In the end, it was perhaps only fitting that a white horse led Micah True, the man known as “Caballo Blanco,” out of the remote New Mexico wilderness where he perished.
Nicknamed “Caballo Blanco,” or White Horse, the 58-year-old True became a reluctant celebrity in 2009 after he was featured in the best-selling non-fiction book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall.
True’s body was found early Saturday evening in the mountainous Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico near the Arizona border. He had left the Wilderness Lodge and Hot Springs alone on March 27 to embark on what was expected to be a 12-mile trail run–but he never returned.
The cause of True’s death is still unknown, but an autopsy is expected to be conducted this week.
Related: Micah True Found Dead in New Mexico
True was heading back to the U.S. after spending the winter in his adopted winter hometown of Urique, Mexico. After learning of the plight of the Tarahumara Indians in the 1990s, True took it upon himself to try to help them embrace their ancient running roots while also trying to find ways to help their impoverished society. He eventually built a small adobe house in Urique, spending winters there and summers in Boulder, CO.
The owner of the Wilderness Lodge and Hot Springs notified authorities last Wednesday that True hadn’t returned from his run, at which point New Mexico State Police launched what would become a massive search that included dozens of people on foot and several people on horseback, plus airplane and helicopter surveillance. That search party became bigger in the ensuing days as ultrarunners from Florida, Georgia, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, New York and Canada arrived to lend a hand.
That group included ultrarunners Scott Jurek, Ray Molina, Kyle Skaggs and Patrick Sweeney, among others, as well as author Christopher McDougall, ultrarunning photographer Luis Escobar and Hollywood actor/director Peter Sarsgaard, who had gotten to know True while working on the movie adaptation of the book.
“When the call went out that Micah was missing, people started heading to the airport immediately and booking their reservations on the way,” said Scott Leese, True’s agent, a veteran search and rescue volunteer who was also on the scene. “Many of the people who had been freed by Micah’s message wanted to see if they could help.”
Skaggs, who works on an organic farm about an hour away, had run the same trails with True in the past and led Jurek, Sarsgaard and McDougall on a 20-mile loop on the northern park of the wilderness area, searching every drainage, gulley and gorge along the way. They returned without success at 5:45 p.m. Saturday night only to hear the announcement 10 minutes later that True’s body had been found in an area further south.
“I was sure that we were going to find him,” said McDougall, who was in Los Angeles Thursday when he got a call from True’s girlfriend, Maria Walton. McDougall and Escobar drove through the night and arrived at the search command post at first light and joined the search.
“I figured he was in trouble, but he was as tough as a piece of leather and didn’t think there was anything that could take him out,” McDougall said. “There was a moment of shock when we heard the news, but it might have been much better than the alternative of him being alive and in trouble and we weren’t getting to him to help him.”
It was Molina, a longtime friend and running partner, who eventually discovered True’s body at the edge of a creek about 5.5 miles from the trailhead. Initial reports said that there had been no sign of injuries, but True’s agent Scott Leese, who was also part of the search party, said Sunday night that True’s body had scrapes and abrasions that indicated he might have fallen.
“He had some abrasions on his body that were more than just minor scrapes,” Leese said. “It appeared that one of this fingers might have been broken and there were palm-sized scrapes on his legs.”
When it was determined that True had been wearing a pair of Saucony Peregrine trail running shoes, Leese contacted Saucony’s Sharon Barbano, who emailed a photo of the outsole tread pattern of the shoe back to Leese, who then printed out copies of the outsole for searchers at the command post.
The initial search teams were out on the trail for more than 6 hours on Friday before one group found a single track of running shoe footprints. They followed those footprints for 45 minutes on a series of trails and eventually found them under water on the edge of a creek.
It wasn’t too long afterward that Molina and two running friends came to an opening and saw True’s body leaning in what appeared to be a resting position against an angular slope of the creek bank. His feet were in the water, one shoe on and one shoe floating at the edge of the water, with a half-empty water bottle at his side.
“They screamed ‘Caballo! Caballo!’ when the first saw his body, thinking that he was alive but just not hearing them,” Leese said. “But then they realized he had already passed.”
Molina, who, like True, also lives part-time in the Copper Canyon region of Mexico, and a few others who had been close to True stayed with his body through the night because search and rescue teams weren’t going to be able to extract the body until Sunday.
After investigators arrived to take photos of the scene on Sunday morning, True’s body was hand-carried out of the most rugged terrain in a metal stretcher-like basket by search and rescue personnel. (Leese and Walton were among those who ran out to the site on Sunday.) But eventually the ground team was relieved by a horse team, and, interestingly, the horse that led True’s body out of the wilderness was a white horse.
“As soon as that horse arrived back at the trailhead and his hooves touched the ground, there was a huge gust of wind that carried through the canyon and upward into the sky,” Leese said. “It was a pretty amazing moment.”
True had just put on the 10th edition of his 50-mile Copper Canyon Run that benefits the Tarahumara people, whom he first befriended at the 1993 and 1994 Leadville 100 trail races in Colorado. This year’s Copper Canyon race was the largest yet, drawing several hundred people to the small town of Urique.
True’s dog, Guadajuko, had been running with him earlier last week but was not with True when he went missing. Apparently, True had left him behind at the lodge because Guadajuko had an injured paw, Leese said.
When True’s body arrived back at the trailhead, Leese and Walton held Guadajuko aloft so as to have one final connection with his master. After a state medical examiner conducted a brief field test, True’s body was taken by hearse to the state medical examiner’s office in Albuquerque about 5 hours away. An autopsy is expected to be conducted on Monday and then his body will be released to the family. A report is expected to be made public within three days.
“We don’t know what happened,” Leese said late Sunday. “We don’t know if he was hurt. We’ll just have to wait and see what the autopsy says.”
By Brian Metzler
Brian Metzler is the editor-in-chief of Competitor magazine.