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.
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!’”
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…..