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Chapter 18
“YOU EVER HEARD of Caballo Blanco?”

After I got back from Mexico, I called Don Allison, the longtime editor of UltraRunningmagazine. Caballo had let slip two details about his past worth following up: he’d been a profighter of some kind, and he’d won a few ultraraces. Fighting is insanely difficult to fact-check,what with its tangled ganglion of disciplines and accrediting bodies, but in ultrarunning, all roadslead to Don Allison in Weymouth, Massachusetts. As the clearinghouse for every rumor, raceresult, and rising star in the sport, Don Allison knew everyone and everything, and that’s whatmade the first syllable out of his mouth doubly disappointing:

“Who?”

“I think he also goes by Micah True,” I said. “But I’m not sure if that’s really his name or hisdog’s.”

Silence.

“Hello?” I said.

“Yeah, hang on,” Allison finally responded. “I was just looking for something. So is he for real?”

“You mean, is he serious?”

“No, is he real? Does he really exist?

“Yeah, he’s real. I found him down in Mexico.”

“Okay,” Allison said. “Then is he crazy?”

“No, he’s—” Now it was my turn to pause. “I don’t think so.”

“Because a guy by that name sent me a couple of articles. That’s what I was looking for. I got totell you, they were just unprintable.”

Now that’s saying something. UltraRunning is less like a magazine and more like those chattyfamily letters some people send instead of Christmas cards. Maybe 80 percent of every issue ismade up of lists of names and times, the results of races no one ever heard of in places few butultrarunners could ever find. Besides race reports, every issue has a few essays volunteered byrunners opining on their latest obsessions, like “Using the Scale to Determine Your OptimumHydration Needs” or “Headlamp and Flashlight Combinations.” Needless to say, you’ve got towork hard to earn a rejection slip from Ultra-Running, which made me afraid to even ask whatCaballo, isolated in his hut like the Unabomber, had manifestoed about.

“Was he, like, threatening or something?”

“Nah,” Allison said. “It just wasn’t about running. It was more like a lecture on brotherhood andkarma and greedy gringos.”

“Did it mention this race he’s planning?”

“Yeah, it talked about some race with the Tarahumara. But as far as I can see, he’s the only one init. Him, and about three Indians.”

Coach Joe Vigil had never heard of Caballo, either. I’d hoped that maybe they’d met on that epicday in Leadville, or later on down in the Barrancas. But right after the Leadville race, CoachVigil’s life had taken a sudden and dramatic turn. It started with a phone call: a young woman wason the line, asking if Coach Vigil could help her qualify for the Olympics. She’d been prettytalented in college, but she’d gotten so sick of running that she’d given it up and was thinking ofopening a bakery café instead. Unless Coach Vigil thought she should keep trying …?

Vigil is a master motivator, so he knew just what to say: Forget it. Go make mochaccinos. DeenaKastor (then Drossin) sounded like a sweet kid, but she had no business even thinking aboutworking with Vigil. She was a California beach girl who was used to running out her front doorand along the Santa Monica trails under a warm Pacific sun. What Vigil had going was realSpartan warrior stuff—a survival-of-the-fittest program that combined a killer workload with thefreezing, windswept Colorado mountains.

“I tried to discourage her because Alamosa is not a California town,” Vigil would later say. “It’s alittle secluded, it’s in the mountains, and it gets cold—sometimes thirty degrees below zero. Onlythe toughest people survive there in terms of running.” When Deena showed up anyway, Vigil waskind enough to reward her persistence by testing her basic fitness and training potential. Theresults did nothing to change Vigil’s mind: she was mediocre.

But the more Coach Vigil pushed her away, the more intrigued Deena became. Posted on the wallof Vigil’s office was a magic formula for fast running that, as far as Deena could tell, hadabsolutely nothing to do with running: it was stuff like “Practice abundance by giving back,” and“Improve personal relationships,” and “Show integrity to your value system.” Vigil’s dietaryadvice was just as bare of sports or science. His nutrition strategy for an Olympic marathonhopeful was this: “Eat as though you were a poor person.”

Vigil was building his own mini Tarahumara world. Until he could wrap up his commitments anddecamp to the Copper Canyons, he would do his best to re-create the Copper Canyons in Colorado.

If Deena even wanted to think about training under Vigil, she had better be ready to train like theTarahumara. That meant living lean and building her soul as much as her strength.

Deena got it, and couldn’t wait to start. Coach Vigil believed you had to become a strong personbefore you could become a strong runner. So how could she lose? Grudgingly, Coach Vigildecided to give her a chance. In 1996, he began putting her through his Tarahumara-tinged trainingsystem. Within a year, the aspiring baker was on her way to becoming one of the greatest distancerunners in American history.

She crushed the field to win the national cross-country championships, and went on to break theU.S. record in distances from three miles to the marathon. At the 2004 Athens Games, Deenaoutlasted the world-record holder, Paula Radcliffe, to win the bronze, the first Olympic medal foran American marathoner in twenty years. Ask Joe Vigil about Deena’s accomplishments, though,and near the top of the list will always be the Humanitarian Athlete of the Year award she won in2002.

Bit by bit, Coach Vigil was being drawn deeper into American distance running and further fromhis Copper Canyon plans. Before the 2004 Games, he was asked to establish a training camp forOlympic hopefuls high in the California mountains at Mammoth Lakes. It was a ton of work for aseventy-five-year-old man, and Vigil paid for it: a year before the Olympics, he suffered a heartattack and needed a triple bypass. His last chance to learn from the Tarahumara, Vigil realized,was gone for good.

That left only one researcher in the world who was still pursuing the secret art of Tarahumararunning: Caballo Blanco, whose findings were archived only in his muscle memory.

When my article came out in Runner’s World, it sparked a good bit of interest in the Tarahumara,but something less than a stampede of elite trail-runners eager to sign up for Caballo’s race.

Something less than one, to be exact.

That may have been partly my fault; I found it impossible to describe him truthfully without usingthe word “cadaverous,” or mentioning that the Tarahumara called him “kind of strange.” No matterhow psyched you might have been about the race, consequently, you’d have to think twice aboutputting your life in the hands of a mysterious loner with a fake name whose closest friends lived incaves and ate mice and still considered him the iffy one.

It was no help, either, that it was so hard to find out where and when the race might actually takeplace. Caballo had gotten his Web site up, but swapping messages with him was like waiting for anote in a bottle to drift up on the beach. To check e-mail, Caballo had to run more than thirty milesover a mountain and wade through a river to the tiny town of Urique, where he’d cajoled aschoolteacher into letting him use the school’s creaking PC and its single dial-up line. He couldmake the sixty-some-mile round trip only in good weather; otherwise he risked slipping to hisdeath off a rain-slicked cliff or getting stranded between raging creeks. Phone service had justreached Urique in 2002, so maintenance was spotty at best; a trail-weary Caballo could arrive inUrique only to find the line had been down for days. Once, he missed checking messages becausehe’d been attacked by wild dogs and had to abort his trip to go in search of rabies shots.

Just seeing “Caballo Blanco” pop up in my in-box was always a huge relief. As nonchalant as heacted about the risks, Caballo was leading an extremely dangerous life. Every time he set out for arun, it could be his last; he liked to believe the drug assassins wrote him off as a harmless “gringoIndio,” but who knew how the drug assassins felt? Plus, there were his strange fainting spells:

every once in a while, Caballo would suddenly pass out cold. Random blackouts are risky enoughwhen you live in a place with 911, but out there in the lonely vastness of the Barrancas, anunconscious Caballo would never be spotted—or missed, for that matter. He once had a close callwhen he fainted shortly after running to a village. When he came to, he found a thick bandage onthe back of his head and blood caked in his hair. If he’d gone down just half an hour earlier, he’dhave been sprawled somewhere in the wilderness with a cracked skull.

Even if he survived the snipers and his own treacherous blood pressure, death was still lurking athis feet; all it would take was one misjudged chingoncito on one of those dental-floss Tarahumaratrails, and the only thing left of Caballo would be the echo of his screams as he disappeared intothe gorge.

Nothing stopped him. Running seemed to be the only sensual pleasure in his life, and as such, hesavored it less like a workout and more like a gourmet meal. Even when his hut was nearlydemolished by a landslide, Caballo snuck in a run before getting the roof back over his head.

But come spring, disaster struck. I got this email:

hey amigo, am in Urique after an eventful run and hobble down. I fucked my left ankle for the firsttime in many years! I’m not used to running with thick soles anymore. thats what I get forbragging, and wearing shoes while trying to save my light sandals for running faster and racing!

Was 10 miles from Urique en La Sierra and knew that snap was not good, had to painfully crawldown into Urique because I had no choice but to get here, and my left foot looks like elephantitis!

Crap. I had a sick suspicion his accident was my fault. Just before we’d said good-bye in Creel, Inoticed we had the same size feet, so I fished a pair of new Nike trail shoes out of my backpackand gave them to Caballo as a thank-you gift. He’d knotted the laces and slung them over hisshoulder, figuring they might come in handy in a pinch if his sandals fell apart. He was too politeto point the finger in his accident report, but I was pretty sure he was referring to my shoes whenhe mentioned he’d been wobbling around on thick soles when he crunched his ankle.

By this point, I was cringing with guilt. I was screwing Caballo in every direction. First, I’daccidentally set a time bomb by giving him those sneaks, and then I’d written an article that madehis eccentricities a little too public for PR purposes. Caballo was killing himself to make this thinghappen, and now, after months of effort, the only one who might show up was me: the lousy, half-lame runner bringing him the most grief.

Caballo had been able to blind himself to the truth in the pleasure of his rambling runs, but as helay hurt and helpless in Urique, reality came crashing down. You can’t live the way he did withoutlooking like a freak, and now he was paying the price: no one would take him seriously. He wasn’teven sure if he could persuade the Tarahumara to trust him, and they were just about the onlypeople in the world who knew him anymore. So what was the point? Why was he chasing a dreameveryone else thought was a joke?

If he hadn’t busted his ankle, he’d have waited a long time for his answer. But as it was, he wasstill recovering in Urique when he received a message from God. The only god he’d been prayingto, at least.


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