College All American, world elite runner...launched in Chuck Taylor basketball shoes
John Esquibel was a decent high school basketball player, so it should not have been much of a surprise when he showed up for his first practice at Adams State College in 1977 in a swank pair of Chuck Taylor high tops, the popular canvas brand made by Converse that dominated the basketball market long before Nike’s Air Jordan.
Cool stuff for an 18-year-old kid, for sure.
But here’s the problem: Esquibel was on the school’s nationally-ranked cross country team. The Chuck Taylor’s in his high school blue and white colors were a great basketball shoe, but a lousy running shoe. And they were surely no match for Joe I. Vigil’s grueling Adams State distance program.
“Everybody else had running shoes; John’s wearing basketball shoes,” Vigil said.
According to Esquibel – better known as Skiball (pronounced Skee-Ball) – Vigil drove him to downtown Alamosa, marched right into Spencer’s Sporting Goods and plopped down $29.95 for the young man’s first pair of running shoes: the Nike LDV1000 in bright yellow with the orange stripe. The Nike LDV was a great running shoe, and a lousy basketball shoe.
Cool stuff for an 18-year-old kid, for sure.
“That shoe was eight inches wide in the back, which made it rub against my shin in front,” Esquibel said. “Next thing I know Coach is telling me that we’ll just cut the corner of the shoe off.”
Thus launched a remarkable college running career for the young Esquibel, who as a freshman was the fifth scoring runner for the team’s NAIA championship squad in 1977 – just the second national cross country title for Adams State.
By the time the young man finished up at Adams State in the spring of 1981, he was the first Adams State runner ever – and still the only one -- to win three indoor national titles in the mile run, capturing the title on the boards of Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium in 1979, 1980 and 1981. He was a two-time cross country All American, placing third at nationals in 1980, and was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.
“That first year, as a freshman, he didn’t do much on the track but he did make it to the national meet in Abilene, Texas,” Vigil remembers. “We were coming home from Abilene and we stopped in Trinidad (in southeast Colorado, Esquibel’s hometown) to drop him off.”
Esquibel jumped off the team bus and remembered he had not asked Vigil how much he was supposed to run that summer. “I was half asleep; I wasn’t really thinking and I just shouted out, ‘Gimme a thousand miles,’” Vigil said.
Over 10 weeks, that would amount to 100 miles a week, or 14 miles a day. Esquibel says he remembers Vigil saying 1,500 miles for the summer, which would come out to, oh, about 21 miles a day.
That’s a big jump for a kid who had notched a pedestrian high school best of 5:03 in the mile run. “I had actually run 9:38 for two miles (an average 4:49 per mile)…if you can believe that,” Esquibel said. “In those days, they would run the two mile first, then I would run some other events, and the mile was later in the meet. By that time, I was tired.”
Emboldened by Vigil, Esquibel set about to transform himself the first summer after his freshman year of college. A few days a week, he’d work twice-a-day runs between a job painting and roofing houses, often logging 22 miles over the two workouts.
“I also had a job at the Aguilar truck stop,” Esquibel said. Aguilar is a sleepy town nearly 20 miles north of Trinidad. Esquibel did not have a car to drive to work.
“I worked the graveyard shift at the truck stop,” he said. “So on those days when I worked there, I would leave my house in Trinidad at 3:45 p.m. and run 21 miles, work all night long, then run back home. I was doing that once or twice a week.”
“If I didn’t feel good, I would hitchhike back to Trinidad.”
Initially, the exhausting schedule took its toll. Back at Adams State that fall, “I became dehydrated and ended up in the hospital,” he said. “I feel like all the running I did that summer led to that.”
Once Esquibel bounced back, he was as good a runner as the NAIA had in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to his indoor mile titles – he ran winning times of 4:14, 4:11 and then 4:08 as a senior -- and cross country All American finishes, he was a key teammate as Adams State rolled to the 1979 and 1980 NAIA cross country championships. He also made All American twice during the outdoor track and field seasons.
After graduating from Adams State, Esquibel ran 4:00.17 outdoors in the mile, then turned his attention to longer distances. He tried his hand at mountain running, traveling with another Adams State runner – mountain legend Pablo Vigil – to the famed Sierre Zinal mountain challenge in the mid-1980s, where he finished third overall.
In 1982, he also placed third in the inaugural Singapore Marathon, which he led until very late in the race. On a blistering hot day, Esquibel nearly collapsed in the final quarter mile. “It took me nearly three minutes to run the last 200 meters,” he said. “I was staggering all over the place.”
He doesn’t recall crossing the finish line. He finished in 2:26:03, one minute and 44 seconds behind the winner.
“I woke up 35 minutes later. That race was one of my worst nightmares. I lost fifteen pounds and eight toenails.”
He also blistered badly, losing skin on both feet. Returning to Alamosa, he was walking with the aid of crutches. Vigil remembers Esquibel spending quite a bit of time healing with Jack Butorac, a popular Adams State athletic trainer at the time.
While running professionally, Esquibel opened running stores in Alamosa and Trinidad – called Skiball’s Running World, where he was a loyal corporate partner with Adams State athletics. The Alamosa store continues operating today on Alamosa’s Main Street.
By the time his professional running career was finished, Esquibel had run marathons in 13 countries, and had traveled to 19 countries. His running resume includes major events on the road, trails, mountains and track.
Hampered late in his career by injuries, Esquibel turned to coaching, where he won four Colorado state championships while leading cross country and track and field teams at Trinidad, Cherry Creek, Westminster and Ranum high schools. For the past 13 years, he has been the head coach for cross country at Regis University in Denver.
It’s all pretty heady stuff by the young man whose path began when he ditched the Chuck Taylor basketball kicks.
Chasing Excellence: The Remarkable Life and Inspiring Vigilosophy of Coach Joe I. Vigil, is available for $19.95 from Soulstice Publishing, Flagstaff, AZ. Order online now!