PHILADELPHIA – A photography exhibit about a rugged ultra-marathon in the canyons of Mexico – and the native people who inspired it – has taken on new poignancy after the unexpected death of the race’s founder.
“Run! Super-Athletes of the Sierra Madre” now is dedicated to the memory of extreme runner Micah True. The installation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology opened March 31, the same day True’s body was found after a run in New Mexico. His cause of death hasn’t yet been released.
Much of the 30-picture display focuses on the annual race started by True to promote the long-distance running culture of the indigenous Tarahumara people. Also known as the Raramuri, they routinely cover great distances wearing sandals made of little but old tire rubber.
Photographer Diana Molina documented last year’s Copper Canyon Ultra-marathon, which drew about 40 international runners to Urique, Chihuahua, to compete against 230 Tarahumara on their home turf. The course runs about 50 miles through rough terrain and takes several hours.
Molina said she met True – nicknamed “Caballo Blanco,” or white horse – in the late 1990s after she had already been photographing the reclusive Raramuri for several years. When True told her of his idea for the competition, she wasn’t sure the natives would participate.
“I said, ‘That’s a lofty goal. You’ve got your work cut out for you,’” Molina said earlier this week. “The way he found a way to make it all happen is very inspiring.”
True was a wanderer of sorts who began living in Mexico about 20 years ago after meeting a Tarahumara runner at a race in Colorado. He started the ultra-marathon in 2001 to call attention to a simple, athletic lifestyle necessary for thriving in the Sierra Madre’s deep canyons.
“I wanted to encourage them to continue to run free and continue their age-old traditions of running,” True says in a video on display at the exhibit.
True, the Raramuri and the race received major attention in 2009 as the subjects of Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book Born to Run. In a phone interview last week, McDougall described True as a sort of “cowboy poet” dedicated to preserving the unique Tarahumara culture.
“They’re custodians of this really simple and fragile wisdom – the idea that humans benefit most when they’re in motion,” McDougall said.
True, 58, spent most of each year living in Mexico but returned to Boulder for a couple of months every year. He was on his way back when he stopped off in the Gila Wilderness, in southern New Mexico, for a run March 27. He never came back; his body was found four days later.
Curators asked Molina to develop the “Run!” exhibit as a tie-in to the Penn Relays, the venerable annual track meet that will be held across the street from the university museum beginning April 26. Her large-scale color photographs are supplemented with a nine-minute video about the race, a few textiles and images of the Raramuri celebrating Holy Week.
The installation now is an homage of sorts to True, continuing his efforts to raise awareness of the Tarahumara and the challenges they face, said museum spokeswoman Pam Kosty. Raramuri, which means “foot runner” in their Uto-Aztecan language, are threatened by encroaching timber and mining industries as well as drug cartels.
“With this exhibit, we are getting the word out to a larger audience,” Kosty said. “I’d like to think ... it is a nice piece for him and his memory.”
The exhibit runs through Sept. 30.