1977—most were small regional events that were completely off mainstream runners’ radars.
True ran his first trail races in 1985 during the second season of a series known as the Colorado Mountain Race Circuit. He loved the unique challenge of racing on the trails, even if he wasn’t very successful in what were relatively short-distance events. (That series of five- to 15-mile races is long gone, but several of the events—including Pikes Peak Ascent, Kendall Mountain Run and Vail Hill Climb—remain popular nearly three decades later.) “I was never that fast, but I found the longer I went the better I was,” True recalled in a 2009 interview. “That’s why I really liked the ultra events.”
Then 31, True finished 167th in the Pikes Peak Ascent in 3 hours 19 minutes, a modest competitive effort but one that piqued his interest for longer, more grueling races. He continued to build his aerobic base with multi-hour training runs—often solo—in the mountains.
“I’d go run for hours and never see anybody at all, and then I’d bump into Micah with this big smile on this face,” says Diane Israel, who, along with True were among the first Boulder trail runners to make a name for themselves.
At that point, True was living partially off the grid in a small cabin near 9000 feet off of Magnolia Road between Boulder and Nederland while earning money from his one-man moving company. He didn’t have many clothes, didn’t make or spend much money and didn’t possess half of the stuff that most 30-somethings have. Although he would often bump into some of the world-class marathoners training in Boulder, True eschewed the rising public interest in 10Ks, marathons and other road races.
As Mike Sandrock, a local running writer who used to train with some of those elite marathoners recalls, True quickly developed a reputation as a freethinking ultrarunner. One day while a group of runners that included Sandrock and Australian Rob de Castella passed True on a Boulder trail, True mentioned that he was two-thirds of the way through what would be a six-hour run.
“I remember ‘Deke’ saying, ‘That’s fantastic Micah, but that’s why I’m glad I’m a marathoner,” Sandrock says. “Even back then, Micah was doing his own thing, following his own path. That’s what made him who he was.”
Not surprisingly, True didn’t have an interest in running the growing Bolder Boulder 10K race, but instead opted to run one of the first ultra-distance runs in the region, Wyoming’s Rocky Mountain 50-Mile Run between Laramie and Cheyenne. His training and passion for trail running were paying off, as he won his ultra debut in May of 1986 in a little more than six hours.
“Mountain races are different because there are less runners and more open terrain,” True said at the time. “I guess that’s why I’d rather run 50 miles with 25 crazies than run a 10K with 20,000 people.”
True eventually delved deeper into ultrarunning and placed 10th at the Leadville 100 in 1987, running 22 hours 33 minutes. He also did some mountain biking and cycling, but the primal act of running is what fueled his fire. At the time, he was typically running more than 170 miles per week, starting many mornings with a 25-miler at 4 a.m. and often doubling up with another 10-miler at lunchtime.
“I was fortunate to win my first ultra, and that kind of sent me on my way,” True said in 2009. “I was kind of hooked on it, but I quickly found I liked the running part more than I liked the racing part. It’s not that I didn’t like racing, but it’s more that I really enjoyed the long peaceful training runs a lot more.”
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.”
True in his element – on a backcountry trail. Here, running near Santa Maria, California. Photo by Luis Escobar.
“It’s a really good read. It’s a nice book, really inspiring,” True said in 2009 after reading Born to Run for the first time. “After the first 40 pages, I thought, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ Chris drew readers in with this character that is supposed to be me, but he made me out to be some sort of legendary badass. When I called Chris on it, he said, ‘I was told to write the book from the beginning to the end and these were the things I heard and were my first impression.’
“But to his credit, as the book went on, it really captured us all. It did take some liberties with our personal lives, and it was very controversial, but when you get a half-million dollar advance to write a book, you’ve sold out right away and you have to answer to people.”
Although True had some differences with McDougall after Born to Run came out, they maintained a cordial relationship. While True became somewhat of a reluctant savior, his uncomplicated genuineness never wavered, nor did his dedication to the Raramuri way of life. He eschewed the fame that came his way, but he graciously accepted the opportunity to help the plight of Raramuri.
“He wasn’t a guy who cared about publicity or having his name in the headlines. What he did for the Tarahumara people, he lived it,” says David Weil, a Boulder massage therapist and longtime friend of True. “He was bi-cultural for sure. Whatever money he earned in Boulder, he spent or gave away down there.”
In addition to the intrusion of the modern world, an extended drought, the ongoing Mexican drug war and a downturn in tourism in recent years has left the Raramuri in dire straits.
In 2003, True started the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, because he wanted to find a way to help the impoverished Raramuri people help themselves. He supplied cash prizes and vouchers for bulk corn (at times out of his own pocket) and often turned down corporate donations to protect the Tarahumara from exploitation, though he also later helped convince the local government to match the prizes.
The race provided food and money, but True didn’t want to just give them handouts to meet their material needs—he also wanted to show them that they were respected and honored by many other people and that they should be proud of their culture because that was not a lesson that they heard very often.
“And they responded,” says Mike Miller, a Durango, Colorado, trail runner who ran the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in 2009. “And Micah did the same for many of us. Us ‘dispersers.’ He gave us a name, called us Mas Locos, and when the world was at war he brought us together in peace at the bottom of a canyon in Mexico, because that’s what dispersers do—they connect us. He taught us, like the Raramuri, that we are not alone, that there are others out there like us who have never really felt part of this modern world. He provided a venue where we could express all these innate qualities that we all share—strength, perseverance, peace, love, humility. And like the Raramuri, he instilled in us a sense of pride in who we are, and we went home changed people.”
“We were both admirers of the indigenous, but he was able to help them far more than I,” Ravitz says.
Although True was always surprised at the number of speaking engagements and media opportunities that came his way after the book was published, he spoke passionately about the race and sustainable agricultural projects he helped create for the Raramuri.
“I think he was proud of being included in the book the way he was, but he never really understood all of the attention he got from it,” Walton says. “He was proud because it was bringing an awareness to the Raramuri and the beautiful spirit that they have.”
The 10th Copper Canyon race on March 4 was the largest yet, drawing more than 300 Raramuri runners, 160 Mexican nationals (including two-time New York City Marathon champion German Silva) as well as about 80 more people from around the world. True had a profound impact on just about everybody who experienced the unique cultural immersion of the race, an alliance of runners he long ago dubbed Club Mas Loco.
“My outlook on life started to change after that race,” says Boulder resident Chris Labbe, who participated in the race in 2009 and later helped True create a non-profit to support the Raramuri people. “The people down there changed me. It wasn’t just Micah, but the people Micah brought together. You just had to be humbled by the way he lived.”
Not surprisingly, when news spread in late March that he had gone missing in a remote section of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, dozens of Mas Locos (including McDougall) came from far in wide to help the search efforts, many hopping on airplanes within hours of the news or driving through the night.
On Friday, April 6, more than 100 runners showed up at Chautauqua Park in Boulder near the base of the iconic Flatirons to honor True with a trail run. Organized by a handful of Boulder runners who had logged countless hours with True on the dozen or so trails leading out of that park, the memorial was meant to be an organic event, not a pre-planned production. “We’ll just show up and run,” said longtime Boulder trail runner Buzz Burrell, one of the organizers. “That’s what he was all about, and that’s how he would have wanted it.
Sandrock reminded everyone to mind the trees during the run because, in Raramuri lore, the spirits of the dead go into the trees. With that, several groups of runners headed off in different directions for 60- to 90-minute trail runs. Along the way, runners set various items—pinecones, leaves, rocks, feathers—on tree branches as a way of honoring True.
By the time runners meandered back to the park, another 100 or so people had arrived, friends and acquaintances of True—some dating back 35 years—not to mention many admirers who had never met him.
As the sun began to set behind Green Mountain, the group gathered informally in a circle and over the next 90 minutes shared stories that brought smiles and tears and heartfelt laughter. A bag of pinole (corn powder, a Raramuri food staple) was passed around for people to sprinkle into the wind as they offered up private blessings.
Several people spoke about True’s understanding of Korima, how he was always giving everything he had without ever wanting anything in return. Someone said True became the living embodiment of the idea of “giving ‘til it hurts,” noting that with True, it never hurt.
Renowned ultrarunner and Born to Run character Scott Jurek talked about True’s conviction and integrity, how simply True lived, how he respected his elders and history and how he managed to keep a good perspective on life and running.
“Anyone who knew Micah, knew he kept life fun, kept running fun,” Jurek said. “If you went for a run with Micah, you got a history lesson, a sociology lesson, an anthropology lesson, a biology lesson. He was always interested in the world around him and he would pass that on whenever you ran with him or sat down to talk to him. He’s going to be missed, but his spirit will always be alive and well with us.”
“What inspired me was the way he brought everyone together,” said photographer Diana Molina, who documented the 2011 Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon. “The Rararmuri just loved him. He was part of their world and it’s not an easy world to enter. That race and the amazing union he managed to bring together was something magical.”
Despite his post-Born to Run fame, True always insisted that he was simply a common man who cared about those around him. He was a stubborn, street-wise survivor, often quite witty and seemingly completely footloose and carefree, and took life as seriously as it needed to be taken.
“I have a theory that to breathe is to live—and the more you breathe, like on a long mountain run, the more you live,” True said in 1986. “That sounds cosmic, but it’s really a simple statement: when you run up in beautiful country, breathing all that clean air, there’s no better way to live.”
Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner and is the editor in chief of Competitor Magazine.
At press time, we learned that True’s death was attributed to idiopathic cardiomyopathy, which results in an enlarged heart.
A memorial fund has been set up at www.caballoblanco.org and a new non-profit foundation is being launched to continue the Copper Canyon Run. Another U.S.-based non-profit that supports the Raramuri people (set up by True and supported by members of Club Mas Loco) can be found at www.norawas.org.