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05.19.12

The Final Run of Ultra-Marathoner Micah True

Ultra-marathon legend Micah True, a.k.a. Caballo Blanco, went out for a run and never returned. Nick Heil on what happened.

Around 10 a.m. on March 27, a Tuesday, Micah True, a.k.a. Caballo Blanco—the White Horse—founder of the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon and star of the bestselling book Born to Run, set out for a 12-mile jog in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. True ran there often, laying over in southern New Mexico on his regular trips between Mexico’s Copper Canyon, where he spent his winters, and Boulder, Colo., his hometown for more than three decades. Not only did a stop at the Gila conveniently break up the drive, it provided access to a 500,000-acre mountain oasis veined by cool streams and etched with hundreds of miles of backcountry trails—a long-distance runner’s paradise. 

A couple of days earlier, True, 58, had checked in to the Gila Wilderness Lodge, a favorite haunt thanks to its budget rooms and luxurious hot springs. This was his second trip to the Gila in as many weeks. He had come through earlier on his way back from Mexico, with his girlfriend of three years, Maria Walton, and his spry, white-haired cattle dog-heeler mix, Guadajuko. In early April, he was due at a memorial in California for his mother, who had recently died. After he had dropped Walton back at her home near Phoenix, he had just enough time to log a few more runs in the Gila’s blissful solitude before embarking on the long trip to California. 

According to eyewitnesses and published reports, he left the lodge wearing shorts and a T-shirt, carrying a single water bottle—standard attire. Though he almost always brought Guadajuko, the Ghost Dog, along on runs, today he left him with acquaintances at the lodge. They’d put in a good two hours the day before and the animal’s paws seemed sore. True headed out solo north on State Highway 15, under clear skies, moving along the shoulder with his distinctive loping gait. A few motorists would later report seeing a tall man with a shaved head and dressed in blue shorts running by the road. 

When True hadn’t returned by the next morning, the lodge owners, old friends of the runner’s, notified authorities. Within 24 hours, one of the largest search-and-rescue operations in state history was underway. By Friday, Walton had arrived at the Gila Visitor Center, the staging area for the search, as had many of True’s friends, including Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, and actor Peter Sarsgaard, who is developing a film based on the book. That evening McDougall tweeted: “Better luck tomoro. 54 of us searched today, plus dogs, planes, horses, choppers, and still no sign of caballo. Baffling.”  

As of Saturday the operation had produced little more than a size 13 footprint with a running-sole tread not far from the road, unmistakably True’s. That afternoon, on a hunch, Ray Molina, a longtime friend who lived in New Mexico, followed an arcing route south from the lodge. Most of the search had concentrated on areas to the north, but Molina had run these very trails with True and knew of an area that hadn’t yet been investigated. From the trail he bushwhacked down to a stream that ran lazily back toward the lodge. There, after a short while, he saw his friend. True reclined on his back against the stream bank, “looking peaceful,” still clutching his water bottle, his legs partly submersed in the water. Molina knew before he reached him that True was dead.           

A week after True had been found, and news of his demise had spread over the internet, a group of runners, fans, and family gathered in Boulder for a gathering in his honor. Like a lot of folks, I’d never met True personally, but I’d found his story inspiring and I wanted to know more about the man behind the myth. While I admired True’s anti-establishment attitude and “run free” mantra, I was particularly intrigued by the descriptions of running in the Copper Canyons. It was in those deep, dry furrows that he’d uncovered a secret technique, developed over centuries by the Rarámuri, the local “Running People” (a.k.a. the Tarahumara), a natural form that allowed him to log endless injury-free miles with near-effortless grace. The race True founded in 2006, the 50-mile Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, and the thrust of the book that made him famous, appeared to be a living testament to this discovery. 

In Boulder, about 200 people assembled in a park at the southwest edge of town for a trail run and korima, a Rarámuri term meaning “circle of friendship,” to share stories about True. It was a diverse group, ranging from spritely coeds who’d never met Caballo Blanco but “loved the book,” to locals who’d known him for years. I immediately recognized Scott Jurek, the champion ultrarunner who’d also featured prominently in Born to Run, and a few others who belonged to Boulder’s tribe of elite long-haul runners. We headed out in groups on a five-mile run that seemed longer, then gathered on the grass for the eulogies. Though the mood was somber, many who’d known True seemed bemused that his story had acquired such a large and devoted following.  

“We’d see him out at breakfast and tease him,” Mike Sandrock, a friend from Boulder, told me as we trotted up the trail on Flagstaff Mountain. ‘Hey, it’s Caballo Blanco!’ But to us, he was just Micah.” 

They put him on a gurney and loaded him into the hearse and his dog, who is usually this energetic, sassy little thing, jumped up and lay next to him, quiet as a cat. He knew. It was really touching.

Years before True attained quasi-mystical status as the star of the book, he was a self-styled bohemian endurance athlete dividing his low-budget days between Boulder and the Mexican canyons. Born Michael Randall Hickman, in California, True had spent most of his adult life cobbling together a living, first as an amateur kickboxer, and later as a journeyman furniture mover and distance runner. He’d taken the name Micah True during his boxing days—Micah from the Old Testament prophet, and True from “True Dog,” a mongrel companion from years back. 

Many of the stories painted a portrait of True as a lovable, selfless goof—and a notorious penny-pincher who considered things like emergency-room visits a frivolous expense. One time, recounted a local chiropractor and friend of True’s, the runner had shown up at his office after he’d crashed on his bike and horribly dislocated his shoulder. “I had to lie him down on a table, stand on his chest, and yank the arm back into place while he asked if I knew how expensive ambulance rides were!” 

True’s frugality carried well into the final chapter of his life as he became a reluctant celebrity, garnering speaking engagements as far away as London and attracting sponsorship dollars from shoe companies like Saucony, and even as brands like The North Face attempted to buy the Copper Canyon race (True refused). “He loved to talk to people, but I don’t think he ever got comfortable with his fame,” says Maria Walton. “He was just so low key. When people would meet him, he’d say, Yeah, I run. He was a very private person. He always called himself the lone dreamer. He would say, ‘I just want to be known as someone who is genuine and real. Nothing more.’” 

Though he had long been a recluse and iconoclast, the last few years of his life, while confounding, also appeared to be the most complete. Since McDougall’s book, True had acquired the two most important attachments in his life: Walton, “La Mariposa”—the butterfly—who had read the book and brashly emailed him to ask if he would help her train for an ultra; and the Ghost Dog, Guadajuko, his loyal, irrepressible running buddy. The Ultra Marathon he’d created in Urique had grown to attract 500 international competitors in March 2012, the largest number yet, including former Olympian German Silva (who came in 3rd, behind Daniel Orlek, from the Czech Repulic (2nd), and Miguel Lara, from Urique, Mexico, who won).

Many people were stunned by the news of True’s death; in the weeks prior, he’d been running regularly and appeared to epitomize good health. The autopsy released on May 8 listed True’s cause of death as “idiopathic cardiomyopathy”: the latter term describing a broad spectrum of disease that causes the heart muscle to grow larger than normal and eventually fail; and the former meaning “unclassified.” In other words, pathologists were able to determine a specific reason that he died—a fatal arrhythmia brought on by an enlarged heart—but not a general one: what caused the problem in the first place. 

Cardiomyopathy isn’t uncommon; it’s estimated that 1 in 500 people may have some form of the condition, though it’s rarely lethal in otherwise healthy adults. There isn’t much consensus about the extent of the risks, either, though one 2004 study found that about six in 100,000 middle age men each year die suddenly during exercise from heart problems. But such incidents can be sensational and scary, like the 2007 death of elite marathon runner Ryan Shay, who collapsed five miles into the Olympic Trials and couldn’t be revived. An autopsy revealed that Shay suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition sometimes referred to as “athlete’s heart,” which is particularly common in runners. 

True’s condition was slightly different. His heart was “nearly twice normal size,” and the coroner’s report noted that it “did not fit the criteria for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.” Nor was it “dilated cardiomyopathy,” a similar ailment also found in athletes (thought to have caused the death of 16-year-old high-school basketball star Wes Leonard in 2011). “I’m a runner myself, so this case was of great interest to me,” says Ross Zumwalt, chief medical investigator in Albuquerque who performed the exam. “I know from reading [Born to Run] that he’d had fainting spells in the past, and that may have been due to his heart condition rather than hypoglycemia [as suggested in the book].” 

In addition to the enlarged heart, there were scrapes and abrasions on True’s hands, arms, and knees, suggesting he may have stumbled or fallen before reaching the creek. A toxicology exam revealed that he had small amounts of caffeine in his system, along with trace amounts of theobromine, an alkaloid commonly found in tea, but no other substances. 

Given the advanced stage of his heart disease, True had probably lived with the problem for a long time. To what extent this may have been a result of his lifestyle—in recent years he was a light drinker and nonsmoker whose worst vice was vanilla ice cream—or his genetics, or what combination thereof, will never be known. 

“He was a guy who didn’t go to doctors, and there wasn’t much in the way of medical records,” Zumwalt told me. “What we do know is that running didn’t kill Micah True. In fact, it helped him get the most out of his heart. He probably lived longer—or at least better—because he ran.” 

On Saturday evening, March 31, Maria Walton received word that True had been found by the creek. It would take at least another day before the body could be recovered, authorities informed her. The site was investigated, to rule out foul play, or any other not-so-obvious factors, and the final story pieced together. 

True had set out for a run like any other day. Somewhere along the way he had likely started feeling bad—light-headed or woozy. The scratches found on his body indicated he had either fallen while running, or while scrambling down toward the creek. He was on his way back toward the lodge, still some four miles away, and the creek afforded the most direct route. Still not feeling well, he sat down by the stream, perhaps simply to rest, or splash cold water on his face. And then, as his heart faltered and his circulation diminished, he lost consciousness and never woke up. 

True’s body was brought to the visitor’s center on that Sunday afternoon, requiring a team on horseback for the job. “The terrain is so rugged that they had to bring him out slung over the back of a horse, like the Wild West,” Walton recalls. “I’m watching them bring Micah down and of course he’s on a white horse, which seemed so strange and fitting. They put him on a gurney and loaded him into the hearse and his dog, who is usually this energetic, sassy little thing, jumped up and lay next to him, quiet as a cat. He knew. It was really touching. 

“Then,” she continued, “as they close the hearse door and start to drive off there’s this crazy wind that comes down from the mountain. It’s really fierce and blows everything all over the place. We’re standing there, braced, dust blowing all around, and I’m like, ‘That’s him. That’s Micah.”