Going Barefoot 

Missoulians take a book's minimalist message and run with it

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Reached by phone at his sometimes-home in Boulder, Colo., Caballo Blanco, 57, says he's looking forward to his Missoula visit. Mostly he'll just take questions, but he also hopes to use the opportunity to clear up misconceptions about the Tarahumara.

"As far as the condition of the Rarámuri people goes," he says, "the truth lies somewhere between some charity organization's depiction of starving babies with their ribs sticking out and desperate women, and McDougall's portrayal of some Zen-like, idyllic state with no problems and super health and all of that."

Others have taken the idyllic portrayal much farther than McDougall did, Caballo Blanco says.

"I saw this Discovery Channel movie recently...and it's just a crock of b.s.," he says. "It just talks about these superhuman beings who regularly run 400 miles in a shot. It's just a bunch of crap. These things don't do the Rarámuri any favors."

Caballo Blanco recognizes that Born to Run has inspired the minimalism movement, but quickly points out the irony in its commercialization.

"I think all of that is valid," he says, "and certainly I'm a minimalist, which is just what is. I don't describe myself that way. It's just what is. And I feel as though the commercialization is out of hand. But that's how things go in America. Things are taken that way. Everything needs to be bought and sold. And I think it's kind of ironic. But there's not much I can do about it.

"But it's about form and it's about running free," he continues, "and it's not about what you wear or don't wear on your feet."

Caballo Blanco regularly runs 100 miles in a week. He says he had been training for the 27th annual Man Against Horse Race in Prescott, Arizona, a 50-mile race that actually includes horses.

"I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to enter as a horse or a man," the so-called White Horse jokes, "but I heard that at the check-up points for the horses they've got big thermometers, so I'll probably go as a man."

"Swallowing the misfits"

When I was running with McGovern in the Rattlesnake, we coincidentally ran into Wishcamper. Although Wishcamper doesn't ascribe to the barefoot movement—"With my feet, I just can't do it," he explains—he and McGovern run just about every day. In fact, the two have teamed up with friends Kevin Twidwell and Kiefer Hahn (winner of two of the last three Missoula Marathons) to train for Caballo Blanco's Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon next March.

click to enlarge McGovern’s running shoe of choice has become Vibram’s FiveFingers, which mimics true barefoot running. “You’ll notice, by default, you won’t land on your heel, and that’s the beauty of barefoot,” he says. “If you’re buying into the notion that, biomechanically, you need to run differently, then barefoot is just a tool to get you there. Barefooting isn’t the goal. Barefooting helps you maintain the gait that you want to maintain.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • McGovern’s running shoe of choice has become Vibram’s FiveFingers, which mimics true barefoot running. “You’ll notice, by default, you won’t land on your heel, and that’s the beauty of barefoot,” he says. “If you’re buying into the notion that, biomechanically, you need to run differently, then barefoot is just a tool to get you there. Barefooting isn’t the goal. Barefooting helps you maintain the gait that you want to maintain.”

The race is one of the ultimate tests of human endurance. In Born to Run McDougall describes the region, known as the Barrancas, as "a sort of shorebound Bermuda Triangle known for swallowing the misfits and desperadoes who stray inside."

"Lots of bad things can happen down there," he writes, "and probably will; survive the man-eating jaguars, deadly snakes, and blistering heat, and you've still got to deal with 'canyon fever,' a potentially fatal freak-out brought on by the Barrancas' desolate eeriness. The deeper you penetrate into the Barrancas, the more it feels like a crypt sliding shut around you. The walls tighten, shadows spread, phantom echoes whisper; every route out seems to end in sheer rock. Lost prospectors would be gripped by such madness and despair, they'd slash their own throats or hurl themselves off cliffs."

What concerns McGovern more than the supposed man-eating jaguars is the lack of water. One of the more dramatic scenes in Born to Run follows two world-class ultra-marathoners who find themselves out of water in the desert-like Barrancas and resort to drinking from a pool of "black mud and green scum, buzzing with flies and churned by wild goats and burros."

"The biggest thing that I can't get out of my head is the water problem," McGovern says. "That's the thing that's got me spooked, and if anything's keeping me up at night, that's the thing—what we're going to do about water. We haven't quite cracked that code yet."

Water issues aside, the foursome seems to be largely taking the daunting challenge in stride, and maintaining a focus on training. In March, they, along with another dozen or so Missoulians, ran the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim—a 48-mile quad-killing quest that took them all at least nine hours to complete.

"For me it's all mental," Wishcamper says of the extreme competitions. "The way I prepare for it is I run slow—and I don't stop...And I don't think any of us—Dean or Kevin or Keifer or I—are taking this seriously as a race. It's an adventure."

And that, as Caballo Blanco will tell Missoula next week, is precisely the point. The need to run is a mentality, he believes, that's encoded in all humans' genetic memory, not just the Tarahumara.

"A lot of us, I think, are working on recalling that memory," he says, "and some of us are doing pretty good at it, too."

For more information on Caballo Blanco's Oct. 27 beer run and presentation at the Wilma Theatre, visit www.runwildmissoula.org.

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