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Sunday 26 January 2020

Micah True

A pioneer of ultrarunning, who devoted himself to preserving the athletic traditions of a Mexican tribe

Micah True, who was found dead in the wilderness of New Mexico aged 58, was revered by followers of extreme sports as a pioneer of "ultrarunning", a pursuit which involves running huge distances, many miles longer than the standard 26-mile marathon, often on difficult terrain.

A former prizefighter, True regularly ran distances of more than 50 miles over steep and rocky trails under the name Caballo Blanco ('White Horse') and was a central character in Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run (2009). As McDougall told it, the mysterious 'Caballo' became an almost mythical figure in the villages of Mexico's Sierra Madre when he moved to live there in the mid-Nineties: "Some said Caballo Blanco was a fugitive; others heard he was a boxer who'd run off to punish himself after beating a man to death in the ring. No one knew his name, age or where he was from." A schoolmaster McDougall spoke to recalled that some of his pupils had been herding goats in the mountains when a "weird creature" with the shape of a man, but "deathly pale and bony as a corpse... with shocks of flame-coloured hair jutting out of his skull", had darted through the trees above them. Villagers thought it must be a dead soul clearing up some unfinished business.

On one matter, however, all accounts of Caballo Blanco concurred. He had come to northern Mexico in the Nineties and trekked deep into the wild Barrancas del Cobre, the 'Copper Canyons', to live among the Tarahumara Indians, a desert tribe famous for their ability to keep going over long distances. McDougall described how True had overcome athletic injuries to his ankles after learning a new way to run wearing the simple sandals favoured by the Tarahumara.

From then on True lived in the Copper Canyons, where, as well as running, he devoted himself to helping to preserve Tarahumara athletic traditions by founding the 50-mile Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in the Sierra Madre mountains.

True once described his life as "just going up and running for hours and hours at a time" and, for him a 50-mile run through the mountains was the equivalent of a walk in the park: "When he was out on the trail running, it was like someone just rang the school bell and said, 'Recess'," McDougall has recalled.

Micah True, whose real name was Michael Randall Hickman, is thought to have been born in California on November 10, 1954. His father was a gunnery sergeant whose postings moved the family around the US. Michael was a skinny loner who often found himself picked on by bullies at new schools. As a result, every time the family moved home, he'd sign up for boxing lessons. The bullies soon learned it was wiser to leave him alone.

He went off to Humboldt State University to study Eastern Religions and Native American History. To pay his fees, he began fighting for money in bars, billing himself as the 'Gypsy Cowboy'.

After a few years he took his winnings and decamped to the Hawaiian island of Maui, "looking for a purpose in life". In a hidden cave he found a hermit called Smitty who took him to visit Maui's sacred sites.

It was Smitty who first got him into running. They would run between sacred mountain-tops, then run back again, fuelled only by wild papayas. Gradually Hickman the backroom brawler became Micah True the ultrarunner -- Micah after the Old Testament prophet and True after a dog. During one of his runs, he met Melinda, a student who was in Maui on holiday. They fell in love and he returned to live with her in Boulder, Colorado, where he could run the mountain trails and resume his career as a fighter.

When a photograph of True appeared on the cover of a local paper with a quote indicating that he would "fight anybody for the right amount of money", he was invited by a kick-boxing promoter to appear in a nationally televised bout against Larry Shepherd, America's fourth-ranked light heavyweight. True wondered whether he might be letting himself in for a thrashing. He went ahead but rather than the usual boxer's tactic of dodging and dancing, as the fight started he sprinted across the ring and, before his opponent realised what was happening, laid into him with his fists then "kicked him in the face so hard I broke my toe -- and his nose".

He returned home to celebrate with Melinda, but found that she "had a knockout blow of her own to deliver". She had met someone else, she informed him, and was going to live with her new lover in Seattle. News that he had become the fifth-ranked light heavyweight kick-boxer in America seemed small compensation for True. He decided to retire from the ring and decamped to wander America in his battered Chevy pickup.

In 1986 he established his reputation as an ultrarunner by winning the Rocky Mountain double marathon in six hours and 12 minutes.

True first came across the Tarahumara Indians when some of the tribesmen turned up to run the 1994 Leadville Trail 100 (a gruelling race through the Rocky Mountains equivalent to nearly four marathons). When the Tarahumara needed someone to guide them, he volunteered. Soon after the Tarahumara left, he followed them.

Running became his life. After the First Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in 2003, the race became an increasingly popular annual event. The most recent Ultra Marathon, held on March 12, was the largest ever and attracted hundreds of participants.

Barely three weeks later, Caballo set off from Mexico to Arizona to visit his girlfriend, and stopped off at Gila National Forest in New Mexico. It should, for him, have been a routine 12-mile run. He left his dog behind at a lodge but never returned.

After a major rescue effort, his body was found on March 31 in a remote part of the park, with legs dangling in a stream but with no obvious sign of injury. One of those who found him said he looked peaceful -- as if he had stopped for a nap and never woken up. No cause of death has yet been established.

Micah True's motto was: "If I get hurt or die, it's my own damn fault".

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