Micah True: How Did an Experienced Ultramarathoner Go Off Course?

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Sole Sports Running Zone / AP

This June 25, 2010, photo provided by Sole Sports Running Zone, shows Micah True, center, with two friends.

An ultramarathon – the harrowing term applied to any footrace longer than a standard 26.2-mile run – is not for the untrained athlete. Renowned ultramarathon runner Micah True was one of the sport’s best: he frequently ran 50-mile-long events through deserts, unexplored terrain, excruciating heat and countless other hazards. So how did a 12-mile run on rather familiar terrain claim his life?

That question has resonated in the running community after True’s body was found late Saturday evening in the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. The 58-year-old ultramarathoner, who had been missing since Tuesday, was found without any obvious signs of injury. While the local medical examiner’s office is working to determine the cause of death, fellow runners are memorializing the man who appears to have died peacefully, using words like “legendary” and “inspirational” in their tributes.

He had set out on a routine run through the Gila Wilderness, part of the Gila National Forest, a place he visited often while trekking between his Boulder, Colo. home and his adopted home of Urique, Mexico, where he served as race director for the 50-mile Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon through the region each March. He left with just a water bottle and the loose-fitting running clothes he was wearing, so there was no reason for anyone to suspect that he wouldn’t return within a few hours. He had even left his dog Guadajuko at the hotel, giving him as good a reason as any to head back.

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As a runner of habit, True had shacked up, as usual, at the Wilderness Lodge and Hot Springs in Gila Hot Springs, N.M., 200 miles southwest of Albuquerque, where he had a close relationship with owners Dean and Jane Bruemmer. Though he didn’t tell anyone where he was going, he knew the trails well, so there was little worry. But nearly 24 hours later, True hadn’t returned, leading the Bruemmers to report him missing Wednesday morning. Within a day, more than a dozen search teams had descended on the 5,100-square-mile forest, using horses, dogs and helicopters in addition to foot searchers to comb the area where True was last seen.

True’s body was ultimately found in a deserted canyon, according to the Silver City Sun-News, by two of his friends who decided to split off the search route, about a mile southeast of the Gila Cliff Dwellings. He was found near a cold stream, his legs submerged in the water with his half-full water bottle next to him. His agent, Scott Leese, noted he was “laying down peacefully.” Though the terrain over which he was running would have been routine for True, its complexities hindered rescuers and searchers. The discovery came so late Saturday that it took crews until Sunday during daylight hours to return, so as not to endanger additional lives. They moved True’s body from the canyon using a horse-pulled stretcher. True’s tragic death at the hands of the sport he loved has drawn comparisons to British runner Bill Smith, who died last year after falling into a peat bog during a run.

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While the circumstances around True’s death remain cloudy, many are praising the fact that he appears to have passed away without trauma. Instead of launching a fear of the sport of running, True’s passing while has inspired a culture of reverence and awe. Ultrarunner Vanessa Rodriguez is encouraging fellow runners to take an adventure in True’s honor, without logging miles or worrying about time, to run for “the sheer joy of it” as True so often did.

True’s running exploits became the stuff of legend when he was chronicled in the 2009 bestseller, Born to Run. The book’s author, Christopher McDougall, met True while reporting in Urique, where True had become a powerful influence among the region’s fearless Tarahumaran runners. His effect on the local culture was indomitable, leading him to launch an ultramarathon race a decade ago to support the community. The future of True’s Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon is in jeopardy without his leadership.

McDougall remained a close friend of True’s after the book came out. He hurried to N.M. from Los Angeles Thursday evening and was quick to mobilize troops once he found out True was missing, recruiting 20 of True’s friends to assist in the search. McDougall remained optimistic during the search, telling the Denver Post: “If there is one person on planet Earth that can get out of this, it’s Micah True.” But after the sad ending, McDougall tweeted that True would have been proud of the runners who went out searching for him.

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