They called him Caballo Blanco, as if he were some mythical figure from the Old West or from the sere Chihuahuan mountains down Mexico way.
In reality, White Horse, aka, Micah True, was a trail runner who first gained wide notoriety as the main character in the 2009 nonfiction bestseller "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen." It was True who befriended the indigenous Tarahumara people of the Copper Canyon, so-called born runners, and created a foot race that helped to support the villagers and preserve their way of life.
After the public acclaim following the book's publication, True's cult-like following increased, his iconoclastic personality and anti-materialistic message ironically earning him unsought fame even beyond the burgeoning ultrarunning community. Fittingly, if sadly, True's demise came — too soon, at 58 — on a trail run in 2012 in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, from natural causes.
But the legend of Caballo Blanco lives on not only in his good works with the Tarahumarans but in a documentary, "Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco," which will play Thursday at 7 p.m. at Flagstaff's Orpheum Theater.
Directed by Sterling Noren and supported by executive producer Maria Walton, True's erstwhile paramour, the documentary explores True's close and complex relationship with Tarahumarans of the Copper Canyon who run as both their primary form of transportation and as a life-giving force. But the film also can serve as a requiem for True and a life fully lived.
Walton, who lives in the Valley and is scheduled to speak after Thursday's showing, said that even seven years after his death, True's impact is being felt among the Tarahumarans as well as for those who embrace trail running as an activity as much spiritual as it is physical.
"So many of us have a yearning to get back to the basics of mother earth and minimalizing our lives without so many complications and, you know, really, truly appreciate life," Walton said. "As Micah would say, we are all people running for something."
For True, it was about making connections, whether it be with ultrarunners he communed with at his Boulder, Colo., home base or those he met in his travels throughout the U.S. and abroad, or, of course, his association with the Tarahumarans. Even with notoriety thrust upon him, with money suddenly coming his way from speaking engagements and sponsorship, he remained grounded in what really mattered, Walton said.
"After the experience in the Copper Canyons, when the 'Born to Run' stuff was completed, Micah was still humble," Walton said. "Some people described him as having a Gary Cooper quality. Kind and generous. He'd share his story with anyone who asked. He always said I'll never turn down a cup of coffee or a beer if somebody wants to listen to me.
"He was very proud that the (Tarahumarans) were getting attention as the running people they are known to be. And he'd be proud that some of his friends from Mexico are now traveling the world running and connecting with people around the world."
Life for the Tarahumarans has changed since True's time there — and since the documentary was first released in 2015. Political instability in the region has threatened the tribe's way of life. Mining has increased; there are roads where once there were only paths to be traversed by foot.
"The mining industry is displacing some people," Walton said. "But some of the funds raised by Micah and (his friend) Barefoot Ted McDonald's sandal company has helped build schools and offered education for some of these children, as well as still providing sustenance for some of these communities."
So the legacy endures, burnished by the book, the documentary and a future feature film with Matthew McConaughey signed to star as Caballo Blanco.
"People always say Micah died doing what he loved," Walton said. "But I always feel in my heart that he lived doing what he loved."