I've been thinking about Micah True (aka Caballo Blanco) who's body was found yesterday, 4 days after heading out for a 12 mile run in the Gila wilderness in New Mexico. My sister, Brenda, has been following this as well, and I think she has been weighing the implications for those she loves that run, like me. Well, probably more because of her son Berkeley.
Caballo spent much of the last 20 years in Copper Canyon, which is a very inaccessible part of Mexico. He apparently ran 25 miles a day--long, remote runs were his staple. I think the concept of being trackable or carrying anything more than some pinole to eat would have been anathema to him. Freedom consisted of him running in shorts, and a pair of sandals.
I think running was such a part of him and the tarahumara culture he worshiped, that if you told him he was going to die running he would have been happy with that and kept up his usual schedule.
Jim Fixx didn't start running until age 35 when he was 240 lbs and smoked 2 packs a day. His father died of a heart attack at age 43. Running probably deserves credit for him making it to 52 before having his fatal heart attack. Micah, I think, was also on a course of self destruction. It's vague in Born To Run and I don't remember the details but after his boxing days it seems like he had some self loathing and there was alcohol involved. The tarahumara lifestyle gave him a much more full and peaceful existence.
There are lots of great people that fulfill the measure of their creation without running a step. And I wish to define myself as more than a runner. But it has added to my life. I love the beauty of trails through hills. It's a thrill to get to an isolated high-spot, or to find a new route that makes a loop deep into the previously unexplored woods. It's a challenge not to exceed one's limits because it is invigorating to probe where your limits may extend. One of my most memorable runs was a 15+ mile loop high in the Trinity Alps on trails I'd never seen before with fabulous views. The closest humans were the scouts back in camp. I had to concentrate on my surroundings and the map and make some good guesses to put it all together. My most harrowing was when I ran out of reserve in the hills above Raymond WA where I got lost in the dark and rain on logging roads. If I had found a dry pile of leaves I would have laid down and gone to sleep.
I think it's a low percentage of runners that die from something happening to them while out on a remote wilderness run, compared to the number of non-runners that have a lifestyle-related "natural death". Part of our mis-assessment of risk is based on highly publicised rare events. You never get headlines like "Overweight Smoking Non-runner Non-surprisingly Dies of Heart Attack Watching TV", but that's where the real risk is. That and the missed opportunities of living too bland a life. I've got a newspaper article on my wall at work that claims the most dangerous thing you can do to your child is put them in a car and drive them to football practice.
That's not to say that runners shouldn't be wary. Apparently Caballo would give this warning before a race:"we don't want any deaths on the trails. Yes, The buzzards want that....We do not." But Berkeley and I are unlikely to be buzzard food. Wear bright clothing, face traffic, and be careful crossing roads. Tell someone where you are going, and when to start worrying. Take a little more fuel and water than you'll need and a friend. Study a map and take one with you, know your boundary features, turn around before you have to, maybe hug a tree. A GPS watch is wonderful for orienting yourself when it has a battery charge, a view of the sky, and you know how to use it. (Berkeley should get a Forerunner 205, unless you have cash to burn, in which case the 910 looks sick! My next one will be a 310.) Unfortunately, because of that, you are more likely to accept greater risks. A cell phone with GPS is even better as long as you have coverage. Search and Rescue can ping it for coordinates. But you would have to carry that, which changes the freedom. Copper and Gila canyons would not have cell coverage. Also on the market are units that can put out a beacon picked up by satellite, same as a plane that crashes. Those are independent of cell towers, but weight, cost, and my possibly self-deceived low perception of utility have precluded consideration of that. If I break a leg when up Timber Mountain, cougars may get a meal, but I haven't seen buzzards.
Danelle Ballengee has a very different story: http://www.runnersworld.com/cda/microsite/article/0,8029,s6-238-511--14158-0,00.html She fell off a trail near Moab and survived >2 very cold days with a broken pelvis living off puddle water. If she had a phone with her (and coverage) or a friend, she would have avoided a lot of suffering.
I enjoy running with family and other pleasant people. But like Danelle, it isn't practical to find a friend with the same fitness level and schedule. And runners tend to be loners, or introverts. I thought of that with Zachary (and Gid) yesterday, whom I drug out for 6 miles. About the only conversation we had was an argument about ways to get to Tolo. But it was great being with them. It was wonderful to be able to take Emily last week on my new solitary route around the headwaters of Jackson Creek. And next month I'll have Esther as a training partner. Katie wouldn't be worth spit if I got injured. Although she's not useless- I think of her as distracting cougar bait.
I worry about the inconvenience to and sacrifice of search and rescue teams in situations like this. I wouldn't take their service for granted, and really appreciate them. Heaven forbid I ever need them, I'll hope they know right where to look and I'll trust they'll find me in time. But if I'm dead, and I think Caballo would have agreed, I'll regret they missed any sleep on my account.
My choice is to run free or die. And don't die. Cabello lived large, and I doubt he begrudges his fate. Berkeley has much more to his life than running. He has a better sense of self preservation and will always make it home.