For most people, history is one of those subjects that never “sticks.” Other people find it fascinating or practical outside the classroom, where they follow a hunch or anecdote into the past and uncover something insightful. And for a chosen few, history fills and informs their life’s work. This article is about one of those people: a man who not only asked the dangerous question of “why?” but pursued answers obsessively until he mastered them, a man who wanted to know how the human body could become unstoppable and how to bring it to a new level of performance on some of the world’s biggest stages.
His successes reinforced his reputation: coaching 20 different medalists at the World Cross Country Championships; earning 19 national collegiate team championships (between the NAIA and NCAA); retiring with a meet-winning percentage of 94.2 percent (with 3,014 wins and only 176 losses); serving on 17 international coaching staffs, including the World Cross Country Championships, the Pan American Games, the World Cross Country Championships, and the Olympic Games; receiving recognition as professor emeritus at Adams State College and holding the President’s Award from the Athletics Congress; appearing twice as coach for the US Olympic Team; orchestrating a perfect score at the NCAA Cross Country National Championships (the only one ever recorded); and seeing enough individual medals earned by his athletes to mint a gold bar. Dr. Joe Vigil, the consummate coach-scientist, combined training systems, sport science, and motivation to lead his athletes to the top of the mountain at the highest levels. Deena Kastor, Meb Keflezighi, Brenda Martinez: they put their talents in his hands, and he led them from there.
Ask Vigil how he prefers to be addressed, and the answer is simply “Coach.” And Coach Vigil is not just a living legend. He’s a father figure to hundreds of other runners who have benefited from his training and workout routines, his advice, or his compassion. His reach is wide: ask any current coach or program director, and Vigil is on the short list of “untouchable” names. With over five decades invested in the sport, Vigil has helped guide more medalists for American athletics in the last 30 years than any other running coach.
Coach Vigil’s own upbringing was unassuming. He grew up in Antonito, Colorado (population 800), and went to high school in Alamosa, Colorado (population 8,000). Both towns (nestled in the San Luis Valley) are more than 7,000 feet above sea level. In Alamosa, it was logical for Vigil to attend nearby Adams State College, where he was a first-team All-Rocky Mountain Conference guard on the Indians’ 1953 football team. After graduating, Vigil returned to his former high school as an assistant football coach. He inherited his first track team in the spring of 1955, and during the next 12 years, Vigil’s teams won eight state track and field championships.
Vigil is friendly, charismatic, and hard-working. He’s also avidly curious and driven by a passion for education. His love of learning is contagious, and his determination to find answers to scientific problems led him to the forefront of physiological research. He’s traveled widely––picking up know-how, technique, and insight into training––and he’s read voraciously, putting that knowledge to the test beside the writings of top scientists. He’s formed a wide range of contacts and has a sharp memory. Among his firsthand accounts are tales of Russian sprinters, goatherds in Machu Picchu, persistence hunters in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, Japanese endurance walkers, and East African marathoners. Along the way, he assumed a leadership role at Adams State, where he took command of the struggling cross-country program in the mid-1960s as head coach. From 1967 through 1993, the ASC men won 14 national cross-country titles and 28 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference titles.
And to our benefit, everyone who has an extended conversation with Coach Vigil comes away overwhelmed by his breadth and depth of knowledge. Ken Grace, track coach and physical education teacher at Chabot College in Hayward, California, remembers that Coach Vigil started their first conversation by asking, “Ken, do you speak German or French? You need to learn to speak and read German and French. All the best physiological research is in German and French, and you need to read it in its original form. You can’t rely on someone else’s interpretation.” Grace’s thought at the time? “Now that’s intense. The man is a genius.”
“Ken, do you speak German or French? You need to learn to speak and read German and French. All the best physiological research is in German and French, and you need to read it in its original form. You can’t rely on someone else’s interpretation.”
Genius was on full display when Coach Vigil appeared in the Bay Area in 2015. He focused on a simple message: “Keep moving as long as you possibly can.” Vigil explained:
“I have a passion for distance running of all kinds. I’ve had people that have run from 800 meters on up to 100 miles. And you train them a little differently but it’s all running. And as I travel the country I am more aware of the fact that all people are working with special education children. We live in a hypokinetic society: under-active. We don’t do a damn thing compared to other countries in the world in terms of movement. And aerobic training is where it’s all at! Recently I’ve become interested in the effects of aerobic training on neurological plasticity––how you develop your mind––through running or any aerobic activity: cycling, swimming, walking, hiking . . . . And the amazing thing about it is that they are finding out the more you stimulate that aerobic capacity, whatever it is for you individually (we all live by the principle of individual variability), it will cause the production of a glutamine enzyme to produce dendrites from your neurons in the 13 trillion cells in your mind. So the inner connection is remapping your mind. And it taps into the memory stores of every cell that you used during your growth, and however old you are. The minute you quit doing your aerobic activity, the dendrites recede and fill up with water, and those spots will be the origin (or genesis) of dementia and Alzheimers. So that’s what’s happening in America. Our older people quit working out the minute they retire.”
Remarkably, Coach Vigil was just getting started. His anecdotes don’t express just beliefs about the human condition, but the science behind his methods. Vigil became obsessed with VO2 max, the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can use during intense, or maximal exercise. It is measured as milliliters of oxygen used per kilogram of body weight in one minute (ml/kg/min), and it’s a metric that may predict an athlete’s capacity to perform sustained exercise.
Grace recalls, “Coach Vigil’s training methodology was very structured, following a linear pattern based on previous performances. It was very tough. Jack Daniels’s stuff is very similar, just a little more watered down. I had a guy, Tom Wood, who went and trained with Vigil to make a US senior men’s cross-country team. Every Thursday in Alamosa: 6 × 1 mile with 3-minute recoveries at 92 percent VO2 max pace at altitude.”
Vigil explained his methodology:
Every team member has to contribute to their team somehow. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re the seventh man or woman, or fifth, or third, or fourth. Be an impact on your team. That’s how we scored that perfect score.
One night the captain, Jason Mohr from Canyon City, came to the house. He said “Coach, we’ve gotta be running for something.” I’d only been coaching for 35 years. I said, “Jason, I think we are running for something.”
“No we’re not!’ he replied.
I said, “Tomorrow you have the floor, you tell your team what you’re thinking about.”
He got up there and he stood there––big imposing guy, 6 foot 3, 6 foot 4––and he said “From now on, I want seven guys to be able to touch one another, no matter what the workout is.” We were doing 10-mile tempo runs at 50:00-flat at altitude. We were running repeat miles, seven or eight, in 4:25. He said “I want seven guys to be able to touch each other.”
Well, he was the captain––big enough to enforce that––and little by little that pack time started coming down. Finally we scored a perfect score in the regional meet, in Hayes, Kansas. But two of the guys who ran in that meet weren’t good enough to make the team for nationals in two weeks, so they didn’t get to go. One was Danny Caulfield, an 800-meter runner, another was Martin Johns, a miler. So we go to Nationals at Slippery Rock, and little by little I saw the guys putting it together. And when they came in down the last little, I had five guys who ran 1-2-3-4-5, with a four-second pack time over 10,000 meters.
I was the coach, I saw it, and I still don’t believe it. You teach running as a style of life, always.
Coach Vigil’s workouts were legendary. “I don’t have much knowledge about biomechanics,” Vigil claimed. “I only know that if you expose your runner to a geographic locality that will bring out the best in them, you will develop your best mechanics. No matter if you’re on the flat or on the hills or whatever.” Watching Pat Porter running on sand dunes at 9,000 feet of elevation, Vigil commented, “That’s good knee lift, good arm action and so on.” Porter’s training was incredible. As an individual, he was an 11-time national cross-country champion, but he had inauspicious beginnings as a member of Adams State College’s cross-country team. At one point, after a truly surprising win at the Rocky Mountain Shootout against legendary greats Mark Scrutton and Rick Rojas, Vigil turned to Porter:
I said, “Pat, whatever made you think you could win that race today?” I wanted to use it again next year. He said “Well Coach, you tell us we work harder than anybody in the world, and if that’s the case we should be able to beat anybody in the world.”
So he had the confidence that he was going to do a good job. When you line up on that starting line, be confident that you are as prepared as you can possibly be, whatever your mental level is . . . . I never mention winning or losing. I don’t care if they’re last or if they’re 50th, if you learn something about yourself and if you improve . . . . I do that with the runners that I have right now. I don’t care what they’re running. Learn something about yourself, and make sure that you improve somewhere along the line. Then the trip has been a success.
Vigil’s belief in his athletes also separated them from the masses. It was more than just science. It was applied science. Ken Grace mentioned: “I spoke with a guy at a USATF level II course who ran for Vigil. He said one day, the day of the mile repeats, he woke up with a stiff neck and he told Vigil: ‘I can’t run today, Coach, because of my neck (he cocked his head to his side).’ Vigil said, ‘I respect that. It’s hard for a young person to take a stand on what they believe, but you won’t be running this Saturday.’ The kid said, ‘Why not?’ Vigil replied, ‘My job is to properly prepare you for the race, and if you don’t run today you will not have been properly prepared, and then I would not have been a responsible coach.’ I asked the guy, ‘What did you do?’ ‘I ran 6 × 1 mile with a crooked neck because I wanted to race on Saturday,’ he said. ‘And I ran well Saturday.’”
But nobody understands Vigil better than Vigil. Grace said, “For me, the thing that sticks out the most about Vigil is his enthusiasm for life, his knowledge about exercise physiology and the human body, and its ability to adapt. He inspired me to be a better teacher and coach.” Vigil expanded on the missing ingredient:
You also have to have courage, people. That’s something that’s lacking in a lot of Americans. Courage to go even under the most difficult situations. We all have bumps in the road, but when we line up to do something, no one cares about the bumps; you’re all on the starting line. No one’s going to listen to your excuses. You’re there to compete. Have the courage to do what you set out to do. To take that plan, and graduate from high school and graduate from college, and practice your field, whatever it might be. And you know, it’s tough to have the courage to do that. Because it seems like everybody’s trying to throw you off. “Let’s go to the movie tonight. Let’s do this, let’s do that.” I haven’t been to a movie in 15 years. It hasn’t affected my life. I still do what I want to do.
What’s in a name? Vigil: late 15th century: from Latin vigilare “to keep awake.” Dr. Joe Vigil, awake; and all of us who know him, more awake as well.
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