Sterling Noren had hopped on his motorcycle and was cruising through Mexico in search of a story in 2009.
It was while the Seattle-based documentarian was travelling south of the border that he met Micah True, an ultrarunner who lived in the Copper Canyons of northern Mexico so he could be close to the Tarahumara tribe.
Shortly after Noren and True met, True was immortalized in Christopher McDougall's 2009 book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.
The 50-mile foot race, which was first organized in 2003, had cash and food prizes for the top runners, while all runners and their families would receive food and blankets. Noren knew this was a story that needed to be told.
"He made an impression on me right away when I met him. This was before the book came out, before either one of us even knew about the book or that it was going to come out," Noren said.
His meeting with True came near the end of his planned journey while staying at a local hostel. It came at a time when Noren felt his journey was going to end on a fairly low note after his motorcycle broke down in the small centre of Urique and he contracted food poisoning.
"One other person was staying there and it was Micah True," recalled Noren. "I walked out the door and there's this tall gringo getting ready to go for a run with his dog. He introduces himself and we talk for a couple minutes and then he took off. Later that night, he came back and we were sitting around talking.
"He said 'Well, you're down here with your motorcycle trip and filming your adventure — you should stick around and film my race.'"
The race was the following weekend, and Noren indeed opted to film the event. He had footage for his motorcycle movie as well as for the race, for which he made a short film True could use as a promotional piece.
"It was so beautiful and I knew right away that the world had to see this and know about this," he said, recalling that True was also known as Caballo Blanco (meaning White Horse).
"After I sent him my little video about his race, he started using it and he was getting speaking engagements and he was talking about the Tarahumara.
"He played the video I made before his talks. We kept in touch over Facebook and he and I had discussed 'Now that you're kind of this big deal in the running world, do you want to make this longer movie about the race and your running with the Tarahumara?'
"He thought about it, but he didn't really want to be a celebrity. Then when he found out they were going to make a Hollywood movie of the book, he was like, 'OK, you've got to come back down here and let me tell you my story before this Hollywood movie comes out.'"
In February, Runner's World reported that Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey had signed on to play True. The film is in preproduction and still likely years away from hitting theatres.
Noren noted he felt time pressure to get the story to the screen first, resulting in the documentary Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco, which was released earlier this year. However, tragedy struck in March 2012, shortly after Noren returned to the Pacific Northwest from his first session with True.
Word spread quickly that True was missing after going for a run in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. Runners from all over went to help with the search. True's girlfriend, Maria Walton, contacted Noren to come down and film the search for the documentary. Rescuers had discovered True's body just before Noren arrived.
An autopsy discovered that True had suffered from a heart condition. Though tragic and sudden, Noren said there was a beauty to True's death. Not only could his loved ones take comfort that True was doing what he genuinely loved to do, but in some ways, went how he wanted to go.
"What was really haunting about the whole episode was where he died in the Gila Wilderness. It was a place he would go every year when he would leave the Copper Canyons of Mexico and go back to his home in Colorado," Noren said. "He felt a real connection to that land because one of his heroes growing up was the Apache warrior Geronimo and Geronimo was a runner and had many similarities with True.
"Caballo ended up dying in the place where his hero always wanted to return to. There's a remarkable passage in the book Born to Run where McDougall quotes Caballo saying 'When I get too old to work, I'll do what Geronimo would have done. I'll just go off into the mountains and find a quiet place and lie down.' And that's what happened."
Noren explained True is remembered in many different ways, as a maverick, as an altruistic man and for his running ability. The race, renamed the Ultra Caballo Blanco, carries on after True's girlfriend Maria Walton and an experienced race director organized it for the years afterward. Though it was cancelled this year because of the threat of drug cartel violence, it's currently in a transition for the tribe to take it back.
"I think that's why he created the race, to share the experience that he had of living and running with the Tarahumara," he said. "What better way to do it than to get people to come down there and literally go out on the trails and run with them?"
The film has received several honours this year, including Best Documentary at the Arizona International Film Festival, Award of Excellence – Documentary Feature at IndieFEST and International Award of Merit at the International Film Festival for Peace, Inspiration, and Equality.
Run Free will show this Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Arc'teryx store in Whistler village. Tickets are $15 in advance at the store and are $20 the night of the showing. There will also be two showings in Squamish tonight (Oct. 15) at the Squamish Adventure Centre at 7 and 9 p.m. though the earlier showing has already sold out. Tickets are available at Escape Route. Twenty per cent of the film's profits are being donated to race organizers in Mexico.
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