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Chapter 17
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?Those people were some kind ofsolution.

—CONSTANTINE CAVAFY, “Waiting for the Barbarians”

“THAT WAS TEN years ago,” Caballo told me, wrapping up his tale. “And I’ve been here eversince.”

Mamá had kicked us out of her living-room restaurant hours before and gone to bed. Caballo, stilltalking, had led me down the deserted streets of Creel and into a back-alley bodega. We closed thatplace, too. By the time Caballo had brought me from 1994 to the present, it was two in themorning and my head was spinning. He’d told me more than I’d even hoped for about theTarahumara’s flash across the American ultra landscape (and tipped me to how I could learn therest by tracking down Rick Fisher, Joe Vigil, and company), but in all those tales, he’d neveranswered the only question I’d asked:

Dude, who are you?

It was as if he’d done nothing in his life before running through the woods with Martimano—orelse he’d done plenty he wouldn’t talk about. Every time I probed, he sidestepped with either ajoke or a non-answer that slammed the topic shut like a dungeon door (“How do I make money? Ido stuff for rich people who won’t do it for themselves”). Then he’d power off on another yarn.

The choice was clear; I could be a pest and piss him off, or I could back off and hear some greatstories.

I did learn that after the ’94 Leadville race, Rick Fisher went on the rampage. There were otherraces out there and other Tarahumara runners, and it wasn’t long before Fisher had regrouped andwas careening from mayhem to mayhem like a frat boy on a road trip. First, Team Tarahumara wasthrown out of the Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run in California because Fisher keptbarging into a runners-only section of the course in the middle of the race. “The last thing I want todo is disqualify a runner,” the race director said, “but Rick left us no choice.”

Then, three Tarahumara runners were disqualified after finishing first, second, and fourth in Utah’sWasatch Front 100 because Fisher had refused to pay the entry fee. Then it was on to WesternStates, where Fisher threw another finish-line tantrum, accusing race volunteers of secretlyswitching trail markers to trick the Tarahumara and—true story—stealing their blood. (All theWestern States racers were asked for a blood sample as part of a scientific study on endurance, butFisher alone somehow smelled a ruse and blew up. “The Tarahumara blood is very, very rare,”

he’s reported to have said. “The medical world wants to get its hands on it for genetic testing.”)By that point, even the Tarahumara seemed to be sick of dealing with the Pescador. They alsonoticed that he kept trading up for newer and nicer SUVs, while all they got for the long, lonelyweeks away from home and their hundreds of miles of mountain running were a few bags of corn.

Once again, dealing with the chabochis had left the Tarahumara feeling like slaves. That was theend of Team Tarahumara. They disbanded—forever.

Micah True (or whatever his name really was) felt such kinship with the Tarahumara and suchdisgust with the behavior of his fellow Americans that he felt compelled to make amends.

Immediately after he’d paced Martimano in the ’94 Leadville race, he talked his way onto a radiostation in Boulder, Colorado, and asked anyone with an old coat to come drop it off. Once he had apile, he bundled them up and set off for the Copper Canyons.

He had no clue where he was going, putting his odds of actually finding his buddy Martimano on apar with Shackleton making it back from Antarctica. He wandered across the desert and throughthe canyons, repeating Martimano’s name to anyone he met, until he stunned both himself andMartimano by actually arriving at the top of a nine-thousand-foot mountain and the center ofMartimano’s village. The Tarahumara made him welcome in their own wordless way: they barelyspoke to him, but when Caballo awoke every morning, he found a little pile of handmade tortillasand fresh pinole by his campsite.

“The Rarámuri have no money, but nobody is poor,” Caballo said. “In the States, you ask for aglass of water and they take you to a homeless shelter. Here, they take you in and feed you. Youask to camp out, and they say, ‘Sure, but wouldn’t you rather sleep inside with us?’”

But Choguita gets cold at night, too cold for a skinny guy from California (or wherever he wasreally from), so after giving away all his coats, Micah waved adiós to Juan and Martimano andstruck off on his own, pushing into the warm depths of the canyons. He meandered blindly pastdrug dens and desperadoes, avoided diseases and canyon fever, and eventually discovered a spothe liked by a bend in the river. He hauled up rocks to build a hut, and made himself at home.

“I decided I was going to find the best place in the world to run, and that was it,” he told me as wewalked back to the hotel that night. “The first view made my jaw drop. I got all excited because Icouldn’t wait to get out on the trail. I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t know where to begin. But it’swild out there. I had to give it some time.”

He had no choice, anyway. The reason he was pacing at Leadville instead of racing was becausehis legs had begun betraying him after he turned forty. “I used to have trouble with injuries,especially with my ankle tendons,” Micah said. Over the years, he’d tried every remedy—wraps,massage, more expensive and supportive shoes— but nothing really helped. When he arrived inthe Barrancas, he decided to chuck logic and trust that the Tarahumara knew what they weredoing. He wasn’t going to take the time to try figuring out their secrets; he’d just tackle itswimming-hole style, by leaping in and hoping for the best.

He got rid of his running shoes and began wearing nothing but sandals. He started eating pinole forbreakfast (after learning how to cook it like oatmeal with water and honey), and carrying it drywith him in a hip bag during his rambles through the canyons. He took some vicious falls andsometimes barely made it back to his hut on his own two feet, but he just gritted his teeth, soakedhis wounds in the icy river, and chalked it up as an investment. “Suffering is humbling. It pays toknow how to get your butt kicked,” Caballo said. “I learned pretty fast you’d better have respectfor the Sierra Madre, ’cause she’ll chew you up and crap you out.”

By his third year, Caballo was tackling trails that were invisible to the non-Tarahumara eye. Withbutterflies in his stomach, he’d push himself over the lip of jagged descents that were longer,steeper, and more serpentine than any black-diamond ski run. He’d slip-scramble-sprint downhillfor miles, barely in control, relying on his canyon-honed reflexes but still awaiting the pop of aknee cartilage, the rip of a hamstring, the fiery burn of a torn Achilles tendon he knew was comingany second.

But it never came. He never got hurt. After a few years in the canyons, Caballo was stronger,healthier, and faster than he’d ever been in his life. “My whole approach to running has changedsince I’ve been here,” he told me. As a test, he tried running a trail through the mountains thattakes three days on horseback; he did it in seven hours. He’s not sure how it all came together,what proportions of sandals and pinole and korima, but—“Hey,” I interrupted him. “Could you show me?”

“Show you what?”

“How to run like that.”

Something about his smile made me instantly regret asking. “Yeah, I’ll take you for a run,” hesaid. “Meet me here at sunup.”

“Huh! Huh!”

I was trying to shout, but it kept turning into a pant. “Horse,” I finally got out, catching CaballoBlanco’s ear just before he vanished around an uphill bend. We had set out in the hills behindCreel, on a rocky, pine-needled trail climbing through the woods. We’d been running for less thanten minutes and already I was dying for air. It’s not that Caballo is so fast; it’s just that he seems solight, as though he wills himself uphill by mind power instead of muscle.

He turned and trotted back down. “Okay, man, lesson one. Get right behind me.” He started to jog,more slowly this time, and I tried to copy everything he did. My arms floated until my hands wererib-high; my stride chopped down to pitty-pat steps; my back straightened so much I could almosthear the vertebrae creaking.

“Don’t fight the trail,” Caballo called back over his shoulder. “Take what it gives you. If you havea choice between one step or two between rocks, take three.” Caballo has spent so many yearsnavigating the trails, he’s even nicknamed the stones beneath his feet: some are ayudantes, thehelpers which let you spring forward with power; others are “tricksters,” which look like ayudantesbut roll treacherously at takeoff; and some are chingoncitos, little bastards just dying to lay youout.

“Lesson two,” Caballo called. “Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, becauseif that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give ashit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that youforget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about thelast one—you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”

I kept my eyes on Caballo’s sandaled feet, trying to duplicate his odd, sort of tippy-toeing steps. Ihad my head down so long, I didn’t notice at first that we’d left the forest.

“Wow!” I exclaimed.

The sun was just rising over the Sierras. Pine smoke scented the air, rising from dented stovepipesin the lodge-pole shacks on the edge of town. In the distance, giant standing stones like EasterIsland statues reared from the mesa floor, with snow-dusted mountains in the background. Even ifI hadn’t been sucking wind, I’d have been breathless.

“I told ya,” Micah gloated.
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