Life above Treeline – a thematic interview series offering perspectives from the people who live and run mountains. Each interview is based around seven themes (performance, style, fear, time, meaning, character and experience) as a framework for conversation about experiences in the mountains.
Pablo Vigil is probably best known in the mountain running community for his 4 consecutive wins at Sierre-Zinal from 1979-1982. Among his numerous other accomplishments, he has won the Cleveland marathon 3 times, competed an equal number of times in the Olympic marathon trials and been a member of the US World Cross Country and World Mountain Running teams. In 2012, he was induced into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame. Back in the seventies, he trained for 5 years with Frank Shorter, went bar hopping with Pre and hung out with Allen Ginsberg. Pablo was kind enough to invite me to his home for lunch where we spent hours discussing running, art, family and travel. His humble abode is walled with an eclectic collection of old books and artwork. Several guitars and drums line the living room floor. The place, much like the man, has a wonderfully rich and complex quality, inviting and warm. Beyond Pablo Vigil, the mountain running legend, is a real, kind, infectiously charismatic man. I take away many lessons from our short encounter and I hope this interview will help impart some of his wisdom.
PV: Well, first of all let me say I am honored to be here with you in my home and having you and know more about you. I’ve read about you, and Anton, and Kilian and all this new generation of ultra people and mountain people so I’m even kinda surprised that you guys would like to hear tales from the dinosaurs. [laughs]
JG: I’m surprised you want to talk to us. [laughs]
PV: I’m really excited for the new generation of mountain runners. It is great that you guys are getting some recognition that we never really got at least in this country. I always felt that we had to go over to Europe since over there we were better recognized, respected and we could earn some money. It wasn’t a whole lot of money, but we could earn some money and then of course the adventure of being in Europe and traveling, and meeting new cultures, trying to learn French and so-on and so-on that was just the best, but what was the question? [laughs]
JG: Well, I’m trying to get at what was happening in your head when performing at the level you did, what drove you to compete?
PV: I understand. Well, first of all mountain running in this country, people still had this notion that you had to be a true amateur. The possibility of you bettering your life with maybe winning a little bit of money or whatever, that was completely taboo. Whereas in Europe, they had a long tradition of mountain running as well, as we did over here, but here you had to be this true amateur and not accept money or sponsors, even though there were no sponsors per se. So, the lure of visiting Europe to encounter all these cultures and new races was exciting and we heard you could also win some money. That was attractive, but for me it was more about the adventure, just going over to Europe and vagabonding around. I had never been to Switzerland before. In ‘78, I made the World Cross team and that was the first time I went over to Europe. Then in ‘79, I went to Switzerland with Chuck Smead and once again it was the lure of adventure, of going to Switzerland- the Alps and cows, and the adventure of it all, to me that was very, very attractive. In fact, when I went to Switzerland the first year to Sierra Zenal in ‘79, I paid my own way. I paid my own airfare out there, but I also went in with the idea that I was going to be coming in ready. You have to, pretty much, as you well know, when you travel abroad you don’t have time to get fit. When you go in there you’re ready to go, you’re ready to perform or you better be and luckily I went in prepared and I ended up winning Sierra Zenal the first time. I smashed the record by 5 or 6 minutes and then there was all the notoriety that came with that and all of a sudden I’m getting all this notoriety and invitations to races in Europe as a result…all thanks to Chuck Smead. The second year I thought maybe I can win it again who knows.
JG: So, did you feel the pressure that people were expecting you to win?
PV: I didn’t really feel any pressure, but when I did feel pressure was the third time. Why? Because nobody had, no one, I believe had won it three times, if I recall correctly. Someone had won it twice, but nobody had won it three times, so there was the pressure of winning it three times and then certainly nobody had won it four times. It kinda starts feeding on itself and I started thinking well, maybe there’s something to this and then of course there’s more invitations, more races, more money and more sponsors. It kinda snowballed you know.
There’s something about doing well abroad. You know, it’s kinda like when you’re traveling abroad you have this following, you are a hero. You come back to maybe Boulder or Colorado or California whatever and it was like oh yeah, okay fine. But in Europe, they love you, you’re appreciated, you sign autographs. You really have live interviews. You go before live TV in Geneva or whatever. They make books with you being a major part of the book or whatever and it’s great, it’s wonderful. So, to me that’s what it was all about. It was just the culture and just getting to know new courses, new people, and the adventure of it all. Of course, at the time, I was young, single, I didn’t have a family, a real job. I was like a running bum, so to speak, but it was the best times, the best job I ever had. It was wonderful, so I would encourage any young person in that position, as yourself, Anton and Kilian, all the women runners – milk it as long as you can man because when it’s over, it’s over and so really take advantage of this great time in your lives.
PV: I think to be successful, you have to sacrifice. You have to have your priorities straight. At the time, when I was much younger my priorities were not really finances. I didn’t go into running with the idea of making money or getting any kind of notoriety out of it. I went into it with the idea that you have to have a passion and you have to have a love. Whether it’s for art or for dance, or whatever it is. Running happens to be our passion and love. I was willing to live like a miser. I was willing to live on peanut butter and oatmeal and live in a double wide trailer with 13 other smelly, crazy, fun, exciting bachelor’s/runners, like I did in Boulder. So, you are willing to sacrifice at all costs to continue your passion. That’s where I was at and it was a great time. Luckily, I was in it long enough to have gotten money out of it, a lot of trips around the world and met some amazing people from all walks of life, from farmers to famous people and on and on, like I’ve said in different interviews- Jesse Owens or I trained with Frank Shorter. You have to sacrifice. Without any kind of sacrifice and of course having the discipline and the hard work and be willing to learn from your mistakes, it’s not going to happen. You have to have that passion, love and you have to have that drive and fortitude to succeed to keep going at all costs. You may live up in the mountains in a log cabin with no heat, but whatever it takes or in a trailer with a bunch of crazy runners, but if you are really sincere about your passion, you’re willing to do it. It’s not a job, it’s not an effort and that’s great. I think there are a lot of young people sometimes, they start thinking of the money and the notoriety and that is the bait instead of the initiative and the passion, and willingness to work hard and step up gradually. It’s all in the approach and what level you want to take it to. Like, what you guys are doing and what Kilian is doing and on and on- the fame, the money, whatever it will follow, but first of all you gotta do your homework and get out there and sacrifice and you gotta pay the price. It’s not gonna be easy, but when you’re older, like I’m 61, I look back on those wonderful years of Sierra Zenal, Olympic trials and world cross and traveling around the world, those are great times. You cannot put a price on those. Those are some of the best times in my life and of course all the friendships that you forge with people around the planet. It’s not just people in the United States, all of a sudden you’re global, you’re connected and indirectly you’re inspiring a lot of people and passing the torch. People are sick and tired of hearing me say that, but it’s all about inspiring the next generation, passing the torch and how can you help somebody else? How can you keep the sport alive and take it to another level? Kinda like what you guys are doing now, I cannot imagine doing all those hundred mile races and this and that. That’s inspiring to me as a runner.
I did a couple 100 mile stage races in Algeria in the Hoggar Mountains. It wasn’t a straight point to point hundred. It was in stages over 5 days, but even so those are brutal, they are vicious because we were averaging 6 minutes per mile. In fact, the first year that I won, I averaged 5:58 per mile, but you’re talking 5K the first day, 50K the second day, broken down. Racing is racing, whether it’s a flat out 100 or like your 350 mile Iditarod. That is impressive. I cannot imagine being out there for that long period of time.
Something else too that I think a lot of people forget when speaking of Sierra Zenal or racing abroad is we’re not just talking about having done your homework, in training, but you’re also talking of flying from here to Switzerland or here to Europe, you’re talking 8 hours time change, so you get there, you have to anticipate for the changes in biorhythm. So, you can’t arrive 3 days before the race. I say ideally one day for every time change, so 8 days ideally. Five days for me was always plenty, so you have to deal with the time changes. You have to deal with the bodily changes, your diet and then on and on, the stress of language if you don’t speak a second language and the stress of even training sometimes, like where am I going to go run? So, you’re dealing with a lot of issues that most people don’t even factor in. You arrive and it’s not the same for local Europeans who maybe have traveled from Germany to Switzerland and they don’t even really have the time change to deal with. It’s a different scene. So, for Americans to go or vice versa, those are behind the scene changes that nobody really thinks about. When we went to Europe, you had to come in there and you had to have done your training-altitude for sure. Altitude is a big factor. You don’t dare show up without having trained at altitude or having done the proper training. Gel was not invented. We didn’t dare eat anything on the trail. In fact, I was kinda from that era where if you drank water you were kind of a wimp. Only wimps drank water. I remember a lot times running 20-23 miles without drinking anything at all because that was kinda like for wimps, which is stupid, I mean bizarre, but that’s the way it was. That was the mentality back then.
PV: If you’re scared shitless, try not to show it. I think fear is good. I think fear is an inspiration and there has to be, I think there should be an element of fear for the terrain, the competition, but maybe try to not show it, you know what I’m saying, act cool and calm, but underneath you know everybody’s scared shitless. I think it’s good to be fearful. It can be a good thing, but also you can’t let the fear control you. It’s kinda like your nerves. You seen the classic race where you’ll have a group of runners take off like bats out of hell in the beginning. They let the emotions and the fear take over. Fear and emotion is great, but you have to be able to control it and if you let that run out of control, you’re screwed. All of a sudden, you’re like what the hell was I thinking. Why did I go out at a 6 minute pace on a 100 mile race? Then, down the road you know you screwed up and you know you’re going to pay.
It’s always evolving too. It’s never the same race. There’s a saying-You never step in the same river twice. It’s true. You may have won that race 2, 3, 4, 5 times like Scott Jurek did with Western, but it’s always a new race. There’s new competition, it’s a new day. It can go either way, and there’s always the element of luck involved. I remember the fourth year that I run Sierra Zenal, I was way ahead and I let down my guard and the next thing I know, I was flying through there, I tripped on a little tiny rock and I fell down and I was thinking, I don’t even know if I passed out or what. All I know is I kinda came to and all of a sudden, I was super scared that the competition was going to be right on me. You can’t assume anything because it’s always a new day and it’s good. It’s good to not assume. It keeps you honest, alert and a little more focused because I think once you start assuming well, the competition is so-and-so, so-and-so claims he’s been injured and as we well know long distance runners are just liars. They lie – oh I’ve been sick, injured and then they turn around and kick your ass. A lot of things come into play.
PV: If you’re running a race, it’s all about time, splits and so on. I never really got hung up on keeping track of a lot of splits and time. For example, Chuck Smead, was very analytical about keeping track of the splits and analyzing the amount of vertical gain and negative gain. I pretty much just briefly looked at the course profile. I didn’t really keep track of statistics because it would just confound me. I just kept it as simple as possible and tried to not get too hung up on this time thing.
I did have certain benchmarks though. In fact, I got more into the time thing where if I was running, I would run for time. It gave me more flexibility. I could run any direction because sometimes you’re drawn, for whatever reason, to a certain direction or a certain course. Back in the day, a lot of the runners would only run measured courses and then all of a sudden we started thinking this is silly. Why are we doing that? Let’s just run for time and then you’re not bound to measured distances. You can just go. Things become more flexible and free. I still train by time. I don’t get hung up on was that 10K, 8K, 5 miles? Who cares. I just kinda go by feel, but there are certain benchmarks that I do indirectly keep in touch with. I know going back to Sierra Zenal, they would give splits throughout the course and this and that and sometimes I would listen, other times I wouldn’t. I would just kinda look back and see where the competition was. The time was irrelevant. I think it was the 3rd or 4th year, I could have broken my record again, but I started thinking who cares. We well know records, it’s just a matter of time before somebody breaks them. The victory is more important than the time. I would rather have the victory and a slow time than a fast time and be thinking about setting another new record. Who cares? Eventually, somebody’s gonna break it. I remember Jean-Claude, the race organizer, in 1981 or so, he asked me if I thought it was possible to go under 2 ½ hours for Sierra-Zinal, which people said was impossible, it was the 4 minute mile, it can’t be done or something analogous to that. I said to Jean-Claude it can easily be done. If you have a handful of runners that are helping each other out, you have good weather, dry weather, hard course, it’ll go under. It can easily go under 2 ½. It took about 25 years for Jonathan Wyatt to do it.
You know interestingly enough, the times we would finish years ago, we would still finish top 3 today. It’s all relative. I think the fact that people are out there participating, whether they finish in 5 hours or 30 hours for 100 miles or whatever it’s all relative. People are enjoying it. Who’s to say you enjoy running more than I do or that old lady?
I mean, if you’re an invited runner, in the back of your mind, you’ve got to perform. You want to do a good job. Most of the time you do do a good job, even if you run slow. It’s all depending on the effort that day. Some days you’re on, some days you’re off. That’s sport, but I think the fact that you participated, maybe you got sick or hurt or something, people know. You put more pressure on yourself when you perform badly than most people do because you have this expectation that you were the invited runner. They maybe gave you some money, an appearance fee, your sponsors, there’s that weighing in, but I think the fact that you’re representing your country, you’re representing your sponsors and you did the best job that you could do on that day. You can’t do any better than that. That’s great. That’s more important.
You want an ambassador that’s diplomatic, he may not be the best runner in the world, but good with people skills, nice and appreciative, say please and thank you and make an effort to speak the language. That’s the kind of people we need for the sport – not just the superstars that are assholes and collect the money and take off and don’t even want to talk to the press or whatever. A lot of times you’ll have to deal with things that you don’t want to, like the press. I’ve had some bad experiences with some reporters, but overall it’s been really good. That comes with the territory.
I think we’ve all known those runners that are superstars, but also superstar assholes. People kind of have a love/hate relationship with them. Then, there are also those superstars that are great ambassadors. It’s very important, if you’re having success, to give credit where credit’s due. Who helped you get to the top? Who are the people that inspired you? Who are the people that continue sponsoring you when you win, but also when you get injured? I’m proud to say that is not all my doing. It takes a village to raise a runner. Chuck Smead is the guy that brought me out to Europe, to Sierre Zinal and sowed the early seeds for American runners to go and compete there. We need to give credit where credit is due. In the long run, it all comes back to you. Karma is gonna get you. If you say good things and are thankful then people are going to have a greater respect for you and see you in a more positive light. I mean, I’m in awe of you guys and inspired. I read about some of the stuff you do and think it’s totally crazy and there’s no way I could have done that.
JG: Well, that’s very kind of you to say that. Truly though, we’re reading about you and it’s easier for runners of our generation to follow because there were visionaries that laid the tracks before us.
PV: Like I said before, it’s also great that the sponsors are getting involved and getting runners to these races. You’re giving these sponsors some world class exposure and that is amazing. They could not pay for that kind of exposure, it would cost a million dollars. Athletes don’t need to be world class, they just need to be good ambassadors. A good ambassador is worth his or her wait in gold and diamonds. It’s all a synergy. So, we need to get more athletes around the world to these races. That’s why we went to Europe most of the time because back here people had this AAU, Amature Athletic Union mentality, like these runners shouldn’t be accepting money. I know it’s not always about money, but if you’re a struggling artist then it sure helps pay the bills. Sponsors need to step up and support their runners with small contracts and bonus structures. In fact, I had that in the late seventies, early eighties with Nike. We need more of that.
I think I’ve been very fortunate and very blessed. Running has taken me all over the world, to 40 different countries. Not only that, but I’m still doing it. I’m retired, but I’m still doing it. It’s amazing that I’m still able to be involved in the sport directly and indirectly and seeing the evolution of the sport from the inside. On top of that, I think I was able to have somewhat of a normal life. I’m most proud of my children, my 3 daughters. I was also able to get an education as a result of my running. It paid for tuition to go to Adam State, in Alamosa. Indirectly you can’t put a price on everything that you learn travelling. What did Mark Twain say? Something like if you want to crush ignorance, start travelling. Travelling is one of the best things in the world. I picked up many languages, like French as my third language and met so many people – that is priceless. Having met you now! To me it’s so inspiring to meet the next wave of the sport and keep passing the torch. It’s all about keeping the passion alive. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s been a great ride and it’s not over yet. I’m involved with this Gatorade, Venezuela running conference and hopefully bringing Lasse Virén over there next September. I’m working on that and recruiting athletes to Sierre-Zinal and so forth, so working with young people is equally rewarding to me than the running.
Do it when you can, before you have too many responsibilities and your body is unable. The world is constantly telling you differently. You need to get an 8-5 job, whatever. That’s what the world is telling us. So, do it when you can. But, also plan ahead. What options do I have when the interviews stop, when I get old and no longer compete? You have to be ready for that. Either have a skill, or money in the bank through investments or a marketable degree. One of the saddest things for me is to see old athletes who in the end have nothing. Nothing to fall back on. In the end, very few people care or remember. Things evolve. So you need some kind of safety net.
You can evolve with your sport. Down the road, with all your travel and running experience, you might be designing for a sponsor or have your own line of clothing. I remember Gary Neptune out there dabbling with all kinds of gear and now look at him, he’s got this incredible shop. You can evolve with everything you’ve gained from what your passion and love was.
It goes beyond the sport. There’s a certain image, a certain persona that the world has of us. I think it’s important to promote the sport and evolve into something bigger than it, multi-tasking under the same theme basically. It wasn’t like that when we were running at our best. We didn’t have the technology and the tools to do it. It’s inspiring though to see it happening now. It’s great for the sport and people’s awareness.
To me running is one of the most spiritual things in the world. It’s tied into so many other things like the human spirit, goals, meaning of life, self-worth, self-esteem, making the world a better place. I’ve had some of my best thoughts as a result of running, just being alone in the mountains, being able to listen to the silence and meditate. People that don’t have this passion don’t get it, not necessarily with running, but painting, gardening, music, whatever. Music is another one that is incredible. My first passion was music. I never took lessons, I was self taught, but it gave me focus and an outlet. We had a lot of problems as kids, like poverty and family dynamic problems, so music and then later on sports was something that gave me vision and purpose. I battled with a lot of things, being poor, monolingual, being a minority, in the fifties and sixties with all the discrimination, so there was this symbiotic relationship between music and athletics that fed off of each other. Having that synergy was very important. The community is important too. I tend to be a bit of a lone wolf, but also love being around people. It’s important to hook up with other people that have the same passion and keep each other accountable, keep each other fresh. Younger runners keep me sharp and on edge and up to date in what’s happening with the technology and such. I don’t hang around older people too much. I have a lot of faith in the younger generations.