The new Joe Vigil biography, Chasing Excellence by Pat Melgares, should be required reading for every running coach: youth, high school, college, and beyond. If you coach, you need to read this book.
I’ve been through it twice now, and have only one slight criticism. It should be titled Giving Excellence. This is the story of a coach who gives everything he’s got. That’s why his runners succeed; because they respond in kind.
The numbers alone are amazing. In his almost 30 years at way-off-the-beaten-tracks Adams State University in Alamosa, Colo., Vigil coached 435 All Americans, and guided 19 cross-country or track teams to national championships. He has given lectures across the USA and in 29 countries. He led a community women’s jogging program for several decades in Alamosa, and was a co-founder of the USATF coaching certification program.
In 1992, his Adams State team swept the first five places in the Division II NCAA Cross-Country Championships on a mucky 10K course in Slippery Rock, Pa. His runners finished within four seconds of each other. No other team has ever achieved an NCAA “perfect score.”
But the numbers only skim the surface. To learn about Vigil, you have to hear from his runners. This is the essence of Chasing Excellence. The stories, anecdotes, and testimonials just keep coming. There seems to be no one who doesn’t love and respect the guy.
Deena Kastor is probably Vigil’s best-known runner, with her bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Marathon and her still-standing American record, 2:19:36. She excelled in high school, but floundered in college, which nearly marked the end of her running career. One day in Fayetteville, AR, she picked up the phone to call Vigil in Alamosa.
“He re-energized me in that first phone call,” she remembers. “Then when you’re with him in person, you feel that tenfold. In a very short time, he taught me so much. I had to be open to a crash course in learning.”
Before Kastor, Pat Porter won eight consecutive National Cross Country Championships — a streak unlikely to be matched. No one saw it coming. Porter didn’t win a race in his first two seasons at Adams State. Then, in his junior year, he broke through in the Rocky Mountain Shootout against several world class competitors.
Porter’s victory stunned everyone, including the ever-curious Vigil, who asked for an explanation. “Coach, you tell us we work harder than anyone,” Porter responded. “So I started thinking I should be able to beat anyone.”
Vigil didn’t just invest in his athletes; he believed in himself. On one of his recruiting trips, a prospect’s father asked what fathers will ask: Show us the money. Vigil had little to offer, but responded, “How about I give your son a million dollars … worth of coaching?” He got the runner.
This is an earnest book. Vigil doesn’t do BS. He always was, and always will be, sincere to the core. Fortunately, Melgares includes a bit of humor wherever possible. Anyone remotely familiar with Vigil has heard the piece about his wakeup time: 4 a.m. That’s when he supposedly arises to study the latest academic articles that relate to running and coaching.
Many years ago, two of his runners decided to test the hearsay. They got up at 3:30 a.m., ran to Vigil’s house, and somewhat timidly rang the doorbell at 4 am. Moments later, Vigil opened the door, fully dressed for the day. “Hey, boys,” he said, “Come on in for some coffee.” He led them to the kitchen, where they spotted a full pot of fresh brew.
“In his office, his books are all open on his desk,” said Mike Maguire, one of the two runners. “So, we’re thinking, ‘Yeah, the legend is all true.’”
The Legend Himself
Vigil will be 91 in a month, and doesn’t seem to have slowed down much. Two years ago he organized and orchestrated an Alamosa-wide 50th annual celebration of the 1968 Olympic Marathon Trials, where he served as race director. Attendees included Billy Mills, Frank Shorter, Gary Muhrcke, and first- and second-place Trials finishers George Young and Kenny Moore, as well as another dozen 1968 participants and hundreds of Adams State alum runners.
Vigil’s work ethic apparently developed early in life. He grew up poor, on the wrong side of the tracks in Alamosa, the youngest of three sons of a single-parent mom. Until she remarried, she struggled to put food on the table. Like most of his neighbors, Vigil worked the agricultural fields for $3/day. He learned service and leadership through Boy Scouts. Eventually he received a B.A. from Adams State, a Masters degree from Colorado College, and his PhD from the University of New Mexico.
Along the way, he pushed past plenty of obstacles. “It’s common to think Joe’s just this smart guy and amazing coach,” said Melgares. “But the truth is he faced many challenges — overcoming Hispanic prejudice to get coaching jobs, organizing the first Olympic Marathon Trials, setting up coach education — and he became remarkable by overcoming those challenges.”
Vigil began his high school coaching career as a football coach, but switched to track and field in the late 1950s. At Adams State, he famously passed out a 2 ½ page “Philosophical Dimensions” of running thesis to his teams. It included observations like: “Athletes don’t give up, they work harder and dig deeper.”
This wasn’t a one-sided rant, however. It ended: “Keep athletics in its place. Be a well-rounded, sensitive, literate human being. It is not the job of athletics to produce people who know or care for nothing but athletics. Keep it in its place — behind your family, your concern for the general life of the world, and your education.”
Chasing Excellence doesn’t pretend to be a training manual. Vigil took care of that business 25 years ago when he self-published Road To The Top, filled with enough tables, charts and graphs to satisfy any coach-techie. Road To The Top can be ordered direct from Vigil by sending $32.95 and your return address to:
Joe Vigil, 292 N. Cedar Crest Dr., Green Valley, AZ 85614.
Of course Chasing Excellence does contain many important coaching principles, plus a few key workouts. Vigil isn’t a big believer in variety. He chooses the sessions he finds most effective, and sticks with them. Every week tends to include fartlek or speed, hill repeats, mile repeats, and a long run. The intensity increases as his athletes peak for a major effort; so does the recovery.
Vigil doesn’t like tempo runs as much as many others. He thinks mile repeats get the job done better in no small part because they’re faster and tougher. His top runners complete as many as 6 x 1-mile in a session. Others settle for three or four repeats.
At the end of Chasing Excellence, a former assistant coach, Jay Birmingman, lists more than 100 affirmations he heard Vigil deliver to his team during a long-ago cross-country season. My favorite, instructive of the man:
“Work harder at the workout you don’t like. Work harder in the class you don’t like. Where do you find time to criticize, to judge others, to complain? You haven’t got the time.”
Vigil, conversely, has always had time for others, especially when it comes to sharing his knowledge of training and coaching. As Deena Kastor notes: “He has spent his life studying the physiology and psychology of the sport. Yet he shares what he knows the second he meets someone.”
Almost every page of Chasing Excellence is filled with stories reflecting this trait. Vigil gave fully and willingly. His runners returned his energy in multiples.
But the giving came first.