Stranger Than Fiction

Yitka Winn April 4th, 2014

Five years in the lives of Born to Run’s colorful cast of characters

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A group of Tarahumara run in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Photo by Ryan Heffernan/Aurora Photos

“Mooonkey!” The wild call was followed by a distinctly human imitation of a gorilla—“Ooh ooh ahh ahh ooh!”—and the sight of a grown man, shaved head, sandal-clad, eyes bulging with excitement, rounding the corner of the bustling tradeshow floor at relatively high speed. He was riding what appeared to be a cross between an electric unicycle and a miniature Segway, sans handlebars.

“Watch out!” he yelled, careening through the crowd. “Here comes the monkey! Ooh ooh ahh ahh ooh!” After easing to a stop in front of me, he hopped off his wheeled device, stuck his hand out and, without taking a breath, said, “Hi, I’m Barefoot Ted, you may have heard of me, I also go by EL MONO, or ‘the Monkey,’ I make Luna Sandals, and, hey, check it out, let me tell you about this incredible thing I’m riding, which I’m SURE you’re curious about, and I GUARANTEE is just going to BLOW YOUR MIND, it’s at the forefront of a whole new era and understanding of the human foot, and …”

It was exactly as Christopher McDougall had described him in his 2009 bestselling book, Born to Run: “Barefoot Ted talked the way Charlie Parker played the sax: he’d pick up any cue and cut loose with a truly astonishing torrent of improvisation, seeming to breathe in through his nose while maintaining an endless flow of sound out of his mouth.”

It had been four years since the book was published. I was at the tradeshow for unrelated reasons, but just like that, one by one, the characters from Born to Run came rearing back into my life.

 

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Barnett, who now lives on Hawaii island, spends a recent day with Jurek on Maui, searching for waves to surf. Photo by Jenny Jurek.

 

The Book that Changed Everything

In the years since its 2009 publication, McDougall’s book has sold over a million copies, been translated into 25 languages and introduced readers all over the world to its eclectic cast of ultrarunning characters. His story about their 2006 adventure in Mexico’s remote Copper Canyon among the Tarahumara tribe—also known as the “Raramuri,” or “running people”—has inspired untold numbers of runners and non-runners alike to consider the possibility of doing an ultramarathon.

McDougall suggested that the Tarahumara’s minimalist approach to running footwear—simple sandals, or “huaraches,” made of rubber and twine—might be able to explain why they could run long distances without suffering any of the injuries that seemed to plague runners wearing the heavily-cushioned, high-tech shoes of the modern world. By arguing that the human body is, in fact, evolutionarily designed for long-distance running—i.e. we are literally “born to run,” not “born to have plantar fasciitis” or “born to develop knee problems”—McDougall shook up the entire running-shoe industry.

I’d been a frontline witness to the phenomenon, having worked in the footwear department of Seattle’s REI flagship store from mid-2009 to mid-2011. For several years, our store was the only local carrier of the minimalist Vibram Fivefingers that McDougall had touted in his book as having helped him run pain-free for the first time in his life. During those years, the words on every approaching customer’s tongue were, “Do you have those shoes with the toes?” followed by, “See, I read this book …”

My job morphed from shoebox slinger to barefoot-running philosophizer, running-form advisor and Born to Run in-house expert. Everyone wanted to talk about the book. People would show up to the store, announce they’d chucked all their running shoes out the window, signed up for an ultramarathon and were ready to buy some Fivefingers, please.

Had it been McDougall’s intention to ignite the so-called “barefoot-running debate” that continues to rage five years later? Not really. His goal, he says, was simply to get people to consider the possibility that running could be enjoyable—and, in his case, losing the shoes helped him do that.

“Most of the time when you see running depicted,” he says, “it’s punishment. It’s this awful thing you have to do in order to accomplish something else. Yet I know the experience is the exact opposite—it’s fun—and there wasn’t anything out there that portrayed running that way.”

And who better to paint that picture than the oddball protagonists who found their way into the pages of Born to Run? In many ways, the characters seem like caricatures of themselves—in the words of the Denver Post, “so mind-blowing as to be the stuff of legend.”

Perhaps they were grounded in some truth, but it seemed to many readers they’d been exaggerated to their extremes, like political-cartoon renderings: the corn-beer-chugging Tarahumara, the eccentric Barefoot Ted, the young party animals Jenn Shelton and Billy “Bonehead” Barnett, the humble ultrarunner phenom Scott Jurek, and, of course, the mystical, larger-than-life figure of Caballo Blanco, a gringo runner who’d run away to the Copper Canyon to live and run free amongst the Tarahumara.

I couldn’t help but wonder, are they really all like that?

Through their involvement in the book Born to Run, these characters—who were, in fact, real people, and not really “characters” at all—had become instruments in a movement far bigger than themselves. I wanted to know, how did they feel about that? How had the book and its blockbuster success affected their lives? And, above all, I wanted to know …

Where are they now?

 

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True and his dog, Guadajuko, in 2009, in Urique, Mexico. Photo by Marcos Ferro/Aurora Photos.

 

Love and Loss of the White Horse

As it turns out, a lot can happen in five years. For starters, Caballo was gone. On March 27, 2012, Caballo Blanco—whose real name was Micah True—went for a solo run in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness and never returned. Four days later, his body was discovered in a canyon near Little Creek, showing bruises and other signs of what appeared to be a bad fall. The autopsy, while inconclusive, revealed an enlarged ventricle in his heart that suggested cardiac dysrhythmia during exertion.

The story of his improbable death at age 58 was one whose tragedy matched the mythological grandeur with which Born to Run had painted him. When his disappearance was first announced, scores of runners showed up to New Mexico to help search for him. They ranged from close friends to running acquaintances to Hollywood star Peter Sarsgaard, who was working on a Born to Run screenplay adaptation at the time. Later, thousands would take part in various celebrations of his life, memorial group runs and other events, including True’s annual race, the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, which was rechristened the Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon following his death.

Behind the legend of Caballo, though, was a very real human being—one whose life was complete with a family, friends, flaws, a Facebook account and a proud mother who’d been miffed by the book publisher’s decision to Photoshop her son out of Born to Run’s iconic cover image. (The original photo, taken by Luis Escobar, featured the silhouettes of both Billy Barnett and Micah True atop a ridge.)

“He had this way of being abrasive,” says Jurek, who began getting emails from True in 2005, inviting him to take part in the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon. Already a cult celebrity in the running community, Jurek might help bring awareness to the poverty-stricken Tarahumara, True suggested.

Jurek wrote him back, saying he’d love to support the plight of the Tarahumara, but wouldn’t be able to make it to the race that year. True wrote back: “The plight? The Tarahumara don’t have a fucking plight! They don’t need your help!”

“He got under my skin a little bit,” Jurek admits. “It wasn’t all warm and fuzzy. But he definitely motivated me to get down there.”

Barefoot Ted had even stronger impressions: “[Micah] was the most cantankerous, hard-nosed character I ever met. He was dealing with such a complex array of contradictions within himself, actually fighting himself and, at times, everyone else. He was extraordinarily moody, and when he was in an unhappy state, it was not fun to be around. I have more than one email from him apologizing for his behavior. Like a drunk uncle, you’d be certain it would happen again, but you forgave him anyway, because he was the gatekeeper to something powerful that had changed your life.”

True’s relationship with Born to Run was a complicated one, on many levels. In fact, his feelings about all forms of public exposure to the Tarahumara, including his own race, vacillated wildly from day to day. He was constantly worried that they’d be exploited for monetary gain.

When Jurek first invited his good friend and photographer Luis Escobar to join the 2006 trip to the Copper Canyon, True bristled at the idea.

“It was tough initially,” says Escobar. “He didn’t want to see [the Tarahumara] exploited, and thought maybe photographs would be a method to do that. He made it very clear that if I came, I needed to treat them with respect.”

When True first got a hold of Born to Run and read the first two chapters, he was outraged at his portrayal, which seemed to him so wild and over the top—“a ghost among ghosts?!” he exclaimed. “I killed a man with my bare hands?! What the hell?” He emailed McDougall to complain about such blatant untruths, but McDougall explained that he was only trying to tell the story from the beginning, “depicting the way it was when I first heard about him.” Once True read the rest of the book and saw its potential to inspire so many people with the Tarahumara spirit and way of living, he and McDougall grew to be friends.

The book also brought one drastic, undeniably positive change to True’s life. It came in the form of a beautiful, part-Irish, part-Mexican, part-Apache woman named Maria Walton, who’d come to be his girlfriend and soulmate. He called her by her spirit name, “La Mariposa”—the butterfly.

In 2009, Walton had been working as a road-marathon coach for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, when one of her clients gifted her a copy of Born to Run. Walton, like millions of readers, had never considered running an ultramarathon, but found herself enthralled by McDougall’s story. Out of curiosity, she Googled “Caballo Blanco” to see if she could track him down for training advice.

He proved far less elusive than the mysterious, reticent white horse McDougall characterized in the book’s opening chapters. She found True’s Facebook profile, which he’d started in 2009, and sent him a message about having been inspired by Born to Run. He responded almost immediately, “It’s not my book. You’re asking the wrong guy.”

Walton persisted, telling him, “No, no, I’m not a fan. I just want some advice on how to run an ultra.”

“Oh,” he wrote back. “Run a little slower. Eat a lot more. I don’t train. I eat a big breakfast, drink coffee, get out the door and go.”

“Thank you, Mr. True,” she wrote back.

And so went the formal correspondence for some time, before True suggested they meet up in Boulder, Colorado, where he lived part time, for a trail run and a beer. At first, Walton was reluctant—but eventually she relented, and things went from there.

When Walton’s dad read Born to Run, he called his daughter and asked in horror, “So this guy you met online killed a man with his bare hands because some woman left him?!”

But, over time, as Walton’s family got to know the real Micah True, beyond McDougall’s mythological portrayal, they grew to adore him as much as Maria did. And, it went both ways. Barefoot Ted told me, “Toward the end [of True’s life], he was becoming the nicest Caballo I’d ever known.”

“What do you think caused that change?” I asked.

“Love,” he said, without missing a beat. “Maria in his life was a radical improvement. His last years were his happiest, and that love was beginning to nourish him more than anything had before. It allowed him to spend more time in a place where he was at peace.”

McDougall agrees: “She and Caballo were perfect for each other. It’s so gratifying and kind of mind-boggling that the book brought them together.”

True’s death in March 2012 was a hard hit for many people across the world who’d read Born to Run and been inspired by his attitude toward life and running—but perhaps no one took his death as hard as his immediate family. Just one month earlier, True’s mother had passed away. Her memorial was scheduled for April 1; one day earlier, his siblings received word that their beloved brother, Micah, was now also gone.

The greatest comfort many were able to take in True’s death was that he died in a place he loved, doing the very thing he was most passionate about doing. Years earlier, True had watched his father die in his arms after an ugly and drawn-out battle with pancreatic cancer. According to Walton, True had always said, “I never want to suffer through that much pain. I’d just want to die on a long, beautiful run.”

“What was amazing to me is that [Micah] lived in a truck with a dog and an old PC computer, yet somehow communicated with the world,” says Escobar. “A lot of companies spend millions of dollars trying to communicate or sell products, and Micah did it with nothing.

“He wasn’t even a friendly person. He was hard to love. But somehow he connected with a lot of folks. His message was simple—run free—and people gravitated toward that.”

 

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Barefoot Ted poses with his team of “Luna Monkeys” at the Luna Sandal workshop in Seattle, Washington, in 2014. Photo by Alex Garland.

 

Barefoot Ted and the Lunar Monkeys

Tucked away on the second floor of a nondescript building in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood is a unique workshop—the Luna Sandal factory, founded by Barefoot Ted, now 49, one of the few footwear factories on American soil that hasn’t been outsourced to China or India or El Salvador.

“Factory,” as we understand the term in the modern world, is perhaps a stretch. There is no heavy-duty machinery clanking away, no conveyor belts or assembly lines. Instead, there are several tables with sewing machines and scissors, a few slapdash piles of materials—sheets of leather and rubber, balls of twine—and a small team of what Ted likes to call his “lunar monkeys” or “lunatics,” who are as passionate about running trails as they are about bringing Tarahumara spirit and huarache-style sandals to the rest of the world.

On the original 2006 trip, the great Tarahumara runner, Manuel Luna, had bent down on a sidewalk in Urique, Mexico, to show Ted how to make Tarahumara-style sandals—a craft that Ted took back to his home in southern California and began to hone in his garage. Of all those who ventured to the Copper Canyon with McDougall and friends in 2006, Ted is the only one who’s been back every year since. (Jenn Shelton, Billy Barnett and Scott Jurek returned in 2007, and Jurek once more in 2012.)

To understand Luna Sandals—and Ted, for that matter—it’s important to have perspective on where he’d come from. He wasn’t just the crazed “monkey man” with the voice of an auctioneer who’d come crashing into McDougall’s world in 2006, nor into mine years later at the trade show. Long before he ever became christened “Barefoot Ted,” Theodore McDonald had been an avid skateboarder and surf bum coming of age in 1970s southern California.

“Skateboarding and surfing and barefooting are preeminently connected,” says Ted. In the early days, he explains, skateboards were made with clay wheels. This meant everyone rode at much slower speeds than they do today. Most skateboarders rode barefoot then—at least until urethane wheels were invented, speeding up the sport and precipitating the introduction of flat-bottomed skate shoes to allow for braking from higher speeds.

Thanks to his experiences riding the early, clay-wheeled boards, the seeds of barefoot culture were planted in young Ted’s life. Some 30 years later, when he became interested in marathons and grappled with the same injuries that plague so many runners, he found that a return to his barefooting ways allowed him to run pain-free.

Like McDougall, his interest in sharing his personal story is not to tell people that barefooting is better, but rather, to get people thinking about what he calls “the possibility that humans aren’t born broken by default. Whether that’s true or not is still up for debate, but the idea that it’s possible—that we have evolved on this planet to be really good at doing a lot of things, without any need for technology—that realization, for a lot of moderns, is important.”

In 2008, Ted fell in love with a woman in Seattle and made the move there to be with her. He also began growing Luna Sandals from a “one-monkey operation” to a full-blown company with employees—the majority of whom have made the trek down to the Copper Canyon at least once, if not more, to run with the Tarahumara.

He travels a good deal for various speaking and coaching engagements in Australia, the UK, Denmark, New Zealand, Turkey and elsewhere, as well as to meet with international distributors of Luna Sandals—Germany, the Czech Republic and Japan, where, apparently, Luna is big.

His latest project, in addition to what he calls “playing the game of Luna,” is to help promote usage of the Solowheel, a so-called “laptop vehicle” for personal transport. He believes the gyro-sensored, battery-operated device is the wave of the future. From a fossil-fuel perspective, Ted tells me, it’s more efficient than riding a bicycle.

“I have become an early proponent and, luckily, an early discoverer,” he says, “and I believe we’re at the cusp of a new era. I’m telling people, ‘Trip out on what the future looks like—and by the way, it is the most joyful thing ever.’”

 

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Luis Escobar, Chris McDougall, Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton and Maria Walton go for a group hug at Jurek’s 2012 wedding to Jenny Uehisa in Boulder, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Jenny Jurek.

 

Jenn and Billy, the Young Mas Locos

Some 450 miles south of the Luna Sandal workshop, nestled in the southern Oregon town of Ashland, is accomplished ultrarunner Hal Koerner’s specialty running shop, Rogue Valley Runners. For the past five years, people have come to it from all over the world, trying to catch sight of Born to Run’s La Brujita, or “the little witch,” who lived in Ashland for several years.

“We had a number of people wind up in Ashland, searching for Jenn,” says Koerner, “like seeking the Holy Grail. It was a tangible place for them to come meet these people, see something beyond what was in the book.”

Jenn Shelton is perhaps best-known in ultrarunning circles for, at age 23, running 100 miles faster than any woman ever had and winning the 2007 Rocky Raccoon 100 in an inconceivable 14 hours 57 minutes. The rest of the world, however, got their introduction to her from her often-drunk, party-animal persona in Born to Run, along with her then-boyfriend, Billy “Bonehead” Barnett.

“We didn’t have any idea Chris was there to write a book,” says Jurek, who’s remained good friends with Shelton. “We just thought he was there to write an article—then, all of a sudden, our life stories were out there. For Jenn, basically, her 20s were put on display for several million people.”

Some readers bristled at what seemed like such an over-the-top portrayal of the young runner—and one that, no doubt, has followed Shelton as media outlets continue portraying her as an irreverent, bikini-clad, beer-drinking chick who occasionally runs ultras for the hell of it.

“At some point,” she tells me, “I asked, ‘Why am I always portrayed like this? I’m not like this.’ But then my friend Carly [Hal Koerner’s wife] was like, ‘Are you kidding? You’re like 10 times this.’”

Unfortunately, that kind of fame has had its downsides. Shelton, now 30, has been on the receiving end of some messages from “fans” who got a hold of her phone number and thought it a good idea to send her shirtless photos of themselves. She also gingerly confesses to me that while she doesn’t mind talking about the book, sometimes it gets old. At the time she went down to the Copper Canyon, she says, “I just wasn’t in the mindset of having to talk about this for the rest of my life.”

And, yet, Shelton has served as a tremendous inspiration for many readers of the book—particularly in a sport like ultrarunning that continues to be dominated by men. Says Koerner, “A lot of people took who she was in the book positively and really looked up to her. I think she learned over time that she could be a role model for a lot of women at a young age.”

When she and Barnett first moved away from their hometown of Virginia Beach where they’d met, they went to Bend, Oregon, because they’d read somewhere it was the number one trail-running town in America. (“It’s super not,” Shelton tells me as an aside.) Before Born to Run even hit bookshelves, they’d split up and gone their separate ways, but they’ve remained good friends.

Shelton moved to Ashland and began to date accomplished ultrarunner Erik Skaggs, introduced to her by Shelton’s longtime friend and Boulder, Colorado-based ultrarunner Anton Krupicka. They’ve been together for nearly seven years now and just recently moved to Durango, Colorado, after Skaggs landed a teaching job in the area.

Shelton, meanwhile, considers herself to have three jobs—running and training, working part-time at an after school camp for kids, and writing a book about her three summers of attempts to set an FKT (fastest known time) on the John Muir Trail—an obsession that’s grown, she says, “as each failure has gotten more and more epic.”

Aside from the John Muir Trail FKT, she has few running goals left that she hasn’t already accomplished. And so, she has set her sights onto the untouched powder of a new realm—ski mountaineering. Having never skied before this year, she describes herself as a “shit show out there, just tomahawking down the mountain,” but is determined to improve and eventually excel in the sport.

As for Billy Bonehead? Like both Ted and Jen, his love for the outdoors is rooted in surf culture, and these days, he can be found catching waves and running trails on the playground that is Hawaii Island—that is, when he’s not teaching language arts to special-education students at the local high school, a job he says he’s very passionate about. More passionate, at least, than his high-school gig, which is where he first earned his nickname.

“I had a job setting up umbrellas at the beach,” says Barnett, now 29. “Whenever there were waves, I’d abandon post and go surf—and my boss would always be asking, ‘Where’s that Billy Bonehead?’”

He first fell in love with Hawaii after visiting his brother, who was living on Oahu at the time. He applied for a job at a wilderness therapy program on the big island that offered depressed or suicidal kids a chance to heal through organic gardening and farm therapy. The program culminated in the kids going on a four-day “vision quest.” Barnett participated, too, spending four days alone on a remote island, fasting, with nothing but his sleeping bag, water and a journal.

“First you’d meet with a group of people,” Barnett explains, “talk about your intent, the person you want to be, how you want to live—and that’s what you think about while on your fast. It’s kind of like running an ultra, when everything else is stripped away, and you have to find something to get you through it.”

While he still races occasionally—most recently, the inaugural 2013 Patagonian International Ultramarathon 63K in Chile—Barnett tells me, “I’m not drawn to circus races like Leadville or Western States. For me, it’s about love for running, the beauty of being outside.” Despite his second-place finish in Patagonia, he says, “It feels weird to stand up on a podium after a run. It’s like it makes a mockery of something I love to do.”

He keeps a blog that’s one part poetry, one part photography and one part good old-fashioned blogging to keep far-away friends and family updated on his adventures. It’s called The Frog Blog—so named, he tells me, laughing, because “frogs are awesome, and also, rhyme with blog.”

In a cozy home on the fringes of Volcano National Park, he leads a simple life with his girlfriend, Amy, a dancer, and her nine-year-old daughter. When I ask about his long-term goals, he says, “Just to have a little farm, grow vegetables, have chickens and keep doing the things I love—running, surfing and writing.”

 

The Rebirth of Scott Jurek

On a sunny, but brisk, January afternoon in Boulder, Colorado, I’m tucked into the corner of a café and nursing a mug of hot tea. Scott Jurek has agreed to meet up with me, in between his busy schedule that week—speaking engagements at a vegetarian healthy living expo in Texas and a San Diego Triathlon Club meeting. He rolls up to the coffeeshop, in true Boulder-form, on a bicycle.

Between the time McDougall began writing his book and now, Jurek’s life has undergone a number of drastic changes—divorce, his mother’s death, the suicide of close friend and fellow runner Dave Terry, career shifts, falling in love with longtime friend Jenny Uehisa and moving away from Seattle. Many of these changes are catalogued in his own memoir (and part cookbook), Eat and Run. Published in 2012, it also features stories from his Minnesota childhood, adventures in vegan eating and the highs and lows of his ultrarunning stardom.

Jurek was an accomplished and well-known ultrarunner long before McDougall wrote about him—he’d won Western States seven consecutive years, after all—but Born to Run, no doubt, gave him an extra measure of fame. It enabled him to immerse himself fully in the running world, more than he could even at the height of his racing career.

“People always assumed I went professional,” he says, “but I was always working 50 to 60 hours a week. Running was just a passion.” And, more often than not, he lost money doing it, traveling to races in the days before many trail races offered prize money. “My accountant was like, ‘This is kind of a hobby, you can’t claim this.’”

While Jurek, who turned 40 last year, plans for 2014 to be his last year racing competitively, he’s now able to make a living through his writing, public speaking and helping design trail-running shoes for Brooks and hydration packs for Ultimate Direction.

“There were points in the book we all got a good chuckle out of how McDougall described Scott,” says Hal Koerner, a longtime friend of Jurek’s who paced him at the 2013 Leadville 100. “At the same time, everyone was a little jealous of who Scott was at that time in the sport. I do think he is larger than life in a lot of ways, and much of the success he’s captured from the book is well earned.”

Jurek’s new projects in the running world are a departure from his longtime work as a physical therapist. “I love treating patients one on one,” he says, “but right now, I have the opportunity to inspire and educate people on a larger level. To speak to an audience of 300 people about healthy living, exercise and nutrition feels like I’m using my time a bit more effectively.”

Transitioning from his role as elite competitor to traveling ambassador for the sport has helped him give back to a community that’s given him so much over the years. The travel can be exhausting—but the energy he draws from these speaking engagements is rejuvenating.

“I get a lot out of that,” he says, and his smile conveys it. “Do I get as much out of racing, to go after a time or a win anymore?”

He pauses, deep in thought, before answering his own question: “I don’t know. It’s harder to have that ego now. I’ve enjoyed that pressure in the past, because it’s pushed me beyond boundaries, but at the same time, it gets harder as I’ve gone to the well so many times.”

Though he mentions in his book that his wife of 12 years, Leah, left him for another man, he leaves out the part about that man being Barefoot Ted (who is no longer with Leah these days either, though she and Ted remain friends.) When I ask Jurek about it, he says, “I’m sure a lot of people would love to gossip about it, but out of respect, I’d rather focus on moving forward. It’s tough. It was a big transition for me, but you grow from it.”

In 2010, as part of that effort to move forward, he left Seattle to live in Boulder. He’s been inspired by many of the young, passionate trail runners living there, and hoped to be re-energized by their love for not only the sport, but also the mountains and trails themselves.

“I’m inspired to do longer sections of trails,” he says, “Like I’ve always wanted to do the Pacific Crest Trail, not so much from an FKT standpoint—just journey runs, you know, personal exploration.”

In July 2012, he and Jenny were married in Boulder—with their good friends Luis Escobar, Jenn Shelton, Maria Walton and Chris McDougall, among others, in attendance.

 

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Tarahumara runners take part in a traditional Rarajipare ball race in the Copper Canyon, 2013. Photo by Luis Escobar.

 

The Tarahumara and the Copper Canyon

If there’s one person absent from Born to Run who would have fit right in with its quirky cast, it’s the man who’s since taken over co-race-directorship (with Maria Walton) for Caballo’s Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon.

Josue Stephens, 33, grew up as one of 14 kids to gypsy missionary parents. His family lived in a bread truck they’d converted into a camper, home schooled their children and work in orphanages all over the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Central America. When Stephens was 5, they moved to Chihuahua for a stretch and worked with the Tarahumara in Batopilas, the canyon in which Micah True lived part time.

“My dad talked a lot of the Raramuri endurance and running prowess,” says Stephens, who got his first pair of huaraches when he was 5 and began trail running at age 12. “In 1993 and 1994, my dad told us of the Raramuri who dominated the Leadville 100. We cheered for our heroes! We also heard about this crazy white guy who went down to the Canyons to run with them.”

Stephens got reconnected with the Copper Canyon in 2007, when he stumbled on Barefoot Ted’s blog after searching for info on minimalist running. While on business in southern California, Stephens dropped by Ted’s then-one-man Luna operation for a pair of custom huaraches. Ted had just gotten back from the Copper Canyon and encouraged Stephens to join him the following year for Caballo’s race.

As McDougall describes in the book, True had established the race in 2003 to help raise money and corn supplies for the Tarahumara in times of drought. True also wanted to foster harmony and joy in the bottom of a remote canyon in a country renowned more for its violence than for its peace.

As Mexico’s drug wars have surged in recent years, things have changed. Leah Kangas, who’s visited the Copper Canyon three times between 2007 and 2011, says that in her most recent visit, her group was unable to find a local guide to lead them on the 30-mile route from Batopilas Canyon to Urique Canyon.

“They told us, ‘There’s no one who will take you there,’” she recalls, “and I thought ‘Whoa, is this how dangerous it’s gotten down here?’ The Tarahumara are so sweet, but they are not perfect people living in peace. They’re trying, but they’re not untouched. They’ve lived through centuries of drug trafficking affecting their lives.”

Nevertheless, Stephens and Walton have worked hard to continue carrying out True’s vision of creating peace and keeping the Tarahumara running tradition alive. After True’s death, they rechristened his race the Caballo Blanco Ultra, and it now draws hundreds of runners from all across the world. One day earlier, they hold a kids’ race—“Corrida de Los Caballitos”—that drew more than 400 local children last year. Every child of the Canyons who crosses the finish line receives a finisher medal, shirt and bag of school supplies.

Walton and Stephens have also helped revive Tarahumara traditions by sponsoring ball and hoop (Rarajipare and Ariweta) races in the heart of the Sierra Madre. Their nonprofit, Norawas de Raramuri, provides non-GMO seed corn and cash awards for participating Raramuri runners, as well as initiating other projects such as trail building and restoration in the Canyons.

Arnulfo Quimare, the great Tarahumara runner who (spoiler alert) beat Scott Jurek in the 2006 Copper Canyon Ultra, only saw a copy of Born to Run for the first time in 2013. According to Walton, he has little conceptual knowledge of his own fame among the book’s millions of readers. Though he has not seen Jurek in seven years, he speaks fondly of his friend, El Venado, and keeps a photo of the two of them together taped to the front door of his house.

“As the gradual changes of the modern world come in,” Quimare told Walton in a recent interview she translated for me. “[I hope] that we can maintain our traditions and culture. And that our children will continue to run forever in La Sierra Madre.”

 

The Writer

As for author Christopher McDougall?

He was rumored to have received an advance in the mid six figures. I suppose I’d imagined him traipsing around the world by now on private yachts and jets, enjoying the fruits of his massive storytelling success—but, when I finally get a hold of him at his home in rural Pennsylvania, he deflates my fantasy fast by saying, “Actually, you wouldn’t believe how little my life has changed.”

Perhaps it’s the starry-eyed writer within me who wants to believe that telling a great story could change a writer’s life so dramatically, but McDougall says, “I think people forget that a book advance isn’t a lottery jackpot. It’s a salary replacement while you shut down your career for a few years to focus on one project.”

He continues to live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with his wife, two daughters and a large swath of chickens. He is working on a second book—this time, harking back to his pre-Born to Run days as a war correspondent, on World War II resistance fighters. And, yes, he still runs most days. Often barefoot.

One major change in McDougall’s daily life, however, is the fan mail that’s poured in by the tens of thousands over the years—from people, he says, “who always felt that running was for ‘other’ people. Then they read about Jenn and Billy and Caballo and me and discover you can just go out in your sandals and surf baggies and have fun.”

Most recently, he received an email from a man named Joe Boyle, 39, of Bowling Green, Ohio, who’s battling kidney cancer that metastasized to his lungs. Boyle read Born to Run and hoped to run a marathon after his first round of chemo. Unfortunately, the cancer came back before he had a chance to do so—so, on a below-freezing Sunday morning last February, more than 200 people, including Boyle’s oncologist, came out for a fatass-style marathon in Boyle’s honor.

“I quoted BTR in my one video interview about running and cancer,” Boyle wrote in a recent email to McDougall. “‘If you can’t find the answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t finding them.’ Your book continues to get me through this … thanks for everything, man.”

“Chris’ gift to the running community was a beautiful story,” says Maria Walton, “a story of endurance and of strength. He connected all these people through those who ran in the Copper Canyon in 2006, and offered a message of hope, community and celebration. That’s the real gift of Born to Run.”

 

This article originally appeared in our April 2014/DIRT issue.

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