Caballo Blanco Ultra Marathon, Born to Run, Urique

An Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Eight – Caballo Blanco Was Not Born to Run Barefoot

This entry is part 8 of 15 in the series Copper Canyon, Mexico

A week after I arrived in Mexico the weather turned unseasonably cold. Even with three layers of shirts, wool socks, boots and mittens, I was shivering in Baja, so the prospect of going up into the mountains of Copper Canyon was worrisome. I wrote to Keith Ramsey, one of the owners of Entre Amigos, the hostel where I planned to stay, and inquired about the weather. Keith assured me that although it is cold at the canyon rim it stays warm year-round at the bottom, adding, ”Caballo Blanco wears at most shorts and a t-shirt most of the day, and put on a light jacket in the evenings.” A white horse that wears people clothes? I puzzled over his strange statement for a few seconds but soon turned my attention to making travel arrangements for Copper Canyon.

The morning after my arrival at Entre Amigos I was enjoying a delicious welcome breakfast in the kitchen of the main house when Maruca, one of the hostel’s employees, asked if I had read the book ‘Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.’ I knew the title; upon learning I would be visiting Copper Canyon, several friends had enthused over the non-fiction book about the famous long-distance running Tarahumara Indians who inhabit the canyon. Although it had been on the NY Times best seller list for months, I had not read it, so Maruca kindly lent me the house copy. Tired from a few weeks of travel and still nursing an injured hip and knee, I gratefully settled onto a folding chair outside my dorm room and, surrounded by the immense beauty of Urique Canyon, began to read.

Born to Run’ was the result of author’s quest to answer the question, “Why does my foot hurt?” Like most runners the author, Christopher McDougall, had suffered multiple running related injuries and eventually doctors began advising him to take up an alternate sport. Unwilling to give up the sport, he sought a solution from indigenous Taraumara Indians, the world’s greatest endurance runners. But Tarahumara are reclusive and retiring, eschewing most contact with the outside world. Many of them still live in remote caves high in the Sierra Madre Mountains that surround Copper Canyon and it can take years to gain their trust. So averse are they to conflict that when Spanish Conquistadores referred to them as Tarahumara Indians, mixing up the name of their leader with their actual name of Raramuri, which means running people, they made no attempt to correct the mistake.

Rather than pursue a futile attempt to be accepted by the Raramuri, McDougall went in search of a runner called Caballo Blanco, who had fled Colorado a decade earlier to live with the tribe. The book begins with a long-winded tale of the author’s search for Caballo Blanco, describing numerous incidents of arriving in towns where the runner was last sighted, only to be told he had just left. After many futile attempts, by now suspecting the story is nothing more than a legend, McDougall walks into one last hotel and comes face to face with Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco.

I finished the book on day two at Entre Amigos and decided to work online for a while. In the hostel’s Internet room a tall, slender man clad in only khaki shorts, t-shirt and sandals hunched over a laptop in the next chair. He looked up when I introduced myself, assessing me with huge blue eyes that bulged beneath furrowed brow and bald head. “Micah,” he replied distractedly, before bending back to his writing. Caballo Blanco, long-time friend of one of the owners of Entre Amigos, was overseeing the hostel while the owners were away in the States.

Caballo Blanco, aka Micah True, picks dinner from the organic garden at Entre Amigos Hostel

Over the next eight days, it became obvious that True is upset about Born to Run. While he admits that the book is, overall, a good read and that it captures the character of the race, he also feels that McDougall has indulged in a good deal of hype. Not only does the author paint True as a recluse bordering on a lunatic, he repeats untrue rumors that True murdered a man and fled to Mexico as a fugitive. Somewhat more concerning to True, the reader is left with the impression that the 51-mile Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon first occurred during the writing of Born to Run (indeed, I had that impression upon reading the book), when in actuality the event was already several years old. True started the race in 2003, paying prize money out of his own pocket that first year, gradually obtaining sponsors who provided a year’s worth of corn for the winners.

As they learned of the existence of the race, long distance runners from outside the canyon began entering to test their skills against the Raramuri super athletes. Among these outside competitors was Barefoot Ted, who is passionate about running without shoes and also figures prominently in the book. Although Caballo Blanco has never run barefoot and never will, he has somehow became entangled in Ted’s barefoot proselytizing; every day he receives scores of emails asking him to support products or causes on behalf of barefoot running. True illustrated the madness surrounding the book by telling me about a recent incident: “One day I was out running in the canyon. I came around a corner and noticed a bunch of people in the road gathered around a tour bus. Flash bulbs went off as I approached, then someone yelled, ‘Look, he’s wearing shoes.’ Someone else yelled, ‘What a phony!’”

Mural on a storefront in Urique advertises the 6th annual Ultra Marathon, held just this past March

Unwanted notoriety aside, True is most bitter about the plethora of corporations and individuals who are using the Raramuri for their own gain without giving back. In my brief stay, he showed me one new website that purports to be donating a portion of their proceeds to the Raramuri. Yet True, who long ago set up a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation to benefit the tribe, has not seen a nickel from this particular company, just as he has not received anything from many of the other firms that claim to be “giving back.”

On the other hand, worldwide exposure generated by Born to Run resulted in the best ever attendance at this year’s Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, which drew 60-plus international runners and about 40 Mexican nationals, in addition to the 265 Raramuri. Private donors and the Urique government provided $14,000 in prize money to the top ten finishers, nine out of ten of whom were Raramuri, in addition to 100,000 pounds of corn, distributed among all those who finish the race. Whether or not this exposure to the outside world negatively impacts the Raramuri remains to be seen, but for Caballo Blanco there is no question. His life has been irrevocably altered, but he has no intention of giving up without a fight. He may not have been born to run barefoot, but he was Born to Run Free, the title of the book he is authoring to tell the story through his eyes.

To be continued…..

Series NavigationAn Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Seven – Forever Immortalized in the Gossip of UriqueAn Adventure In Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Nine – Hiking to Guadalupe Coronado

18 Comments on “An Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Eight – Caballo Blanco Was Not Born to Run Barefoot

  1. What an experience! I love reading your articles because I always learn something new. And I especially love your answer on Arlene’s comment.

  2. Wow Barbara! This trip just keeps getting more and more adventurous. That’s wild about your meeting with Caballo. I’m sure you’ve having a blast!

    • Hi Spencer: Yes, it’s been an absolutely amazing trip so far and it just keeps getting better. My posts are behind my actual location; I’m in Guanajuato right now and am enchanted with this city. A miniature Rome in Mexico, only better because it’s filled with wonderful, generous, delightful Mexicans.

  3. As a runner and past marathoner…I loved this post! So interesting! I had never heard of the Taraumara Indians being the elite distance runners…I thought that mainly belonged to kenyans!
    I find it a bit sad that the race is getting overrun, but I’m sure the locals appreciate the extra tourist dollars it brings in.

  4. Fascinating indeed! Trail running is my son’s hobby. I just sent him the link to your story. Maybe he already knows about this as he is also a voracious reader. It helped that he has told me something about the sport that I can appreciate just what a feat this is for the Raramuri. Your meeting with Caballo Blanco was meant to be. Marvellous post!

  5. I’m not a runner so this book would have never made it onto my reading list, but it’s there now. Fascinating post!

  6. Whoo… such a warrior-survivor.
    once more another outstanding story, very expressive and realistic, i Like it.
    hoping to read more ………….

  7. I’m an avid runner and have been reading quite a bit lately about barefoot running. Apparently shoes completely alter how our feet impact the ground when running (heel to toe instead of the reverse). I’ve also read that many Jamaican sprinters train this way and the country does produce an disproportionately high number of Olympic medalists.

    I’m really intrigued by this marathon, it seems like something that could be an interesting part of a trip Copper Canyon and perhaps help the local economy.

  8. Barbara, isn’t it interesting that you found Micah True when you weren’t even looking for him. Perhaps you were put in his path to share the truth of his story.

  9. Chris McOso did research very well certain factual parts of the book. Examples: The science and anthropology of human running.
    It was/is a very good book that has inspired many people; and that is a good thing.
    Certainly, when we met in Urique I was having some issues dealing with some of the aftermath and marketing aspects of where it has gone, and how it has been interpreted by many people…
    I AM appreciative to have been portrayed in a positive light, and McOso does respect the Raramuri and myself, I believe…
    May the Raramuri and all of us, Each in our own unique ways, continue to Run Free!

    Caballo Blanco http://www.norawas.org
    BTW; THis is a new up and running NFP to encourage and celebrate the running cultyer of the Raramuri.

    • Hi Yusuf: I’m not actually living in Mexico, just traveling around it for a while, as I have several travel writing assignments here. Wouldn’t mind spending every winter here, though! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Very much appreciated.

  10. Wow what a great way to get perspective on the Taraumara runners and what a treat to have met True. I find that journalists tend to muck up stories on a regular basis in order to make a stronger story or keep in line with their preconceived theme. As a journalist I try to do my best to avoid doing the same! Most of the time I think it’s a result of shoddy resarch. I love the Copper Canyon area and am looking forward to following the rest of your trip!

    • Celeste: Thanks so much for your comment. It was a great treat to meet Micah. I also try to be precise with regard to my writing. I never feel the need to sensationalize in order to make a subject interesting, and I’m glad to hear you feel the same way.

  11. Wow.

    What an experience you’re having…I look forward to reading more. It’s quite eye-opening to read about his perspective on the book, which I had mentioned to you that I’d enjoyed so much…

    Thanks, Barbara, for this post.

    –Cheri

    • Hi Cheri: Yes, it was because of your comments most of all that I was anxious to read the book. Then, when I met Micah, I was really astounded to have encountered him so easily after reading McDougall’s description of how hard it was to find him. So glad that you recommended the book to me.

    • Hi Arlene: Yes, I’m so divided on this issue. I don’t pretend to have any of the answers, or even much information, but I do know that during my travels I have witnessed an inverse relationship between wealth and happiness. Those who have the most in the way of material possessions seem to be the most unhappy, and vice versa. The Tarahumara are dirt poor, many of them still living in caves, even though the government provides a stipend to them every two weeks. Unfortunately, alcoholism abounds, which may partially be the result of a culture that has historically used substances such as peyote to promote visions. But with more and more exposure to the outside world, the Tarahumara are beginning to desire material things. We seem to want to freeze them in time, because their culture fascinates us, but who are we to deny them the things we already have? They don’t yet know that material things will not make them happy. And I guess they will have to go through the same learning curve we did to discover this fact for themselves.

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