Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco records the story of Micah True, an ultra runner who came to fame after being featured in Christopher McDougall’s popular, much praised book about ultra distance runners, Born to Run. Putting his never-looked-for fame to good use, True created the Copper Canyon ultra marathon for the Tarahumara people who live and run in the mountains of Northern Mexico. The race now draws over 400 runners each year, and the proceeds directly benefit the Tarahumara people.
Run Free is as good a documentary as I have seen this year. Director Sterling Noren has a remarkable eye for detail and his film exhibits a great amount of patience. There are moments when Noren’s camera picks up on just the right thing at the right time, like when his camera catches a “Caballo Blanco” marathon hat on the head of one of the women at a memorial service for True in Boulder, CO, in 2012. Not a moment in the film feels rushed either. It’s a rhythmic philosophically resonant with the life of Micah True and with the practice of ultra running – measured, steady, and as interested in the beauty of the world of the as it is in reaching any predetermined destination. Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco is brilliant documentary filmmaking.
The film is also remarkable in its genre. Most outdoor films follow a similar pattern – a man (it’s almost always a man) becomes dissatisfied with contemporary, Western life, sets out to discover his true self and purpose in the wilderness abandoning all forms of community in the process, and eventually dies, finally at one with himself and the natural world. Outdoor films typically celebrate this arc as if it reveals something essential about the human spirit and humanity’s place in nature. Outdoor films generally espouse the idea that we only get in touch with our true selves when we get beyond the reach of the rest of humanity.
Run Free, curiously, follows a different path. Micah True’s story is certainly similar to the story in other outdoor films. His life is marked by a a pursuit of simple at-oneness with nature separate from the concerns of contemporary, Western life. In many ways, True, an ultra runner who sheds as much gear as possible—he even runs shirtless most of the time, his white skin flashing through the trees sparking his nickname “Caballo Blanco,” the “White Horse”—is the ideal symbol of man at one with nature. After an early adulthood in the Boulder area running and boxing, True retreats to natural Mexico, and there he finds a place on the edges of the Tarahumaras society. Eventually True does, indeed, die alone resting peacefully in the bosom of the natural world.
But along the way, True’s real-life story took a turn atypical of outdoor films. Community caught up with “Caballo Blanco.” His life was marked by increasing numbers of people surrounding him, loving him, being inspired by him, and carrying his dream of helping the Tarahumara people via endurance running. True even gets married along the way, the most stalwart symbol of finding community we have.
Unlike many outdoor films that make me question my love of the outdoors (if lonely death is the destiny of every outdoor enthusiast), Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco makes me want to get outside, share my love of outdoor activities with others, and celebrate the community that develops around those outdoor activities. Furthermore, the film makes me want to be more simple in my pursuits, more patient with others and myself, and more aware of the people and cultures through which my feet take me on both the literal trail and the trail of life. Micah True was a remarkable man, and Run Free is a fitting tribute to his life.
Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco is being featured in the 38th Denver Film Festival. More information and showtimes can be found here.