Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Reflections on the Loss of Micah True, aka Caballa Blanco

As many of you probably heard, the ultrarunning community lost one of its more famous members last week. Micah True, also known as Caballo Blanco, who had been featured in the book Born to Run, disappeared last Tuesday while out for a 12 mile training run in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.  His body was found on Saturday. For those of you who aren't familiar with ultrarunning or True's story, one of my favorite bios that has come out in the wake of the tragedy is this article from the BBC.

When I first saw the post on one of my Facebook groups that True was missing, I felt what a lot of other runners probably felt, a little bit of concern, but a feeling that he would be found soon, alright, perhaps with some injury that kept him from getting back sooner. As time passed and he did not come back, I started to feel a deeper sense of foreboding. My thoughts immediately turned to foul play because my brain could not or did not want to process the idea that this highly skilled, highly knowledgeable, and extremely self-sufficient ultrarunner had had a running-related mishap.

Then the news came out that they had found True's body. The reports said that he was sitting in a natural position, with his feet in a stream and his water bottle by his side. An early report in Competitor magazine  (that has since been taken down) said he had abrasions on his knees and possibly a broken finger, but we won't really know what happened until the autopsy results come in. Many regular trail runners took that news with shock, disbelief, and a sense of unease. If someone like True could have an accident like that and perish, what did that mean for the rest of us regular trail runners?

What really shocked me, though, was a line I read in an article today from ABC News. It said that they had found his body "around three miles from where he was last seen." That, to me, was the most shocking information.

Somehow, when I heard that he could not be found and was lost in the "wilderness" of the national forest, I assumed that they would find him in some remote area far from civilization. Three miles from where he was last seen?! That is around a 30-35 minute run for most of us -- or maybe an hour walk if we are hobbling on a sprained ankle. It is less than the distance of my short recovery days.  It is mind-boggling that True could have died so close to civilization.

On a practical level, though, I do understand. Last summer when I had a simple little fall and ruptured my spleen, I was less than a half mile from the trailhead when I went into shock. I was bleeding internally and having trouble breathing. Although I had a cell phone in my pocket, which was still playing music as I was hobbling up the trail, I did not have enough mental capacity to realize that I could use it to get help. If I had not been lucky enough to run into some hikers, I might have collapsed on the trail, probably less than a quarter mile from the parking lot where my husband was waiting. I could have bled to death.

If I had not gotten out of the trails that day, it would have been at least an hour to an hour and a half before my husband came looking for me. Even though I was expected back in about a half hour (I was doing loops back by the parking lot), he would not have worried too much for a while because he knows that like many trail runners I get distracted or intrigued or sidetracked and often don't follow my running plan. I often pop out of the trailhead a half hour or hour past the time I said I would be gone with a smile on my face, excited to tell him about some new trail or adventure.

In fact, like many trail runners, I often wander off for distances and times that are not planned. I also often run by myself. Sometimes I even leave for a run while my husband is gone and don't leave any type of information about where I am going and when I will be back. I know I shouldn't do this, but hey, it is just a short little trail run, right?  I guess True's situation answers that question for us. Until the autopsy is in, we won't know for sure, but would True still be alive if someone had gone looking for him sooner, say like when he was just a few hours late coming back from the run...

Trail runners are an independent and self-sufficient lot. On top of that, one of the reasons most of us run trails is that we love to feel at one with nature. Nature, to many of us, is a companion on the trails. It is easy to forget, as we are puttering down a beautiful trail, that nature is also harsh and unforgiving. One mistake can mean serious consequences. In a heartbeat a nice day on the trail can turn into a life-threatening situation. That is an inherent risk of the sport that we all accept and that most of us will never have to deal with, but obviously some of us will.

True's death shows that it doesn't matter how experienced, how self-sufficient, or how knowledgeable one is, that disaster can still strike. What can someone do? Well there are a few things that trail runners should always do that can make the difference between life and death. One is, obviously, not to run alone. Being a trial runner myself, I know that I will violate that guideline even knowing that it increases the risk. There just aren't always people to run with, and I am not willing to give up the trails except for when I can find a buddy (although I will probably make more of an effort on this one than I have in the past).

The biggest thing, then, is probably to make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you expect to return. If you, like me, are prone to taking a little longer than you plan, let the person know the acceptable amount of time before they should become concerned and take action. I now tell my husband something like "I am going xyz. I should be back in 40 minutes, but it may be as much as an hour and twenty. If I am not back in an hour and a half, start looking for me."  That lets him know how much might be me just messing around doing trail stuff and when there might really be a problem.

Another thing I will change about my approach to trail running is to curtail those little impromptu exploratory runs that take me far from where I said I would be. If any of you read that blog post about the trail lessons learned in Florida, my little outing on the archery range was a good mile away from where I was supposed to have been running, and it was on private property where they might not have even thought to look if I  had come up missing. If I had fallen (and ruptured my spleen again), they would have had no idea where I was. From now on, when I see that new trail beckoning, I will make a mental note and schedule my exploration of it for a future run rather than just taking off on a new trail in a direction I hadn't planned, without telling anyone where I am going.

Just those two simple things, running where you say you will be and letting someone know when you should be back, can go a long way toward saving your life. I know that this sounds so basic, but it is easy to forget safety when running the trails is so much fun.  I know because I am guilty of those types of things myself. 

I am sad and distressed over the loss of Micah True, but he will live on through the pages of the book and in the lessons we can learn, both from his life and from his death. If you haven't read Born to Run, you should, if for no other reason than to get to know this extraordinary ultrarunner so that you can understand the loss so many of us feel. 


  1. Just a few comments. For any runners (road or trail), not only should you tell people where and how long, it's probably a good idea to NOT do the same route consistently. This is more for "people" danger--the idiots that want to do harm. You don't want to be tracked so to speak.

    I don't run much on trails, but I also have a habit of changing my route midway from what I've told my husband. What I should do is pull out my phone and say, hey, I'm adding a few more miles on XYZ road. But I don't. :/ I'll make that my vow this summer. The difference with road running though is that someone is likely to see you, especially around here where it's pretty populated, even in the rural areas.

    Be careful Lori!

  2. It's true that all runners should let people know where they are and carry a cell phone. It's just a basic precaution. Micah True was definitely not of the breed that would do this, though, especially since he was on trodden ground. I suspect he didn't get lost, at least not in a substantial way. My Spidey sense tells me he either did a Gerinomo, or he had some physical problem (stroke?... he was , after all, a boxer for a long time) and either just died or decided the it was time to expedite the effects of exposure by putting his feet in cold water. I'm just hopeful there's something that tells us what happened. It would be good for many of us to understand this event. Viva caballo.


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