Farewell, Caballo Blanco
Trail running was a key component to the full life Micah True lived
"The world would be a better place if we all lived more simply". - Micah True 2011
Photo by Luis Escobar
This article appeared in our July 2012 issue.
Living simply amid the complexities of the modern world was something that came easy for Micah True, the man who became known as Caballo Blanco, Spanish for “White Horse,” in the 2009 bestseller Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. A holdover hippie, True purposefully lived most of his life without much money or many material possessions.
But, as the world first learned from McDougall’s almost larger-than-life portrayal of him, True lived a bountiful life full of rich experiences, both as a trail runner and as a selfless humanitarian who dedicated the last 15 years of his life to trying to help Mexico’s indigenous Raramuri people—a.k.a. the Tarahumara Indians—of the Copper Canyon, where he had lived part-time since the mid-1990s.
True was an iconoclast, an individualist, often stubborn, sometimes obstinate, a bit goofy and, by choice, somewhat of a loner, too. He traveled light and moved freely through life, as he did on the trails, but his simple and sometimes primal messages made lasting impressions and connected people—both in life, and in death.
While the mystery remains about how True died, trail running on March 28 in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, his legacy isn’t in question. Those who knew True best—especially those who spent time with him in the Copper Canyon—say he lived his life by the spirit of Korima, the Raramuri word for sharing whatever you have and giving without any expectation of return.
“The thing about Korima is that it’s a circle of sharing and it’s just what comes from your heart, and Micah had a enormous heart,” Maria Walton, True’s girlfriend since 2009, said at a memorial service for True in Boulder. “He was just a simple man who had a simple vision that touched everyone with love.”
Michael Randall Hickman wasn’t necessarily born to run when he came into this world on November 10, 1953, in Oakland, California, even if there would soon be plenty of signs he had both the body and mind to become a good athlete. What was more apparent early on is that he quickly became accustomed to living a nomadic life, largely because his father was a gunnery sergeant in the Marines and the family moved all over California before eventually settling near San Jose. The second oldest of four siblings, Michael took boxing lessons as a youngster, partially to fend off bullies that hounded him for being the outspoken new kid in so many schools.
Being a teenager in the late 1960s wasn’t easy. It was a changing time in the United States, when the happy sheen of the 1950s dissolved into a decade painted by social revolution, growing economic disparity, racial tensions and the Vietnam War. It was against that backdrop that Hickman would enroll at Humboldt State and pursue eastern-philosophy and Native-American studies. To pay for school, Hickman, who sported long blonde hair throughout the 70s and 80s, began fighting for money in bars under the name Gypsy Cowboy.
His wayward path eventually led him to Los Angeles, where, among other things, he briefly worked as a stagehand for CBS while still trying to make it as a semi-pro boxer. While he was intrigued by the physical, mental and tactical challenges of boxing (and later kickboxing), he came to the realization many years later that he was probably too much of a thoughtful idealist to become a stone-cold killer in the ring. He had his share of success, though (his professional record wound up at 9-11, but some of those losses were bouts in which he was paid to take a fall, according to former Daily Camera sports reporter Neill Woelk, who wrote about Hickman as a fighter in the early 1980s). In 1980, he cashed in some of his earnings for a brief respite in Maui, where he hoped to find his purpose in life.
There, he met a running hippie named Smitty, who lived in a cave, and spent several hours a day trekking over wild trails along mountain ridges. In addition to this first foray into trail running, Hickman, then 26, ventured further into a transient, evanescent lifestyle, learning to live minimally, eating wild fruit and sleeping on the beach and in caves.
Hickman’s time in Hawaii was curtailed when he met a woman named Melinda, a vacationing graduate student from Seattle, with whom he fell in love and followed to Boulder. That affair also turned out to be short-lived, though, when she left him for another man and moved back to Seattle.
“He kind of bounced around a bit before he landed in Boulder,” says longtime friend and running companion Dan Bowers. “Even when he was here, he was never really tied down to this place. He had friends in Boulder—a lot of friends—but he was always kind of a lone wolf.”
With the idea that he wanted to live the most righteous life possible, Bowers said, he eventually changed his name to Micah True—an idealistic moniker blended from the Old Testament prophet Micah and his canine companion True Dog. He continued his career as a pugilist, and in 1981 and 1982 won his first six fights in Denver, but as he approached 30, he was in search of something else.
Although Boulder had already made a name for itself as one of the country’s top running towns, relatively few people were really running the growing trail network that covered the iconic local mountains of Mount Sanitas, Green Mountain and Bear Peak. Around the same time that his boxing career sidetracked briefly into kickboxing, True found that running those steep, unforgiving Boulder trails gave him a much greater level of strength and fitness than he had ever known, not to mention an untethered sense of freedom and a visceral connection to the natural world.
“Mountain runners are a different breed,” True told the Boulder Daily Camera in June 1986. “They’re less concerned with their times and more in touch with the mountains.”
At the time, trail running was in its infancy. Although dozens of trail races were thriving—including the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which officially became a foot race in 1977—most were small regional events that were completely off mainstream runners’ radars.
True ran his first trail races in 1985 during the second season of a series known as the Colorado Mountain Race Circuit. He loved the unique challenge of racing on the trails, even if he wasn’t very successful in what were relatively short-distance events. (That series of five- to 15-mile races is long gone, but several of the events—including Pikes Peak Ascent, Kendall Mountain Run and Vail Hill Climb—remain popular nearly three decades later.) “I was never that fast, but I found the longer I went the better I was,” True recalled in a 2009 interview. “That’s why I really liked the ultra events.”
Then 31, True finished 167th in the Pikes Peak Ascent in 3 hours 19 minutes, a modest competitive effort but one that piqued his interest for longer, more grueling races. He continued to build his aerobic base with multi-hour training runs—often solo—in the mountains.
“I’d go run for hours and never see anybody at all, and then I’d bump into Micah with this big smile on this face,” says Diane Israel, who, along with True were among the first Boulder trail runners to make a name for themselves.
At that point, True was living partially off the grid in a small cabin near 9000 feet off of Magnolia Road between Boulder and Nederland while earning money from his one-man moving company. He didn’t have many clothes, didn’t make or spend much money and didn’t possess half of the stuff that most 30-somethings have. Although he would often bump into some of the world-class marathoners training in Boulder, True eschewed the rising public interest in 10Ks, marathons and other road races.
As Mike Sandrock, a local running writer who used to train with some of those elite marathoners recalls, True quickly developed a reputation as a freethinking ultrarunner. One day while a group of runners that included Sandrock and Australian Rob de Castella passed True on a Boulder trail, True mentioned that he was two-thirds of the way through what would be a six-hour run.
“I remember ‘Deke’ saying, ‘That’s fantastic Micah, but that’s why I’m glad I’m a marathoner,” Sandrock says. “Even back then, Micah was doing his own thing, following his own path. That’s what made him who he was.”
Not surprisingly, True didn’t have an interest in running the growing Bolder Boulder 10K race, but instead opted to run one of the first ultra-distance runs in the region, Wyoming’s Rocky Mountain 50-Mile Run between Laramie and Cheyenne. His training and passion for trail running were paying off, as he won his ultra debut in May of 1986 in a little more than six hours.
“Mountain races are different because there are less runners and more open terrain,” True said at the time. “I guess that’s why I’d rather run 50 miles with 25 crazies than run a 10K with 20,000 people.”
True eventually delved deeper into ultrarunning and placed 10th at the Leadville 100 in 1987, running 22 hours 33 minutes. He also did some mountain biking and cycling, but the primal act of running is what fueled his fire. At the time, he was typically running more than 170 miles per week, starting many mornings with a 25-miler at 4 a.m. and often doubling up with another 10-miler at lunchtime.
“I was fortunate to win my first ultra, and that kind of sent me on my way,” True said in 2009. “I was kind of hooked on it, but I quickly found I liked the running part more than I liked the racing part. It’s not that I didn’t like racing, but it’s more that I really enjoyed the long peaceful training runs a lot more.”