In 1993, running coach Joe Vigil set off on a quest. Vigil had been the track coach at Adams State University from 1965-1993, where he won 19 national championships in track and field, and cross-country. But American long-distance runners were in the midst of a long drought, and he wanted to know why. It had been over 20 years since America’s Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon gold medal with a time of 2:10:30. The timing of Shorter’s Gold Medal coincided with the dawn of Nike, which sparked a running revolution. Over 25 million Americans took up running in the 1970s.
But despite the growing popularity and improvements in training, nutrition, and shoes, marathon runners around the world hit a plateau. Their times stopped improving. Not only that, but American runners were also getting slower, not faster. They had failed to win a medal since Shorter’s gold—and even worse, there wasn’t a single 2:12 marathoner in the country.
So, in search of answers, Vigil attended one of the toughest races in the world—the Leadville Ultramarathon. The race is a 100-mile trail run through the Colorado Rockies. It’s cold. The air is thin. It’s such a grueling race that more than half the runners don’t even finish.
But Vigil wasn’t there to watch some world-renowned runner, who was decked out in the latest shoes and running gear. He was there to watch and study some unknown, middle-aged men in togas, wearing sandals and smoking tobacco at the starting line. These runners were Tarahumara. In the previous year, the unknown Tarahumara runners came out of nowhere to dominate the race, and Vigil came to study them and learn how. Now, in only their second year of running the race, Vigil watched these unknown runners once again dominate the field.
In the final 20 miles of the race, when all the other runners started to fade, the Tarahumara started to pick up their pace. How did they do it? Many onlookers admired their form. With their toes down and backs straight, they looked as if they were effortlessly gliding. But it their form wasn’t what was most remarkable; it was the huge smiles on their faces. Joe Vigil, America’s greatest running coach, couldn’t believe what he was seeing: “They ran with such a sense of joy!” It was in this moment that Vigil discovered their secret.
The Tarahumara are a little-known group of indigenous people from Mexico, who were popularized by Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run. In the book, McDougall recounts the story of Vigil’s discovery:
“Vigil had become convinced that the next leap forward in human endurance would come from a dimension he dreaded getting into—character. Not the ‘character’ other coaches were always rah-rah-rah-ing about; Vigil wasn’t talking about ‘grit’ or ‘hunger’ or ‘the size of the fight in the dog’. In fact, he meant the exact opposite. Vigil’s notion of character wasn’t toughness. It was compassion. Kindness. Love. That’s right—love. […] That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: They’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running.”
The more you learn about the Tarahumara, the more you understand that love isn’t just their secret to running; it’s their secret to their culture. The Tarahumara, who live in the most remote wilderness in North America—the Copper Canyons of Mexico—aren’t just the greatest runners but arguably the most healthy and peaceful people in the world.
The Problem with American Runners
The secret of the Tarahumara’s greatness was also Vigil’s answer to America’s running problem. Sports in America started to change drastically in the 1970s—and that included running. The growing consumerism of American culture is best exemplified by the rise of marketing in sports. Not only did athletic gear companies like Nike take off in the 1970s, but so did sports television. On September 7th, 1979, ESPN was launched to provide 24-hour sports coverage—further evidence of the growing market.
All this money and attention impacted athletes. Running in the 1970s started to become less about the joy of the activity, and more about other outcomes: trophies, shoe deals, fame, losing weight, and looking better. None of these things are bad reasons to run—or to play any sport—but they can distort and even destroy sports as a whole. They can suck the joy and love of sport out of an individual.
Today’s coaches—and even parents—often complain about the modern athlete’s lack of desire. Is it really any wonder why? Our joy and love for an activity fuels our passion and motivation. The Tarahumara’s love for the act of running, and their absence of other motivations, made them the world’s greatest runners.
So, as he watched the Tarahumara once again dominate the race, Coach Joe Vigil dedicated himself to testing his newest theory. He returned home and retired after 30 years of coaching at Adams State. Vigil went out and recruited Deena Kastor, who had a modest collegiate career at Arkansas. According to Kastor, Vigil’s formula for running “had absolutely nothing to do with running […] but personal relationships and showing integrity by giving back.”
In an interview with Women’s Running, Kastor said, “Coach Vigil never talked about talent or winning. He talked about character and attitude. He has this way of igniting a fire in people and allowing them to see more opportunity and possibility within themselves.” The old running coach’s newest training regime was more focused on character and spiritual training than athletic training.
Vigil’s newest theory and training methods would prove to be highly effective at achieving what, in his eyes, was just a byproduct of training. Deena Kastor started to break American records left and right, and finally, in 2004, she become the first American to win a medal in the Olympic marathon event in 20 years.
5 Ways to Tap into an Athlete’s Best
When you learn about the Tarahumara and Deena Kastor, it’s no surprise to then learn that two of the four core values which Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr built his team on are joy and compassion. Kerr shares this in his interview on the Way of Champions Podcast. It also came as no surprise to me when I interviewed mental performance coach Jerry Lynch, a friend and mentor to coaches like Steve Kerr, Phil Jackson (11 NBA Titles), and Anson Dorrance (22 NCAA National Championships). According to Jerry, what made these coaches great was joy and compassion.
Our sporting culture has become so outcome-and-results-driven; coaches and athletes are viewed as “weak” and “apathetic” if they prioritize compassion, empathy, and joy over trophies, medals, scholarships, and promotions.
Here’s how to set yourself and your athletes free from this toxic attitude:
3. Don’t talk about winning.
4. Stop wanting or expecting athletes to be miserable or angry after a loss.
5. Don’t worry about your athletes when they “don’t seem to want it that bad”; instead, worry about the environment you are creating.