Back in 2011, I was privileged to interview running legend, Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco, the star of Chris McDougall’s influential barefoot running bible, Born To Run. This piece was first published in the UK-based Outdoor Fitness magazine. Five months after the interview Micah went for a run, and never returned. He died, age 58, from a suspected hidden heart condition, doing what he loved to do. I find it eerily prophetic that back then I wrote this: ‘On his Facebook page Micah posts: “Rules for the 2012 Copper Canyon Run: No dying allowed. Anybody who dies during the 2012 CCUM is disqualified!”
I’ve saved the email that I received from Micah True, with it’s sign-off: “Nice to chat to you Amiga… Run Free.” I don’t get star-struck, but this elusive “running-hippy” has me intrigued. This unassuming loner was the star of the best-selling book that inspired the barefoot running revolution (and ironically, a new brand of running shoe — the minimalist shoe).
Micah is an accidental hero. He says that he doesn’t recognize the description of him in the first 40 pages of the book, “I was characterized as this sociopath who’d kill a man with his bare hands — that’s not me.” But, he isn’t bitter and praises the book: “It’s an inspirational book on the art of running. It gave me a voice.”
The voice is a laid-back drawl, punctuated with the local Mexican lingo. He chats easily, and when I interview him, I can hear from the muffled voices in the background that the room is filling with journalists as our conversation flows on. “It’s okay,” he says,” “They’re just milling around eating sweet pastries and drinking coffee. I don’t need that stuff, I want stay grounded.”
He sounds grounded. This is a man who’s kept himself separate from mainstream society; an outsider and observer. He talks like a writer, and I’m not surprised to hear he’s writing his own book, “Born To Run Free: True Trails from the Horse’s Mouth.” But we’ll have to wait, as he also says he’s not keen to get tied down to a book deal.
Micah’s story started when he was in his twenties. “I used running for training as a prize-fighter and fell in love with it.” When he stopped boxing he had a romantic idea to travel and to run. To avoid what he calls, the “Walmart wilderness!” he headed to Central America, the home of his childhood hero Geromino, and began a nomadic life on the run… “Maybe if I’d had 22 kids and a four wives things would have been different,” he laughs.
He settled in the highlands of Guatemala and ran 170 miles per week though the 1980s, moving through villages, “staying in hotels for a dollar, eating in the Indian market and swimming in the lake — then running 30 miles the next day.” The indigenous people named this mysterious runner with long blonde hair, Caballo Blanco — The White Horse.
His first encounter with the Rarámuri was at a 100-mile ultra race in Colorado. He ran the last 50 miles with the Rarámuri. From a village of just 400 people, four of the top five were Rarámuri, and seven of the top 11.
There were shared values: Micah’s solitary nature and the Rarámuri’s value for privacy. “They live in ‘boon docks’ (slang for remote, rural settlements) for a good reason,” explains Micah. “We skirted around each other,” he adds. He’d found his home. “I ran deeper into the Canyons and built myself a house.”
A chameleon character, he blended with his beloved trails and the running people. He seems to embody the phrase ‘go with the flow’. When I spoke to him he was in the middle of busy press week, working with Saucony to help promote their minimalist shoes. Long haul flights, jet lag, going from press do to press do, presenting, doing interviews — it’s a far-cry from the life he’s created at home, but he’s unflustered and takes it all in his stride and repeatedly says: “I’m keeping it real.”
And the flow isn’t without purpose. Although he says he doesn’t believe in “regimes” or “planning” this is a man on a mission. He quips that he comes to the city to “make a buck”, but it’s clear that he’s using the voice with altruism at the core: “The Rarámuri’s way of life is under threat and I want to give them an opportunity to help themselves — so that they can continue to run free.”
At 58, Micah still runs fast and free — most of the time. But just like the rest of us he does get injured, and when I spoke to him he said he had a little niggle in his calf. He’d been for a run in Hyde Park but as a rule the city concrete was something he avoided, with his preference for “blending with the trail”.
And as alien as city life must be for the man from the wilderness who runs for “beauty and exploration”, it’s clear as we chat about the quirkiness of London, that he’s enjoying the new journey he’s on.
A month later and he’s back in the Canyons preparing for the Copper Canyon Ultra marathon 2012, now increasingly popular with ‘outsiders’ wanting a challenge. On his Facebook page Micah posts: “Rules for the 2012 Copper Canyon Run: No dying allowed. Anybody who dies during the 2012 CCUM is disqualified!”
Apart from staying alive, does he have a goal? “I want to be happy and healthy. I just want to be me and I want to run for beauty and exploration — and keep it real.”
The Born To Run book that spurned the revolution was first published in 2009. The Rarámuri were associated with ultra running in flimsy-looking sandals. The irony is that, according to Micah, “Rarámuri wear their sandals thick and thin, and most weigh more than running shoes!” And he adds, “They like the tire tread stiff to keep sharp rocks and cactus/thorn out. They would never run barefoot… The truth!” However, Barefoot Ted, also featured in the book was one of the early users of Vibram Five Fingers, the glove-like shoes that last year reached sales of $50 million.
The argument is that since the jogging boom of the 1980s we’ve been over-padded, over-protected, and forced into running with a heel strike, which causes more injuries. Barefoot runners naturally run on their forefoot, with a shorter stride, which is said to be a more efficient and natural way to run.
The key difference between a minimalist shoe and an ordinary running shoe is the heel drop to the ground. It can be 14mm in a standard shoe, down to 4mm or even 0m in a ‘barefoot’ shoe. A drop to 0mm will lead to at the very least sore calves, but also possible stress fractures in the front of the shin. The key is to make the transition a slow one with strengthening exercises for the legs, like calf raises and lunges.
Micah on Ultra-running
Just run: Micah runs anything between 40 and 120 miles per week, and always on dirt trails — but he doesn’t follow a plan.
Run Free: Running is a philosophy more than a definitive physical routine or regime: “I love to run. I love the feeling of freedom. Running free means going back to nature, it’s a realization that we don’t need a lot,” he says. “I wear a stopwatch but no GPS. I’ve got an internal GPS.”
Run light and smooth: Caballo’s famous phrase in the book was: “Run light and smooth”. “I run easy, light, and smoothly on my forefoot and up on my toes,” he says. “Run like a child,” he adds, “Lean slightly forwards and let gravity pull you forward so that you land on your forefoot, rather than your heel.”
Don’t take yourself too seriously: “I ran my first race when I was 32 and accidently won it. I thought ‘maybe I’m good at this’ and started taking it all a bit too seriously. I got stress fractures and sprained ankles. I became a jerk so I went back to running for the beauty and exploration, with no attachment to results.”