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  • Pat Melgares

Keeping the Passion Alive

From 1979 to 1982, Pablo Vigil was King of the Mountains.

Undisputed.

Zinal, Switzerland is an Alps village of 2,700 residents located in a valley just a little under 5,500 feet above sea level. The adjacent peaks rise to more than 13,000 feet in elevation.

It’s also the site of the world’s greatest mountain running challenge, the famed Sierre-Zinal that stretches 31 kilometers (19.3 miles) of uneven, rocky terrain and covering five mountain peaks.

Sierre-Zinal is called the New York City Marathon of mountain running. Win in Sierre-Zinal once, and you’re hailed a hero of the sport. It’s the oldest mountain race in Europe; in September, it will be held for the 47th time.

The race was just five years old when Pablo Vigil was urged by a good friend, Chuck Smead, to give it a try. Smead won Sierre-Zinal in 1977, and had an impressive running resume: three-time winner of the Pikes Peak Marathon and silver medalist in the marathon at the 1975 Pan American Games among his accomplishments.

“Chuck lived in Alamosa (Colorado) and had done some mountain races in other parts of Europe where it had been going on for a long time. And according to Chuck, they had some real mountain races; not like Pikes Peak, which is a challenging race because of the altitude and steepness. But Pikes Peak is nothing like the races I found later on in Europe. In a lot of those races, you are rock climbing and race walking and a lot of other technical stuff going up and down in altitude. It’s the real deal in mountain racing.”

“The thing about it is I was living in Alamosa, where it’s completely flat. But twice or even three times a week, I would run up the side of Mt. Blanca (elevation 14,344), almost to the lakes, or I would run at Fort Garland. So I was doing a combination of intervals on the road, running on trails at Fort Garland or the hills, running the Mt. Blanca area (up to Lake Como), and then the Sand Dunes Mosca Trail.”

Going into Sierre-Zinal in 1979, Pablo said, “I was ready. Plus I was doing a lot of road races. I had a 2:15 marathon under my belt, I had a 28:50-something 10K on the track, 13:50-something 5000…I was mixing it all up.”

“When I went to Europe the first time to run Sierre-Zinal in 1979, I had no pressure. Nobody knew anything about me. It’s a 31 kilometer race and you climb over a mile in the first eight miles or so. Halfway through the race, I took the lead and just pulled away, and went away to win. I broke the record by five or six minutes.”

For the next three years, no one could catch Pablo Vigil at Sierre-Zinal. By 1982, he had won four straight – the first and only man in the 47-year history of the race to accomplish that. (Kilian Jornet of Spain, who considers Pablo one of his mentors in the sport, has won Sierre-Zinal six times, but never four in a row.)


“So by having won Sierre Zinal, it was like a renaissance for me. All of a sudden I was starting over. I had some success in road racing, indoor, outdoor, marathoning – I had won the Revco Marathon in Cleveland three times, I was second in the Moscow Marathon, and I was second in the Kyoto Marathon in Japan.”

“For me, mountain running was everything that I loved. The mud, the rocks, the technical stuff, the altitude, the going down, the challenge of it all. It was tailor made for me.”

If mountain running were an Olympic sport – and many would argue it requires much more citius, altius and fortius than numerous Olympic sports competed today – Pablo Vigil would have been celebrated widely as an American legend.

***

Last week in this blog I detailed Pablo Vigil’s early life, which was marked by the scars of poverty and the heartbreak of a broken family. Pablo’s path to world-class mountain runner also grew from that unstable beginning.

“I grew up in the mountains, you know, near Mora, New Mexico,” Pablo said. “Since I was little, I always had a passion for walking and being in the mountains. I loved the trees, rocks, dirt...all of that.”

“I remember as a child, my dad was never around, and I was the middle child, so it was kind of like nobody really cared where I was or what I did. All of the attention was with my oldest brother or my youngest brother. So I would run away; I was 4 or 5 years old and I’d run up to the foothills; to me they were like mountains. I’d run up there and I’d play in the rocks and the trees. So maybe my passion for mountain racing stemmed from that. I just loved being up there and messing around in the rocks and the trees.”

Under the watchful eye of coach Joe I. Vigil, Pablo (no relation) enjoyed a modest career at Adams State College from 1971-1975 – he was a four-time All American, and much-loved teammate.

“The first time I made All American, I was a sophomore in cross country,” Pablo said. “The following year, I told myself a couple of things I’m going to do this year: I want to make All American in cross country, and I wanted to get the hell out of those dorms at Adams State. They were the dorms from hell back then. I was tired of the Battle of the Eight Track Tapes – one room you’d have Jimi Hendrix, the next the Doors, the Rolling Stones…and it would go on and on. You couldn’t get any sleep. I said I’m getting the hell out of these freakin’ dorms.”

“So I rented a room from another runner, Dom Beauregard. He charged me $30 a month to live in his garage and I could use the bathroom and kitchen in the main house.”

“Well, you gotta remember, it gets minus-40 below zero in Alamosa in the winters. It would be minus-40 outside, and minus- 22 or minus-24 in the garage. That’s where I slept. But out of that garage, I came in tenth at cross country nationals that year. And I told myself, that’s what toughness was, man. I used to sleep with all my track stuff on; and back then, it was all 100 percent cotton. There was no high-tech stuff.”

As a senior at Adams State in 1975, Pablo was entered in a 5,000 meter run on the track in Boulder, where he would match up against 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter. “I took him out in 61 (seconds) for the first quarter, thinking I could kick his ass,” Pablo said. “And then we went through the second lap at 2:05…and then I died. I died! That 5K became a marathon for me.”

“After the race I was so embarrassed to talk to him. He asked me, ‘Do you always run like that, go out that fast?’ I was like, ‘Uh…’ I was speechless. What I wanted to say was, ‘only when I’m scared shitless.’

“He said, ‘What are you thinking of doing after college?’ I said, ‘I’d really like to continue running to see how far I can go.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you move to Boulder and train with me.’”

A little over a month later, Pablo graduated from Adams State College at 10 o’clock in the morning, packed his car and headed for Boulder. “The next day,” Pablo said, “I was knocking on Frank’s door and saying, ‘let’s go for a run.’”

“He was like Coach Vigil. He took me to another level. People like him and Gary Bjorklund and others made me see a different perspective of how to train, how to tweak this and tweak that. And then having gone to Europe with Chuck Smead, and later on I went on my own, I began doing my own thing.”

***

This would be a nice story, even if that were the end. Poor boy grows up to get a college education, earns All American honors as a college runner, then meets an Olympic gold medalist who helps him become the United States’ greatest mountain runner ever.

But Pablo Vigil’s story gets even better.

By the early 1980s, Pablo was married and a father, back training in Alamosa with the Adams State men’s team, and taking odd jobs – gardening, hauling trash, delivering firewood – to supplement a modest sum he was earning from running professionally. Eventually, he also earned a master’s degree in education, and taught Spanish to high schoolers for three decades.

But all that time he was still traveling the world. The organizers of the Sierre-Zinal fly him back for the race late each summer, pay his expenses to sleep and eat, and in return he gives talks and helps with some of the race logistics.

He has traveled extensively throughout Europe and South America, as well as coast-to-coast in the United States as an ambassador for running – and to give testimony of what an iron-will attitude can achieve in life. Often, he is invited to speak to groups, but then will stay in a country for weeks at a time, roaming about with barely more than a backpack to talk with people and explore new worlds. Routinely, the people he meets provide room and board as he travels about.

“It is all kind of like this huge experiment in life and living,” Pablo said. “I learned so many amazing lessons that I apply to myself right now. For example, I’m 67 and I’m a retired teacher. I have a good retirement, but I still live like a gypsy. I don’t really need a whole lot of money, and I’m very happy, and I’m still traveling.”

“The amazing thing is that I’m still milking a dead cow. I travel all over the world and I help with (head coach) Damon Martin’s running camp at Adams State. I help organize a couple races around the world in Mexico and Switzerland. I present at clinics around the country; I just got back from a clinic in Vermont given by Jim Ryun and Doug Padilla, and I just got back from Canada. That’s what I do now.”

“The common thread I would say is that people out there are interested in my lifestyle, what I’ve done in the past. I’m like a living fossil; I go back to the 60s, to the running boom. I’ve been running for 54 years and I would say there are very few people from back then that are still running. I guess people are interested in hearing an old living fossil tell stories. What was it like back then compared to now? The technology, the evolution of the sport, the training methods…?”

“When I talk to people, I also try to add more than just running, but I talk to them about developing a lifestyle and how important education is. I talk to them about the importance of learning a second and third language – Spanish, French or whatever – and the importance of getting along with people of all socioeconomic classes around the world.”

“Then, I talk to them about passing on that knowledge to the next generation. It’s not all about me, but what’s coming behind in the next generation and the generation behind them. There’s no ego and there’s no money involved…I’m not doing it for anything like that. It’s all about keeping the passion alive and passing the torch.”

Kilian Jornet, the world’s current King of the Mountains, featured his friendship with Pablo Vigil in season four, episode eight of his series, Kilian’s Quest. Just shy of his 60h birthday, Pablo is loping across rocky mountain trails right alongside the much-younger Jornet. At one point, the two legends come upon a herd of elk, eventually standing within a few yards of the large animals, who never seem disturbed by their presence.

In another compelling scene, Pablo is explaining to the producers a conversation he and Jornet had.

“Yesterday, Kilian and I were talking about how lucky we are to do what we’re doing. Kilian says something about living the dream, and I told Kilian, you are also living the dream for other people vicariously. You are living other people’s dream. You are inspiring a lot of people that you are not really aware of.”

“It’s important to live the dream, but indirectly, you are living the dream for other people. And that’s very important.”

In another scene, the two men are looking through a photo album of Pablo’s races: “I think the most important thing about running,” Pablo tells Jornet, “is not so much how many races can I win, but keeping the passion alive and inspiring the new generation, or future generations of runners. That is more important than to be talking about all the times I won Sierre-Zinal, or whatever race it was. Who cares? It’s about keeping the passion alive and passing the torch to the next generations.”



Read more:

2015 interview with Pablo Vigil on the website, Run the Alps

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