“I can honestly tell you that running has totally changed my world.”
Northern New Mexico native Pablo Vigil has been called one of the greatest mountain runners in the world. After being naturally drawn to running as a child, Vigil ran competitively throughout high school and university and has now run thousands of races in his career as a professional athlete. The Colorado running hall-of-famer has competed against some of the world’s fastest runners across indoor and outdoor track, cross country, trail, mountain and snowshoe races alike. Vigil touts a world class resume, having been a member of the 1978 United States World Cross Country Championship team, the 1980 World Mountain Running Championship team, a three time U.S Olympic Marathon Trial competitor and a four time consecutive champion of the Sierre-Zinal 32k mountain race in Switzerland.
At 67, Vigil is a living testament to the physical and mental benefits of running, saying that his unwavering passion for the sport has changed his world for the better. His passion for running not only helps to foster a spiritual connection with his body and the earth around him, but also his greater purpose in promoting positivity and improving the planet for future generations, one step at a time.
We recently sat down with Pablo to learn about the ways in which running fosters his spiritual connection with the outdoors, the tug of war between personal power and positivity and how he continues to reinvent himself by giving back.
As a child you start having primary school races, middle school races and so on. That’s how I started, but running was also something I had a natural knack for and really loved to do inherently. In middle school they started having more formal races, 400 meters or 200 meters, and I was pretty good with very little effort. In high school I ran cross country in the fall and track in the spring. I got more involved in that and continued having success.
When I went to Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado I ran cross country, indoor track and outdoor track, but really my heart was into cross country running. I just felt more of a connection with the earth by doing trail races and mountain races. I was into being out there with nature, with the dirt, mud, the hills, rocks, the challenging terrain.
“The mountains are calling and I must go,” you know that famous quote by John Muir? I just felt this innate wanting to be more connected with nature and with a natural setting and environment as opposed to this artificial running surface. And of course there was no high tech shoes, drinks or apparel, it was all 100% cotton you know? We’re talking about back in the 60s, so a lot has happened from the evolution of running to the present. I just felt more comfortable and had more of a calling to go from flat to more challenging vertical and natural settings.
running was also something that I had a natural knack for and really loved to do inherently.
One of the worst things runners can do is run on nice even smooth surfaces all the time. You start spraining your ankles when you’re always running on smooth surfaces then all of a sudden jump to uneven surfaces and terrain.You gotta mix it up, otherwise you become too specialized. When you become too specialized you become a dinosaur. You gotta adapt and you gotta be flexible and morph. By running on uneven surfaces, rocks, different angles you toughen up your tendons, your joints. It helps your balance and lateral movement.
In terms of being a good mountain runner, you have to have a love for mountains and nature. It really helps to move to a place like Colorado where you have mountains and altitude. You have to be altitude trained. You have to be able to run over technical terrain, rocks, whatever it is, going up, but also down and dealing with the elements of horrible weather – rain, snow, and abrupt changes of temperature. You have to really immerse yourself in doing the 80-120 miles a week, intervals, hill repeats, long runs up in the mountains, anywhere from two to four hours a day.
You have to put in a heck of a lot of training. But ultimately it all depends on what level you want to rise or aspire to. It’s relative to what we are all trying to achieve you know?
most races I’ve participated in, I did not win. But, some of my greatest achievements have been in losses.
I’ve been running for 54 years and I’ve done probably collectively over a thousand races: cross country, indoor and outdoor track, road races, trail races, mountain races and snowshoe races. Initially, when I started running, there were no real accolades, there was no money to be made, there were no sponsors.
A race that I was very proud of was in university. I was the first American overall and I finished in third place. It was against a lot of the top runners from all over the world that were attending smaller universities in the United States.
Another of my proudest achievements is being the only male to have won the famous Sierre-Zinal race in Switzerland four consecutive times. For a while, I was the only person ever, but then Anna Pichrtová came by and ruined my record. I’m very happy that she was able to tie my four consecutive victories, being the first woman ever to have done that. Her record still stands.
I would probably say that most races I’ve participated in, I did not win. But, some of my greatest achievements have been in losses.
On Running Philosophy
I think most of the time running is a combination of a lot of things. It’s a combination of spirituality and therapy. When I run I map out things, I plan things, I reminisce about things in my past. I never run while listening to music. I never have, never will. But I do a lot of talking, a lot of philosophizing, I do a lot of music in my head. I remember a lot of things, I think about people in my life.
I think of my mother a lot. Greatest person in my life was my mother. I think of other great women in my life, my children and their friends, and those voices keep me going, you know? I talk to myself a lot, that’s what motivates me besides other people. There’s a lot of voices going on in my head when I run.
Also my voice is like “Pablo what the hell are you thinking? Don’t give up man, I know you feel like shit but keep it up. It ain’t over until it’s over.”
ONE OF THE HARDEST THINGS TO ACCEPT IS THE FACT THAT A LOT OF TIMES PEOPLE BELIEVE IN YOU MORE THAN YOU BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.
So much of what we are besides a physical body has to do with our emotions and thought processes; all this neuroplasticity going on in our brains and how we are able to deal with the stuff that’s coming at us. It’s kind of the way we perceive things and react to things and think.
As a runner, or even as a human being, one of the hardest things to accept is the fact that a lot of times people believe in you more than you believe in yourself. It’s a very abstract thing, but to believe in one’s self is one of the hardest things that I’ve struggled with. Dr. Hill, my coach from Adams State University, was the one person who really lit a fire under my ass and said, “Pablo, I see this talent in you and I believe you can do it, let me help coach you, as much as I believe in you, because you really have a talent and it’s not gonna be easy and it’s gonna be a lot of dedication, but you can do it.”
Once we see the power that we have in us it’s about how to control and manage it in a positive way, where we are sharing it and inspiring other people.
On Lifelong Learning
I retired as a primary school teacher almost 10 years ago at 58. I believe in education and reinvention so I kind of reinvented myself by promoting travel and nature and this conglomeration of all these things that I feel strongly about. Culture, languages, peace, understanding, music: that’s what I’ve gone out to try to promote around the world. A lot of people like what I’m about and they invite me as a guest speaker or to their running camps. I am sharing my passions and experiences with young people, which is what I really love to do.
I truly believe the young people are the future and we [as elders] need to do a better job of guiding them and helping them [by] using these experiences we have. Not that we really have any answers, but we have some great experience. I think being bluntly honest with young people and letting them benefit from our experience could help them. Help them be a better person, and build a better future for the world in terms of the environment, global connections and peace connections and promoting understanding between different cultures and different religions. I’m very lucky that I’m a retired teacher, yet I still work with some very cool young people that are doing amazing things.
There are different ways that you can be successful without going the traditional route of learning in a classroom.
I was one of those children that struggled a lot academically and with self-esteem. My parents really had no relationship, we were poor, we were Latinos, and because of everything I was very sensitive. I felt of the teachers I had growing up as a child, some were really cool, really nice. But a lot of them were just so lame and favored students of a different color from a higher socioeconomic class. Back in the 50s and 60s there was a lot of discrimination even in the schools. How could a teacher who is supposed to be for everyone still discriminate with the students, you know?
I think what really inspired me to become a teacher was that I’ve always felt myself to be a very curious person, but also a very unorthodox learner. There are a lot of people in the world that don’t learn in traditional ways and I felt that there are a lot of people like myself that need to understand there’s nothing weird about them, they are not alone. There are different ways that you can be successful without going the traditional route of learning in a classroom. We all learn at our own rate. Some of it will be kind of typical education and for other people the public school system may not be for them.
I’ve met some amazing people. Michael Jordan and his father, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsburg, and just a lot of people from all over the world. I tried to incorporate all of that into a primary school classroom. I think a lot of [my students] remember some of my stories and hopefully went on to be productive, cool people that found a passion. Maybe in writing, medicine, or being a great carpenter or car mechanic or farmer, because those people are just as important as doctors, lawyers and teachers.
On Self Care
I exercise. I take care of my body by simple measures. I’m very careful with my diet, I try to eat natural foods. I’m not a vegetarian and I’m not a vegan, I eat a lot of different foods in moderation.
I love spinach and I run four times a week, 30 minutes to an hour every time I run. In between, I go trekking and I play the hell out of my guitar every day. I try to stay active, I try to keep up with current events, reading and learning new things and trying to promote positivity and hang around positive people. I try to keep it simple, yet complex and challenging.
My outdoor voice is about inspiring the future and doing a better job of taking care of the planet.
On New Mexico
A big chunk of my childhood was in northern New Mexico. As a child I lived in a two-room adobe house in the mountains of the Mora Valley, with no running water, no plumbing, pretty much a single parent mother, and three other siblings. Very, very basic. A very hard life, but also kind of romantic.
My ancestors have been in New Mexico for hundreds of years. There’s this magical presence to northern New Mexico. I love the many cultures there: Native American culture, Spanish culture, the anglo culture, and others. Even the Sephardic Jewish culture is there in northern New Mexico. It really is the land of enchantment.
I love the spiritual connection with the land and the people and, of course, I love the mountains where I grew up. They’re not as high as mountains here in Colorado, but I love the combination of having desert, mountains, trees, arrojos and all that. It’s kind of where I feel the most comfortable. I guess I could say my spiritual home is northern New Mexico.
It’s good to have all kinds of friends from different backgrounds and different philosophies and perspectives. I think what’s important about that is it gives us different perspectives of life. It makes us appreciate other cultures, other viewpoints, and makes us more tolerant. We become more compassionate by understanding other people’s perspectives and their struggles.
People in this country can be very ignorant. They don’t really bother to travel, to extend themselves, and to learn a second language and so on. They need to get out there. But, there’s a lot of hope because I do see a lot of young people all over the world picking up a second language and being more open-minded. So I think things down the road will change for the better.
On Using His Outdoor Voice
My outdoor voice is very simple: it’s leading by example, walking the talk. Promoting positivity, promoting a positive synergy and just doing the best that I can, starting from within and then radiating out. Doing the best that I can to make the planet a better place.
My outdoor voice is about inspiring the future and doing a better job of taking care of the planet. I have three granddaughters and I certainly think about them and what kind of future will they inherit. Recently we’ve heard a lot about this Thunberg, a young, 16-year-old, Swedish girl and how much of an impact she’s having on the planet by holding people accountable. Kids are going to be faced with those kinds of problems and it’s a combination of a lot of themes but the gist of it is it starts with ourselves doing the best we can and fixing our problems and radiating from there and leaving the planet a better place than it was by working with the future and those young people globally.
It’s complicated but I believe that there’s a lot of hope and it’s not all gloom and doom.
For more on Pablo and his passion for running, you can keep up with him on Instagram @ligivpablo.