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Runner Micah True, also known as Caballo Blanco, will speak in Missoula on Oct. 27.

Run free.

Those two words speak volumes about Micah True, also known as Caballo Blanco, the central character in the best-selling book "Born to Run" who will visit Missoula on Oct. 27.

For True, who often invokes the mantra "run free" while regaling devotees of the sport about his trail running adventures in the Copper Canyon of northern Mexico, running means freedom. Running symbolizes simplicity, health and refuge, and is a means to collect and invigorate oneself.

And because of True, running is bringing about unprecedented aid for the Tarahumara Indians - "Raramuri" in their own language - a tribe that inhabits Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre, and for whom running is an integral part of traditional culture and life.

Preserving that culture is a cause near and dear to True's heart, and to help further it he will be in Missoula to discuss the challenges the Tarahumara tribes face and cover all things running. His Missoula sojourn coincides with Run Wild Missoula's monthly "beer" run, which True will lead down the Kim Williams Trail at 6 p.m. before taking the stage at the Wilma at 7:30 p.m. for an "interactive discussion with beer," a term he prefers to "lecture."

True's conversational style of storytelling promises to engage runners and non-runners alike, as will his quest to educate runners about the Raramuri way.

It'll cost $7 to attend, but the money and other contributions from Missoula's civic-minded running community will be donated to a nonprofit that supports the Tarahumara, with whom True has developed an intimate relationship.

"They are real people facing real challenges, not a superhuman race of super-athletes or Zen masters," True said in a recent e-mail.


Earning the nickname "Caballo Blanco," which is Spanish for "White Horse," during his long treks across Latin America, the self-described "Gringo Indian" has spent years living in Copper Canyon, running the mountainous terrain in relative obscurity.

But with the success of Christopher McDougall's "Born to Run," True, 56, has become a household name among runners worldwide, and is using the recognition to highlight the Tarahumara's struggles - cultural encroachment, greed, environmental issues, war, drug trafficking and road building.

"Similar challenges as all of us, with a different face, on a different level, in a different place," True said. "Runners can help by coming to run with us."

Since 2003, True has been organizing the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, a 51-mile romp through the deep canyon country of northern Mexico's Sierra Madre. The race awards $14,000 in cash to top finishers, as well as 100,000 pounds of corn, or coupons for the equivalent in beans, corn and rice.

As a foot race, the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, like the Tarahumara runners who participate - and an increasing number of gringo runners from the United States - relies on Korima, meaning "a gift, the circle of sharing." For example, a runner who logs on to the race registration website will find a "suggested donation" in lieu of a mandatory fee, and top American finishers typically donate their winnings to the tribes.

The race featured in "Born To Run" took place in 2006. In March 2009, before the book was published, more than 200 Raramuri ran in the CCUM; in 2010, 267 Raramuri trekked to the start line from all over the Sierra Madre.

"None of them had read the book," True said.

For the 2011 edition of the CCUM, a group of four Missoulians will head south to run the race, and hope the Garden City will play a prominent role in sponsoring donations to help feed the Tarahumara runners prior to the race (see related story).

"The Raramuri are incredibly gifted runners but Caballo reports that running is starting to fade in that part of the world because the Indians simply can't afford to buy enough calories to run much," said Rick Wishcamper, owner of the Wilma Theater and an avid runner who is signed up for the CCUM.

Wishcamper is donating the 1,000-seat Wilma for the Oct. 27 event, as well as a condo to accommodate True during his visit, while Run Wild Missoula, the Garden City's philanthropic running club, is paying for his plane ticket.


Even though the Tarahumara embody True's "run free" philosophy, inspired it even, and require little in the way of material goods, participation of Raramuri runners in the CCUM has begun to dwindle. Businesses near the race's start, in Urique, Mexico, are now charging the runners for food before the race, a luxury they can't afford.

"These folks don't have a spare dime," Wishcamper said. "Last year, Caballo paid more than $3,000 out of his own pocket so the participants would not have to pay for food before the race. Of course, without food, they cannot run the race."

The book "Born to Run" focuses on the Tarahumara's remarkable ability to avoid common running-related injuries that plague many athletes. And although True speaks highly of McDougall's popular book, he hopes to demystify some of the romantic notions "Born to Run" has inadvertently propagated about Tarahumara runners.

They are not a mythical tribe, he says, but rather a shy and peaceful people not immune to the challenges brought on by commercialism and expansion.

"I would hope that people see the Raramuri in a realistic light and realize that we are all very much more alike than different," True said.

Still, there is clearly something unique about the Tarahumara runners.

They regularly run unfathomably long distances on grueling terrain and in hostile conditions, but Tarahumara runners rarely get laid up with plantar fasciitis, achilles tendinitis or other injuries that blight the careers of athletes - this despite, or perhaps because of, the advent of orthotics and motion-control stability shoes.


Indeed, "Born to Run" and its critique of highly cushioned, gel-injected running shoes, which McDougall says promote a sloppy running form that leaves athletes prone to injury, prompted heavy interest in barefoot and minimalist running. McDougall goes into great detail about the running technique of the Tarahumara, and argues that their short, gliding strides and mincing forefoot strike is preferable to the heel-to-toe technique popularized in recent decades.

But the Tarahumara do not run unshod, and traditionally wear huarache-style sandals, which they make themselves from the tread of old tires, lashing the rubber to their feet with leather cord.

Still, wearing little more than a pair of thin-soled sandals on their feet, the Tarahumara have won some of the most difficult ultramarathon races in the world, shattering course records at distances of 100 miles.

Rather than debate the merits of barefoot running, however, True says runners should embrace the simplicity of the Tarahumara culture, and believes the real key to long-term, injury-free running lies in good form, which comes from running "fast, light and easy," the Tarahumara way.

So don't be surprised if True shies away from questions about the barefoot running craze during his speaking engagement in Missoula.

Or rather, he might reply elusively, with two simple words.

Run free.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott@missoulian.com.


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