"Run Free": A Conversation with Seattle-Based Filmmaker Sterling Noren

Micah True, otherwise known as Caballo Blanco above all loved long runs in Mexico's Copper Canyon.
Micah True, otherwise known as Caballo Blanco above all loved long runs in Mexico's Copper Canyon. Leslie Gaines
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When Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run became a national sensation, its star, ultrarunner Micah True, also known as Caballo Blanco, or "White Horse," went from unknown recluse to household name—and his fame was further heightened by his unexpected death in 2012. But beneath the legend of Caballo Blanco was an authentic, down-to-earth man, a story that Seattle-based filmmaker Sterling Noren aims to convey in his new documentary, Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco, which offers a fascinating look_ _into Micah True’s real, yet no less remarkable, life.

As part of its U.S. tour, Run Free will show at the Capitol Theater in Olympia on Oct. 6, and at The Mountaineers in Seattle on Oct. 7, the second of which will be followed by a live Q&A with Sterling Noren and Seattle-local “Barefoot” Ted McDonald. RootsRated had the chance to sit down with Noren about his favorite local places to run, how he and True met, and the film’s backstory—including how he carried on after the tragic passing of Caballo Blanco midway through the project. Here’s what he had to say.

Though he never sought the spotlight, Christopher McDougall's book launched Micah True into international fame.
Though he never sought the spotlight, Christopher McDougall's book launched Micah True into international fame. Luis Escobar

What first sparked the idea to make this film?

A motorcycle adventure down to Mexico that I took in 2009—that’s how I met Caballo, before the book [Born to Run] came out. I had been doing these motorcycle adventure travel films for a number of years, but I wanted to do something that was different, something that was more. So I thought, “I’m going to go down to Mexico, I want to find something down there that’s a good story, a positive story.” Because all I heard about was the bad news—the drug war and the violence in Mexico. I didn’t know what the story was going to be, I just had in my mind that I was going to go on the road and find it.

After about four weeks of riding I ended up in the Copper Canyon. The only other American down there was Caballo Blanco. He saw me ride in to town with my camera, and he said, “Hey man, you should film my race next weekend.”

Caballo Blanco's namesake race brings together the best ultrarunners of both the U.S. and Mexico's Tarahumara people.
Caballo Blanco's namesake race brings together the best ultrarunners of both the U.S. and Mexico's Tarahumara people. Luis Escobar

When was this in relation to when Born to Run came out?

This was two months before the book came out. McDougall had already been down there years before, but Micah (Caballo) didn’t even realize there was going to be a book—he thought McDougall was going to write an article, and then thought it just never happened. Neither one of us had any idea that the book was coming out.

But after meeting Caballo, right away I knew I had found the story I was looking for. So I made a 9-minute film about the race, put it up on YouTube, and it kind of exploded. And then when the book came out it exploded even further.

So, after your first short film, Born to Run was published, and Caballo Blanco’s subsequent fame, how did you decide to make Run Free?

I kept in touch with Caballo, and we both saw how popular the book became. Caballo had mixed feelings, I guess you would say—as you would when someone writes a book about you, because part of it seems true and part of it seems made up. But he knew because of the interest there would be some way he could help the Tarahumara, so he went on speaking engagements and such to try to do that. That’s really all he cared about—he didn’t want to be a big star, he just wanted to help them.

After a couple years, Caballo heard they were going to make a movie about the book. And that’s when he came to me and he’s like, “Man, they’re going to butcher it, I’m afraid they’re just going to make it into a big Hollywood thing. You’ve got to come back down here and I’ll tell you my story. I’ll show you what I do and we’ll have our documentary when the Hollywood movie comes out.”

So in 2012 I went back down and spent three weeks with Micah, and filmed that year’s race. And that was where the majority of the footage [in Run Free] comes from. But that was just going to be the starting point. Neither one of us knew at that time that he was going to go for his last run just a few weeks later.

Micah True wanted to be remembered as an authentic, unembellished man.
Micah True wanted to be remembered as an authentic, unembellished man. Luis Escobar

Wow. When I watched the film, I figured you started making it as a tribute to Caballo after his death. How did you move forward with the project after he so sadly passed away?

It took awhile to process the feelings and thoughts around his passing. But at the same time it brought out a real spirit of goodwill and hope for the world at large. He meant so much to so many people.

And then I realized, “Wow, I’ve got the only interview footage that’s ever going to exist of him now. And it’s up to me to really tell his story.” It was a gift he gave me right before he left this world. It sent shivers down my spine—it still does, that I was entrusted with his story.

So much of Caballo Blanco’s story is about the running life. Were you a runner when you first met him?

No. I’d always been an outdoors person, hiking and climbing and camping, but I had never really been a runner. But after meeting Caballo I did start—and I ran a marathon a year later.

Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara people have inspired countless people to take up the sport around the world.
Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara people have inspired countless people to take up the sport around the world. Leslie Gaines

Where are your favorite places to run in Seattle now?

I love running in the city, because it’s so easy to step out the door and create a new route every day. And there are so many places to go and things to see. For my longer training runs, I would go from First Hill, run down to the water and go out through Magnolia, Discovery Park, across the Ballard Bridge and out to Golden Gardens, over to Green Lake, and back through the University District.

Caballo’s story is also about more than running. What do you think are the film’s most important messages?

I think it’s different for everyone, but many people find out what’s meaningful to them through Caballo’s story. Whether it’s “this is why I’m going to run” or “this is why I’m going to find my own version of freedom.” I think that’s one of the film’s ultimate messages: be authentic to yourself, find your own calling, and you can have an amazing life because of that.

[embed]https://vimeo.com/ondemand/runfree[/embed]

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