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The Big Fifth -- A Look Back at Mike Pigg in His Prime

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

We thought our readers would enjoy this look back at Mike Pigg by Scott Tinley, on the occasion of Mike's well-deserved induction into the USAT Hall of Fame. -- Ed 

MIKE PIGG TRAINED HARD. Where Molina did mega-miles and Dave Scott applied NorCal mystique and Mark Allen used a focused periodization, Pigg suffered. In the annals of raw, gut-level, in-your-face work, Pigg stands atop the pinnacle of journeyman efforts. 

Mike Pigg was not born with innate speed or flexibility or a superior cardiovascular system. He did not have the advantage of early coaching or the padding of wealth that eases the ride to the top. An adopted son who met his biological parents as an adult, his family offered an environment in which he could evolve as a person and as an athlete.           

He was born with the skill set of a two hundred pound 7-11 clerk but embraced the work ethic of a Pennsylvania coal miner. Pigg’s was not a Clip-Art career. His motivation was never forged of the tangible benefits that come with athletic success but from some deeper need to embrace the struggle. Mike Pigg is competition.           

A Constant Competitor

Each of Pigg’s peers have their favorite story, a personal anecdote of his sometimes quirky habits, nearly always the byproduct of his tacit commitment to training. Jimmy Riccetello will tell you about watching Mike work up a sweat just eating his dinner; little beads dripping off his forehead into the Gulliver-size bowel of spaghetti.  Ray Browning will talk about Pigg refusing to get out of the pool until he could swim 50 meters under water.  Greg Welch will try to explain how Mike turned a casual effort at home beer brewing into a serious competitive venture.         

Everything, it seemed, could be turned into a contest with Pigg.  We could be ordering coffee at the café and Mike would say, “Hey, let’s see who gets served first.”  Or maybe we went into the restroom to use the john and he might issue the challenge, “Ok, who can stand furthest away from the urinal and still keep it off the floor?”   

First to the top of the hill, first back to the car, first one to get his heart rate over 190.  Even the little things become fair game:  Who can spot  a snake on the trail?  Who can remember who finished in 5th place at the ’83 Ironman?  Who can keep his bike filthy for a month?  It never seemed to end.  And we all loved it because Mike made it fun.  He took the pain out of a lot of tough training days.

A Frustrated Warrior Fights Back

So it became the time when Mike Pigg was sidelined by a serious foot injury, one that just about ended his career. We were both in Pacific Grove, California for a neat little event and Mike was just out of  his second cast after having tried to come back too soon from the first operation he’d required to mend a broken foot.  It seemed strange to see Pigg at an event and not be racing.  He just didn’t seem comfortable hanging out in his sponsor’s booth, doing television commentary and making small talk with the newcomers. I felt bad for him, I really did.  You could see he was pained by the downtime, shackled by his inability to be what he was, a competitor. 

There is no worse form of emotional prison as that time in a person’s life when he or she cannot validate their existence by living the life they know to be their own. This was Pigg’s time. 

The night before the race he was thinking about getting some exercise.  He had already swum once and the ocean is always cold and dark around the Monterey Peninsula.  He was going out for a walk on the beach.  Would I like to join him?  A walk, for heaven’s sake?  A walk?  My mother doesn’t even walk yet. But this is all that Pigg could do right then and if this constitutes work well, so be it.  Sure, I wanted to go for a walk, just so long as nobody saw us.

We got down to the beach and Mike took off his shoes.  Feeling the cool sand under his mending foot, each grain kneading new life into a wheel that had several average lifetimes worn off of its tread, you could sense the life coming back into a frustrated warrior. The tranquil stroll up the beach became his 16x440 on the track, the slow walk back in deep sand, his 18 mile trail run.  I couldn’t help but admire his inner strength and courage and I couldn’t resist a timely challenge:  “First one to the lifeguard stand rules forever.”  He would do the same. And I wouldn’t accept him any other way.