Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Evening With Caballo Blanco (You know, the bloke from Born To Run)

Firstly if you don't know who Caballo Blanco, aka Micah True, is, then you need to go and read Born To Run now.

The talk took place in the Barbican area of London. Forget the Copper Canyon in Mexico, if you can navigate your way to the Barbican you never have to prove yourself again.

The talk was arranged by a guy called Kester. He read Born To Run the same time as me, when it was first released, unlike me he then headed out to Mexico to meet Caballo and see the Tarahumara people for himself .

In real life Caballo comes across as more easy going and humorous than he does in the book.

Caballo Blanco - the man, the myth. Managed to find his way to the Barbican in London so will never have to prove himself again.

The Early Years

Caballo started by giving an overview of how he started in ultra running. In the 1970's he was mainly involved in martial arts, then about 1980, '81 he started long distance running. In the mid 1980's he went to Guatemala, where he continued to run, including running across volcanoes. It was in Guatemala that the locals gave him the name Caballo Blanco (white horse). He takes this sobriquet with good humour, for anyone who thinks he gave himself the name in an over serious way, the opposite is true. As he himself says, the name has been 'good medicine for me' and it is a cool name to be given.

Around about this time he entered a 50 mile ultra in Wyoming, which he won. In typical self effacing style Caballo points out this was back when no one had really heard of ultra running, hardly anyone did it and there weren't the number of events there are now.

It seems in America it is still possible to disappear, tramp up and down the country and wander. May be its something to do with the frontier mindset and the myth of the west and the wilderness. Its possible for someone to go to Central America and then return  Colorado and get seasonal work and then go again. The same themes appear in books like Into The Wild and Ghost Riders. In the UK this just isn't possible, its too small, living outside of any system is almost impossible.


In the late 80's Caballo started entering the Leadville 100 miler in his local area of Colorado. You could turn up and run back then, no need to enter 8 months before hand.

In 1993 he had a mountain bike accident. I believe this is the first year the Tarahumara entered the race, and Caballo recounts the story of getting passed by an old guy wearing a skirt who gave the traditional Tarahumara greeting of 'we are one' as he overtook Caballo. The person who overtook him was 55 year old Victor Churro, and he won the race.

In '94 Caballo crashed his truck in Guatemala on the 1st January and missed the entry for Leadville. He was invited to be a pace maker for one of the Tarahumara that year, and paced him through the last 50 miles. Caballos fascination with the Tarahumara had begun.

Copper Canyon

Caballo then went to the Copper Canyon to see the Raramuri (what the local Indians call themselves, Tarahumara is a name given to them by the Spanish) in action.

The rest is history as they say. Caballo living down in the canyon and then starting the Copper Canyon ultra, a run of approximately 50 miles. The run made famous by Chris McDougall in Born To Run.

During the talk Caballo showed a video of the run and the copper canyon. As it says in the video, if you finish you win, enjoy it and you win, wake up the next day and you win. He emphasises the Raramuri concept of 'Korima' which means sharing or gift. The idea that running is part of the community, part of who they are and who we are. Also the idea that the winners win quite a few tonnes of donated corn as well as some prize money, which all non Raramuri winners always give back.

You get the sense that when Caballo started the event, the Raramuri had lost much of their running culture, with many working away from the area and more used to pick up trucks than sandals. And as we know from Born To Run, quite a few of the Copper Canyons ultras were won by North Americans.

In recent years though the Tarahumara have won the last three Copper Canyon ultras. They are running and practicing again. I think this is very much to do with the concept of Ignition as explained by Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code. Are the Raramui any better genetically designed to run than we are, probably not, but if you see someone from your village out their winning the race, getting respect, winning money and corn and re-igniting a tradition; you are much more likely to go out there and start engaging in some deep practice.

Q & A

At the end of the talk Caballo took questions. I wont list all the questions but the ones relevant to running.

Firstly, what does he think of barefoot running? It's not a panacea for everything, sometimes you need to wear running shoes. He especially likes it if the trainers are free! There's a risk that barefoot running moves away from what it was to just another of selling you expensive (minimalist) footwear. Theres nothing wrong with people making money from it, but it can become a cult. His views on this are sensible and pretty much what I think as well. (See my blog here).

Nature vs Nurture debate? Are the Raramuri genetically designed to run? Not so much that they are designed to run but they are closer to the land and their genetic memory of what it means to run.  I would go along with the concepts outlined in The Talent Code and Bounce - if you come from a culture of running, you probably spend a lot of time practicing to run, like the traditional Tarahumara ball and stick running game. Then part of that culture was lost but re-ignited with Copper Canyon ultra and media interest.

When do you hit the wall in an ultra? I imagine the person who asked this has never run one. As Caballo says, it can happen at anytime. In my experience it can happened at 1km or the whole run can feel like you're running along the wall with someone throwing stones at you.

Again his advice is common sense, if you're running and injured then stop. Better to be able to run in a few days time and not be permanently injured.

Can anyone run 100 miles? Yes, he thinks anyone can do it.. If you want to. The cut of times are generous, you've just got to keep moving. Try, if you fail, try again. His love of running really comes across, anyone can do it, for the love of the trail and the experience, its not about elite runners and winning.

We Are The Zen Runners

In the Q&A Caballo made the point that we are the zen runners. The Raramuri didn't understand why someone would be out running just to run, if there is no prize money at the end and someones not paying you to do it, then why do it. This is a very similar response that you get from Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, they do it to make a living, they can't understand running for the sake of it, they don't have that luxury. This is probably why there are no East Africans running ultras unlike the big city marathons, no prize= no point.

It will be interesting to see if as ultras become more popular and semi professional with prize money and sponsorship if the East Africans start entering and destroy everyone.

For the rest of us though, trail running and ultra running have nothing to do with sponsorship, or winning. If it all becomes too popular and you can't enter events with a 2 year waiting list, you do what Caballo did and what humans have always done - head out into the wilderness and run.

As Caballo says we are the zen runners, the one running just to run. We are the ones paying hundreds of dollars to enter events to see if we can do them, to push ourselves, to see what's possible.

The Man The Myth

Caballo comes across as the type of guy who never intended to be famous. He was living the life he wanted to and his path happen to intersect with that of Christopher McDougall. It makes you think of all those non famous people out there living extra-ordinary lives, doing what they do with no media attention.

Of course, Caballo just gave us a brief sketch of his life in the hour or so he was talking. Compressing a lifetime into 60 minutes is near on impossible. There must be more to the story, he intimated that he is writing a biography, and if it comes out I will certainly buy it. There is a whole other story there somewhere, the martial arts that were hinted at, the back story, the childhood, the motivations.

The truth is the back ground could be extra-ordinary or it could be plain old average. Like all of us the choices you make and the life you lead is ultimately up to you.

I worked out that he must be about 58 or 59 years old, though he doesn't look that age. He has that look, that zen monk timeless look, a lifetime on the road look but not haggard. Relaxed and at ease with himself. If you're on the road enough these are the type of guys you meet. Always good to talk to, have a story or two hidden but honest ('to live outside the law you must be honest'). These guys are always out there, I've met them in the Nepalese Himalayas and the desert bars of Nevada. You cross paths and then never see them again. They're not running just moving. The past is not hidden just obscured by a lifetime of movement.


Thanks to Kester for bringing Caballo over to the UK to this talk and a few others.

Much of this I wrote from memory as I was too busy listening to Caballo to take too many notes, any mistakes or omissions are my own.

I never got to ask Caballo my question, maybe next time.


  1. What is your question, amigo?

    ______Caballo Blanco
    Run Free!

    1. Claro, amigo! I think it was something along the lines of how do you train for a 100 miler, is it an intuitive approach, running everyday, resting when needed and not really thinking about distance; or is more structured, doing intervals, hill work and achieving set distances in training?