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Chapter 13
He who loves his body more thandominion over the empirecan be given custody of the empire.

—LAO TZU, Tao Te ChingDR. JOE VIGIL, a sixty-five-year-old army of one, warmed his hands around his coffee as hewaited for the first flashlight beams to come stabbing toward him through the woods.

No other elite coach in the world was anywhere near Leadville, because no other elite coach couldgive a hoot what was going on at that giant outdoor insane asylum in the Rockies. Self-mutilators,mean mothermuckers or whatever they called themselves—what did they have to do with realrunning? With Olympic running? As a sport, most track coaches ranked ultras somewhere betweencompetitive eating and recreational S&M.

Super, Vigil thought, as he stomped his feet against the chill. Go ahead and sleep, and leave thefreaks to me—because he knew the freaks were onto something.

The secret to Vigil’s success was spelled out right in his name: no other coach was more vigilantabout detecting the crucial little details that everyone else missed. He’d been that way his entirecompetitive life, ever since he was a puny Latino kid trying to play high-school football in aconference that didn’t have many Latinos, let alone puny ones. Joey Vigil couldn’t outmuscle themeat slabs on the other side of the line, so he out-scienced 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 aspring-loaded anvil. By the time he graduated from college, the puny Latino kid was a first-teamAll-Conference guard. He then turned to track, and used that tireless bloodhound nose to becomethe 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 hadtaken him deep into the Russian outback, high into the mountains of Peru, and far across Kenya’sRift Valley highlands. He’d wanted to learn why Russian sprinters are forbidden to run a singlestep in training until they can jump off a twenty-foot ladder in their bare feet, and how sixty-yearoldgoatherds at Machu Picchu can possibly scale the Andes on a starvation diet of yogurt andherbs, and how Japanese runners trained by Suzuki-san and Koide-san could mysteriouslyalchemize slow walking into fast marathons. He’d tracked down the old masters and picked theirbrains, vacuuming up their secrets before they disappeared into the grave. His head was a Libraryof Congress of running lore, much of it vanished from every place on the planet except hismemory.

His research paid off sensationally. At his alma mater, Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado,Vigil took over the dying cross-country program and engineered it into an absolute terror. AdamsState harriers won twenty-six national titles in thirty-three years, including the most awe-inspiringshow of strength ever displayed in a national championship race: in 1992, Vigil’s runners took thefirst five places in the NCAA Division II Championship meet, scoring the only shutout everachieved at a national championship. Vigil also guided Pat Porter to eight U.S.A. Cross Countrytitles (twice as many as Olympic marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter, four times as many assilver medalist Meb Keflezighi), and was named College National Coach of the Year a recordfourteen times. In 1988, Vigil was appointed the distance coach for American runners heading tothe Seoul Olympics.

And that explained why, at that moment, old Joe Vigil was the only coach in America shivering ina freezing forest at four in the morning, waiting for a glimpse of a community-college scienceteacher and seven men in dresses. See, nothing about ultrarunning added up; and when Vigilcouldn’t do the math, he knew he was missing something big.

Take this equation: how come nearly all the women finish Leadville and fewer than half the mendo? Every year, more than 90 percent of the female runners come home with a buckle, while 50percent of the men come up with an excuse. Not even Ken Chlouber can explain the sky-highfemale finishing rate, but he can damn well exploit it: “All my pacers are women,” Chlouber says.

“They get the job done.”

Or try this word problem: subtract the Tarahumara from last year’s race, and what do you get?

Answer: a woman lunging for the tape.

In all the hubbub over the Tarahumara, few besides Vigil paid much attention to the remarkablefact that Christine Gibbons was just nosed out for third place. If Rick Fisher’s van had blown a fanbelt in Arizona, a woman would have been thirty-one seconds from winning the whole show.

How was that possible? No woman ranked among the top fifty in the world in the mile (the femaleworld record for the mile, 4:12, was achieved a century ago by men and rather routinely now byhigh school boys). A woman might sneak into the top twenty in a marathon (in 2003, PaulaRadcliffe’s world-best 2:15:25 was just ten minutes off Paul Tergat’s 2:04:55 men’s record). Butin ultras, women were taking home the hardware. Why, Vigil wondered, did the gap between maleand female champions get smaller as the race got longer— shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Ultrarunning seemed to be an alternative universe where none of planet Earth’s rules applied:

women were stronger than men; old men were stronger than youngsters; Stone Age guys in sandalswere stronger than everybody. And the mileage! The sheer stress on their legs was off the charts.

Running one hundred miles a week was supposed to be a straight shot to a stress injury, yet theultrafreaks were doing one hundred miles in a day. Some of them were doing double that everyweek in training and still not getting hurt. Was ultra-running self-selective, Vigil wondered—did itattract only runners with unbreakable bodies? Or had ultrarunners discovered the secret tomegamileage?

So Joe Vigil had hauled himself stiffly out of bed, tossed a thermos of coffee in his car, and driventhrough the night to watch the body geniuses do their thing. The best ultrarunners in the world, hesuspected, were on the verge of rediscovering secrets that the Tarahumara had never forgotten.

Vigil’s theory had brought him to the brink of a very important decision, one that would changehis life and, he hoped, millions of others. He just needed to see the Tarahumara in person to verifyone thing. It wasn’t their speed; he probably knew more about their legs than they did. What Vigilwas dying for was a look inside their heads.

Suddenly, he caught his breath. Something had just come floating out of the trees. Something thatlooked like ghosts … or magicians, appearing from a puff of smoke.

Right from the gun, Team Tarahumara caught everyone by surprise. Instead of hanging back asthey had the last two years, they surged in a pack, hopping up on the Sixth Street sidewalk to patteraround the crowd and take command of the front-running positions.

They were moving out fast—Much too fast, it seemed, thought Don Kardong, the 1976 Olympicmarathoner and veteran Runner’s World writer watching from the sidelines. Last year, Victorianohad shown shrewd restraint by steadily climbing along from last to first, gradually getting faster ashe got closer to the finish line. That’s how you run one hundred miles.

But Manuel Luna had spent a year reflecting on gringo-style racing, and he’d done a nice job ofbriefing his new teammates. The course is wide open under the streetlights, he told them, thensuddenly funnels onto a dark single-track trail as it enters the woods. If you’re not up front, you hita solid wall of bodies as runners pause to fumble with flashlights and then caterpillar along insingle file. Better to move out early and avoid the jam-up, Luna advised them, then ease back later.

Despite the dangerous pace, Johnny Sandoval of nearby Gypsum, Colorado, stuck tight withMartimano Cervantes and Juan Herrera. Let everyone go nuts over Ann and the Tarahumara, hethought, while I stealth myself to a trophy. After finishing ninth the previous year in 21:45,Sandoval had the best training year of his life. Quietly, he’d been coming to Leadville throughoutthe summer, running each segment of the course over and over until he’d memorized every twist,quirk, and creek crossing. A nineteen-hour run should win it, Sandoval figured, and he was readyto run one.

Ann Trason had expected to be in front, but an eight-minute mile right out of the box was just nuts.

So she contented herself with staying within sight of Team Tarahumara’s bobbing flashlights asthey entered the woods around Turquoise Lake, confident she’d reel them in soon enough. Thetrail ahead was dark and knotted with rocks and roots, and that played to one of Ann’s peculiarstrengths: she absolutel............
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