Born to Run

Long-distance running legend Joe Vigil followed a reclusive tribe of Mexican ultramarathoners into the Rocky Mountains hoping to find the secret of its success—and discovered a way of life.

May 2009

Excerpted from Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall, which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in May 2009.

Dr. Joe Vigil, a 65-year-old army of one, warmed his hands around his coffee as he waited for the first flashlight beams to come stabbing toward him through the woods. No other elite coach in the world was anywhere near Leadville's annual 100-mile ultramarathon, because no other elite coach could give a hoot what was going on at that giant outdoor insane asylum in the Rockies. What did that have to do with real running? With Olympic running? As a sport, most track coaches ranked ultras somewhere between competitive eating and recreational S&M. Super, Vigil thought, as he stomped his feet against the chill. Go ahead and sleep, and leave the freaks to me—because he knew the freaks were on to something.

The secret to Vigil's success was spelled out right in his name: No other coach was more vigilant about detecting the crucial little details that everyone else missed. He'd been that way his entire competitive life, ever since he was a puny Latino kid in Alamosa trying to play high school football in a conference that didn't have many Latinos, let alone puny ones. Joey Vigil couldn't outmuscle the meat slabs on the other side of the line, so he outscienced them; he studied the tricks of leverage, propulsion, and timing, figuring out ways to position his feet so he popped up from a crouch like a spring-loaded anvil. By the time he graduated from Adams State College, the puny Latino kid was a first-team All-Conference guard. He then turned to track and used that tireless bloodhound nose to become the greatest distance-running mind America has ever seen.

Besides his Ph.D. and two master's degrees, Vigil's pursuit of the lost art of distance running had taken him deep into the Russian outback, high into the mountains of Peru, and far across Kenya's Rift Valley highlands. He'd wanted to learn why Russian sprinters are forbidden to run a single step in training until they can jump off a 20-foot ladder in their bare feet; and how 60-year-old goatherders at Machu Picchu can possibly scale the Andes on a starvation diet of yogurt and herbs; and how Japanese runners trained by Suzuki-san and Koide-san could mysteriously alchemize slow walking into fast marathons. He'd tracked down the old masters and picked their brains, vacuuming up their secrets before they disappeared into the grave. His head was a Library of Congress of running lore, much of it vanished from every place on the planet except his memory.

His research paid off sensationally. Vigil took over the dying cross-country program at his alma mater and engineered the Adams State team into an absolute terror. By the time he was through, Adams State harriers had won 26 national titles in 33 years, including the most awe-inspiring show of strength ever displayed in a national championship race: In 1992, Vigil's runners took the first five places in the NCAA Division II championship meet, scoring the only shutout ever achieved at a national championship. Vigil also guided Pat Porter to eight U.S. cross-country titles (twice as many as Olympic marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter, Boulder's own running god, and four times as many as silver medalist Meb Keflezighi). Vigil was named college National Coach of the Year a record 14 times, and, in 1988, was appointed the distance coach for American runners heading to the Seoul Olympics.

It was his perseverance, his relentless itch for a little extra leverage against the Goliaths of the running world, that hauled old Joe Vigil out of his warm bed on that morning in August 1994, and made him the only elite coach in America shivering in a freezing forest outside a dying mining town at four a.m., waiting for a glimpse of seven men in dresses who might be the greatest ultra-runners of all time.

The men were the Tarahumara (pronounced Spanish-style by swallowing the "h": Tara-oo-mara), a near-mythical tribe of Stone Age super-athletes who live deep in Mexico's wild, impenetrable Barrancas del Cobre—the Copper Canyons. Legend had it that when it came to ultradistances, nothing could beat the Tarahumara runner—not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner. Very few outsiders have ever seen the Tarahumara in action, but amazing stories of their superhuman toughness and tranquility have drifted out of the canyons for centuries. One explorer swore he saw a Tarahumara catch a deer with his bare hands, chasing the bounding animal until it finally dropped dead from exhaustion, "its hoofs falling off." Another adventurer spent 10 hours climbing up and over a Copper Canyons mountain by mule; a Tarahumara runner made the same trip in 90 minutes.

Coach Vigil was a hard-data freak, but he loved the fact that ultrarunning had no science, no playbook, no training manual, no conventional wisdom. That kind of freewheeling self-invention is where big breakthroughs come from, as Vigil knew (and Columbus, the Beatles, and Bill Gates would happily agree). And only in ultrarunning could he be certain he wasn't being hoodwinked by a phony super-performance, like the "miraculous" endurance of Tour de France cyclists, or the gargantuan power of suddenly melon-headed home run hitters, or the blazing speed of female sprinters who win five medals in one Olympics before going to jail for lying to the feds about steroids. "Even the brightest smile," one observer would say of disgraced wonder-girl Marion Jones, "can hide a lie." So whose smile could you trust?