Generations Born to Run
The Book. The Legend.
Stride by stride my attention focuses as much on Manuel’s sandals seemingly gliding over forest rocks, twigs and uneven dirt as it is on the expansive landscape around me. There are moments in life you pinch yourself, wondering just how you ended up there. This is one of those moments. Here I am, hiking though the southern Sierra mountains, the Barrancas of Northern Mexico, with famed ultra-distance, Rarámuri runner, Manuel Luna as my guide.
Luna, featured in the best-selling book Born To Run, barrels ahead with an occasional, friendly glance back, while just feet behind, Barefoot Ted chats away attempting to solve the world’s medical, inequality issues. “The rich are over-medicated and the poor not medicated enough.” I quickly understand the characterization of Ted in the book as quite the talker and while I can’t disagree with the sentiment of his statement, my mind is elsewhere…
The Copper Canyons of Mexico that take time, effort and serious logistic to get to. Getting here isn’t easy; perhaps that’s the point. After a couple days traveling, it’s as if I left my life behind and dove into what were once just words filling a book.. I was following the footsteps of a great story, living a legend come to life from a written page.
Learning From the Running People
Let me catch you up! The story begins with Michael Hickman, born 1953, into a military family. Michael grew up moving up and down the West Coast of the United States. Naturally curious, Hickman continued to travel as he aged. Summing up his sense of adventure, he once remarked, he’d move “just to make things happen.” Settling in Boulder in the early 1980s, he’d spend his time earning enough money to allow him to escape to Central America each summer where he’d run fast, far and seemingly forever. This passion became his life. As an ultra-marathoner he took on a new name: Micah True. To the local villagers who’d witness this pale-skinned man with long blond hair fly by, he became the “Caballo Blanco,” or the The White Horse.
As the story goes, True first met a member of Mexico’s indigenous Rarámuri at an ultra-distance race in 1993. The Rarámuri, literally translating to “the Running People,” live deep in the heart of the rugged, remote Copper Canyons. According to Born To Run author Christopher McDougall, they could be considered “the world’s best athletes nobody has ever heard of.” Running exceptional distances in sandals (huaraches) made of tire tread and leather, the Tarahumara, as Spanish colonists named them, is commonplace among both men and women of all ages as both their primary means of travel and as participation in ceremonial sporting events.
Fascinated with what makes the Rarámuri such talented athletes, True slowly built up relationships. He’d spend much of his time in the Copper Canyons racing the locals and learning what it means to live with kórima, the Tarahumara way of life. Kórima, acting out of solidarity and support for our fellow mankind, is to serve and to be served. It’s living within a circle of sharing. “What I have, you have.” It was in this spirit, True first organized a race in 2002, inviting other elite, ultra-runners to the base of the canyons, to the tiny town of Urique, not only to compete against the Running People, but to generate awareness, fundraise and help preserve the local culture and customs of the Rarámuri.
As with many legends, there are unanswered questions as to True’s last days. In March 2012, True set out for a 12-mile run through the trails of southwest New Mexico. He was never to be seen alive again. After days with no word; not always the most unusual of occurrences for an ultra-trail runner content in nature, search teams were organized. Runners from around the States, friends, and the Caballo’s fellow “Mas Locos,” the name given to those who had made the trek to run in True’s Copper Canyons ultra-marathon, covered the wilderness looking for the Caballo. Almost a week after heading out for his run, True’s body was discovered laying back against a mound of rocks, feet dangling in a shallow river with signs of a traumatic tumble. Cause of death would be ruled cardiomyopathy, a disease resulting in an enlarged heart.
A New Generation Carries the Legend
As my week continues at the base of the canyons, I stroll through Urique. It’s impossible not to sense the Caballo’s spirit. His presence is as much as part of the town as the local peoples in their traditional clothings of bright, beautiful colors. These are a simple people, often avoiding eye contact with outsiders. As Michael Miller, friend of the Caballo and race director for the continuing, annual ultra-marathon explains, “It’s not stoic. It’s shy. Sharing the beauty of their land is important to them. They’re proud of it.” And they should be. This is a peaceful paradise hidden worlds away from what most think of when picturing modern, Western society. After completing a day on trails together there’s a budding camaraderie, a sharing of smiles, trust and then even a meal.
True legends among us are concerned more with creating and fostering the conditions for others to excel than they are about their own status. This is the enduring legacy of the Caballo Blanco, the man and the ultra-marathon named in his honor. While runners now pilgrimage from around the world to compete in the ultra, the local government, the Mas Locos, and sponsors including Mas Korima and the 100 Mile Club, led by founder Kara Lubin, nurture continued physical activity, healthy living and sportsmanship among the local Taramuara by hosting an annual kid’s race the day prior to the official Caballo Blanco Ultra-Marathon.
Lubin’s organization, 100 Mile Club, based in Southern California, helps host the young runners in what equates to an annual holiday weekend. Kimberly Lohstroh Miller of Mas Korima, a health-food company with products based on Pinole, the local ground maize and Chia, sums up the grandness of the day best. “I’ve heard it described as Christmas and Easter all wrapped into one! This is a huge day for these kids and their families.” Donations of unused marathon medals from around the world are sent to Urique, one for each child runner. 100 Mile Club t-shirts are distributed, often the only new article of clothing these children will receive each year. Lunch is prepared and served. There is an all-out effort to give these children a day of fun, joy and freedom.
Our Own Stories, Together
The next day, as I run my miles of the Caballo Blanco 2019, I find myself emotionally vulnerable, open to thoughts, feelings and ideas under the dry, skin baking, ninty-some-degree sun. I contemplate the very meaning of luxury and the meaning of what it means to be a legend. With each foot forward, I’m treated to some of the most epic views I’ve ever taken in. I seem to flow as one with the Rarámuri runners both in front and behind as we snake winding, single-track canyon trails. Here I am, living with and at the fringes of society, literally just a step away from falling hundreds of feet, in pure bliss. This is my luxury. This is what the legend of the Caballo is all about.
At its core, the Caballo Blanco, the man, myth and legend asks us to set out on our personal journeys; to break away from those forces in our modern, capitalistic society telling us to conform, buy and consume. To instead act out of no good reason! To do all thing with an open heart in the spirit of kórima. To follow that voice deep within; that one often brushed off as some “crazy idea;” to become a Mas Loco, follow our own paths, begin new legends while doing what we can to create opportunities for those around us. No doubt, in the trusting of our individual paths, we’ll come upon those sharing similar dreams; sandals or sneakers, no matter what we might wear on our feet.