Mountain runner Pablo Vigil recounts a career on foot
The week he’ll be inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame, Pablo Vigil is likely to spend more hours practicing his guitar than running, a shift that he says is a welcome change.
Vigil is the only man to have won four straight Sierre-Zinal mountain races, a 32-kilometer course through Switzerland. He’s also won the Cleveland Marathon three times, competed in U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, won a 100-mile stage race in Algeria in 1989 and was a National 25K Masters Champion in the Old Kent River Run in 1995.
Vigil got squeezed into running — almost literally. In high school in Craig, he and two of his three brothers were competing on the school wrestling team.
“After a while, I realized I had to lose weight to stay in this certain category because I had a brother above and a brother below who could kick my ass, so that was the only spot where I could make varsity,” he says.
Then he just fell in love with running.
“I love just, with running, how it made me feel,” he says. “I just sort of stumbled upon the fact that I was good at it.”
Running became his ticket out, too.
Both his parents had just a first grade education. His father herded sheep and his mother raised four boys and cleaned houses. But as Vigil was finishing high school, he started getting letters from colleges, inviting him to consider running, or wrestling, on their teams. He chose Adams State College in Alamosa, and started to see success with his coach there, Joe Vigil.
“He really made me aware of my talent, of what I could do with more training,” Vigil says.
The spring of his senior year, he came to Boulder to compete in a three-mile race that Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon gold medal winner, was also competing in.
“I was a little brash, a little cocky back then, so I thought, I don’t care if Frank Shorter has a gold medal,” he says. He wanted to see how he lined up.
He bolted off the starting line and was through the first quarter-mile of the race in 69 seconds.
“The pace was totally insane,” he says. After about 800 meters, he started to flag. And Shorter was still in his shadow.
“I just really started to die, and here comes Frank, blazing by me,” he says. After the race, Shorter approached him.
“He says, ‘Do you always start off that fast?’” Vigil says. “I said, ‘Congratulations. In all honesty it was just sheer stupidity.’ He said I should move to Boulder, we could run and train together.’” That was it for Vigil. On graduation day at Adams State, he packed up a Volvo with a friend and moved into a double-wide trailer owned by Coach Jerry Quiller. He’d live in that trailer with up to 18 people, friends of friends of friends, he says, surviving on peanut butter and oatmeal and spaghetti.
“Here we were in this trailer, we were literally starving artists, working part-time shit jobs, anything we could to do eke out a living and have the flexibility to travel and train,” he says.
It was to the mountains that Vigil eventually gravitated.
“There’s a spiritual component, a primal connection, at least for me,” he says.
He won his first Sierre-Zinal in 1979, a 32-kilometer race that climbs more than a mile in altitude in the first 10 kilometers.
“It’s a steep-ass mountain race,” Vigil says. The terrain is rocky, too, and the trail is often a narrow strip cutting across a steep cliff. It’s a race that has it all, he says. He still recruits American runners to compete in it, including the first American woman to win the Sierre-Zinal, Megan Lunde.
Vigil’s ongoing involvement with young runners is among the criteria used to select him for the Running Hall of Fame, though the question was hardly hotly debated when his name appeared on the list of candidates this year.
“We didn’t have to convince anybody, let’s put it that way,” says John Tope, chair of the Running Hall of Fame. “He was an exceptional runner at Adams State and he was one of those athletes that could run on the roads as well as mountain races. … Even to this day he’s almost like a rock star when he goes back to Europe.”
Colorado Running Hall of Fame athletes must have lived in Colorado for a minimum of five years of their running career and accomplished success at a local, national or international level.
“Then we look at if they’ve given anything back to the sport, do they conduct themselves in a fashion that the youth of the state can look up to and respect,” Tope says. “Pablo is just a great guy. He’s still involved, he even takes groups over to Europe from time to time, and he’s just one of the nicer guys you’re ever going to meet in any profession, but he’s definitely one of the really nice guys in the sport, and a great athlete too — that doesn’t hurt.”
Vigil says he’s honored to be selected for the Hall of Fame, but feels there are a lot of people who should have been ahead of him. Boulder, when he lived and trained here (he lives in Loveland now), was a who’s who of the best of runners, and many of them crowded around that trailer and Quiller’s coaching — including Gary Bjorkland, who will also be inducted into the Running Hall of Fame this year, as will Quiller himself.
“As a runner, I think if you can gravitate to those kinds of people who will support your passions at all costs, it will make you a better runner,” he says.
Vigil credits the synergy of all these great runners — and the incredible trainers — coming together and training together, pushing one another, with his own development as a runner.
Without them, it might have been the guitar that ate all those hours, instead of feet crossing trails and running up mountains.
The induction ceremony will be held at 6 p.m. on April 19 at the Denver Athletic Club. Tickets on Colorado Colfax marathon website.