Running Up Front. That’s the Way They Did Things.
By Paul O’Shea
Chasing Excellence: The Remarkable Life and Inspiring Vigilosophy of Coach Joe I. Vigil
By Pat Melgares
Soulstice Publishing, 305 pages, $19.95
This morning Joe Vigil likely rose at 4:30 a.m., brewed a pot of coffee and got right down to work in his Colorado home. He’s ninety years old, still eager to learn. There’s more to know, more to teach, others to inspire.
Other nonagenarians may be holding on to daily routines, quietly contemplating life’s bookends. Not Joe Vigil, one of the most revered figures in the history of cross country and track and field. Still running up front, he’s pursuing superiority.
That’s the message infusing the new biography of the world-famous coach, international lecturer and brilliant scientist who perfected high altitude training for distance runners.
Chasing Excellence is the first book from Pat Melgares who ran for and reported on Vigil (pronounced VEE-hill) for more than thirty years. Melgares was a four-time All American running for the coach at Adams State College. At the Alamosa, Colorado school he studied journalism and became its public information officer. Since l998 he has been a communications specialist and public information officer at Kansas State University.
“My boyhood home was just four blocks from where Coach Vigil grew up,” Melgares tells us. “I’m really passionate about his story because like Coach Vigil, I grew up on the south side of Alamosa, and perhaps can understand some of the struggles he faced to overcome some of the stereotypes and challenges that go along with being from that side of town.”
Devising workouts and motivating Alamosa High School runners wasn’t Vigil’s first coaching choice. Football was. But blocking and tackling workouts led to an opening on the athletic staff. It was the beginning of a career that led to building two legendary programs in the city.
After winning a state cross country championship at Alamosa High School, where Vigil coached for a dozen years, he relocated across town to Adams State College. Onward and upward to the collegiate ranks, his teams won 19 NAIA and NCAA Division II national titles. Four hundred twenty-five of his athletes earned All American honors.
When he ascended to the professional level, his athletes won 47 individual titles and set 17 national records. Twenty-two Vigil-mentored athletes won 20 medals at the Olympic Games and World Championships. Three ranked No. 1 in the world, according to the Michelin guide of runners, jumpers and throwers, Track and Field News.
Adams State was the only school whose seven runners earned All American honors in a single race. Vigil’s teams did that three times. He has shared his knowledge widely over the years, conducting international clinics and giving lectures in 29 countries and territories on six continents.
“We run up front. That’s the way we do things,” Vigil emphasizes. There was no better example than the l992 Adams State cross country team. After years of dominating NAIA schools, in l992 the Grizzlies moved into the NCAA’s Division II. Greeted with snickers and an icy reception at the regional meet, ASC easily qualified for the championship final.
Before the race Vigil told the seven starters: “You may be the best team in the history of Adams State College. Today, you will have to run as a team. Put aside your individual desires. I want you to pack together so tightly as a team that you can touch each other. And remember this: win or lose you are the greatest team in America.”
Thirty-two and a half minutes after the starting gun fired, five Adams State runners crossed the finish line within four seconds of each other. The Green and Gold was the first and still the only team to record a perfect 15 at a national collegiate championship. Adding to the school’s trophy case: the women’s team also was victorious, with a low 64 points.
In the 1960s collegiate cross country dual meets were sometimes a less formal enterprise. Vigil forged a strong friendship with Alex Francis, the Fort Hays State College coach, and a highly competitive history soon developed between the NAIA schools.
One year the Fort Hays coach suggested a different venue than the usual home-and-home arrangement. Let’s do something different, he offered.
The idea was for each team to drive halfway between the schools (some 425 miles apart), meet at a random location and put on a show. The runners and coaches would get out of their vans, have a brief warm up, and the battle for NAIA bragging rights would begin. The course was usually set up by one of the host school’s former runners. Some years the runners would even race out-and-back on a country road.
As a professional coach two of Vigil’s three most notable performers were Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor, each of whom medaled for the United States at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Meb won silver, and in a race that began in 95-degree heat, Kastor won the bronze. The third elite was Pat Porter who graduated from Adams State in l982 and went on to become one of the most dominant American distance runners of the era.
Porter won eight consecutive U.S. national cross country titles. As a ten- thousand meter runner he made two Olympic teams. Five times he wore a USA vest in the World Cross Country championships, finishing fourth in l984. A year earlier he set the road world record for ten thousand meters. Melgares fittingly writes that Porter was “perhaps the greatest cross country runner this country has ever seen.”
When asked about Vigil’s impact on his life, Porter told the blogger JackDogWelch: “I was a typical high school kid and Coach gave me direction. Coach taught me about life by stressing so much more than just running. He teaches you to apply the discipline of running to the rest of your life.”
But life was cut short one early 2012 morning in Arizona. An avid pilot, Porter’s plane hit a fence at the Sedona Airport. He was killed along with his son and the son’s friend. Pat Porter was 53 years old.
Another Vigil runner taken prematurely was Olympic marathon candidate Ryan Shay. Vigil coached the former University of Notre Dame athlete for five years after Ryan turned professional. Running in the 2007 Olympic Marathon trials in New York City, Shay collapsed just past the five-mile mark and was rushed to Lenox Hill hospital where he died of heart failure. Ryan Shay was 28.
“I’ll never forget Ryan speaking to the York High School cross country team (Joe Newton’s legendary Long Green Line), Vigil remembers. “He made a statement that stuck with me. ‘The rest of the world is suffering,’ Ryan told the young runners. ‘You are lucky you are not there. You made a choice to run cross country. It’s a freedom and I want you to run well.’”
Chasing Excellence is superbly documented and crisply written, a worthy addition to the serious enthusiast’s bookcase.
What was Vigil’s vision? Vigilosophy Melgares tells us, “came to represent not just the way Vigil applied scientific principles to training distance runners, but also the Coach’s set of ideals for living day to day: work hard, be honest, respect others, give your best to a cause, show compassion for humankind, and similar ethics.”
Joe Vigil always got the day started earlier than most. That’s the way he still does things.
Paul O’Shea After retirement from a career in corporate communications he coached high school girls’ cross country team and was a long-time contributor to Cross Country Journal. He now writes for Once Upon a Time in the Vest from Fairfax, Virginia. He can be reached at Poshea17@aol.com.
>> Thank you very much for the nice write-up in your blog!
>> This was such a gratifying project, primarily because Coach Vigil is such
>> a wonderful treasure and authentic in every aspect of his life. The number
>> of people he has touched in his life is phenomenal.
>> I really appreciate your support and for spreading the good word about the
>> book and about Coach's life.
>> Take care,
>> Pat Melgares
>> Manhattan, Kan.