Triathlon veteran Mike Pigg coaches young triathletes Mary, Grace and Sarah Orders,
by KEITH EASTHOUSE
MIKE PIGG HAS ALWAYS been a full-throttle guy, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to hear that his transition from elite triathlete traveling the globe to family man and local real estate salesman has been, well, an adjustment.
"Ever since age 10 I've been doing something with all the sports," Pigg said the other day between bites of a beef burrito at Carmela's, a Mexican restaurant in Eureka. "And it's not just about sports but about being outside -- and movement, seeing new places. Boy, to stop that cold turkey and get domesticated in Humboldt County and get a real estate license and sit in an office -- it's a major culture shock. It's taken me two years to start to adapt to that."
Two years ago is when the Humboldt County native, after 17 years at or near the top of the triathlon world, finally stepped down from professional competition in the grueling, three-event (swimming, biking, running) sport. But his departure from it really began a few years before that, when he and his wife, Marci -- also a real estate agent -- became the proud parents of a set of twins, Triston and Chloe, now 6. [in photo below left with Mike Pigg] Fatherhood, needless to say, took time away from training (although Pigg insists not too much.) Then there was the foot injury that sidelined him for a full year, followed by a moderately successful comeback and, eventually, the realization that the end was looming.
"I won some races [after the injury] -- four or five. But I was barely keeping sponsors happy. Sponsorship was going backwards, kids were coming in. It was kind of natural. The tunnel was getting narrower and narrower. Time to get out."
Of course, this is Mike Pigg, probably the most fiercely competitive triathlete of all time, so retirement is a relative term. As if to prove it, Humboldt's most celebrated athlete stood up from the table and started walking around gingerly, stiff and sore from competing in the Boston Marathon a few days before. He'd never run in the storied competition -- one of those "granddaddy races," he called it -- and he covered the 26-mile distance in 3 hours, 5 minutes, 52 seconds. That was a good deal better than the 3 hours 46 minutes turned in by his running buddy Scott Pesch, co-owner of Jogg'n Shoppe, or the "DNF" (did not finish) result put up by the store's other owner, Mike Williams, who didn't get beyond the 15-mile mark. But it was nowhere near the winning time of 2 hours, 10 minutes, 37 seconds set by 27-year-old Kenyan Timothy Cherigat. Still, Pigg didn't do badly for a 40-year-old, especially considering that at the end the air temperature was 86 degrees.
His goal had been to do it in under three hours, so in that sense he fell a little short. But the real purpose was to give him something to train for. "He needs for his sanity to have an athletic goal. It's hard to stop being an athlete," his wife explained.
That's not to say Pigg is stuck in memories of his glory days. He's too practical for that, too in-the-moment, too self-effacing. When asked, he wasn't even sure where all the old photographs of him were, all the magazine cover stories. His wife had to root them out of a box in the attic of their spacious home on a hilltop at the south end of McKinleyville. "I don't even follow the sport anymore," Pigg said at Carmela's. "I look at what's in front of me. I don't dwell much in the past."
A big focus at the moment is the upcoming Humboldt Tri-Kids Triathlon, an annual event held at the beginning of summer at College of the Redwoods. Taking place this year on Saturday, June 19, it is open to children between the ages of 7 and 14. The kids in the 7-10 group swim 100 yards, bike three miles and run a half-mile. The older ones, those in the 11-14 age group, do double that: They swim 200 yards, bike six miles and run a mile.
Started in 1990 by local optometrist Loren Azevedo, it was never something Mike Pigg organized -- he was always too busy on the triathlon circuit for that. But he was usually on hand to cheer the kids. And he regularly donated the mountain of prizes he collected with his triumphs -- sunglasses, beanies, watches, racing jerseys and the like -- for the raffle drawing that is part of the event.
He's run out of all that stuff now, but according to race director Wendy Ewald, Pigg is still the source for the raffle prizes. "He contacts people in the sports world and drums it up," she said. Pigg, who since his retirement has served as race director along with Ewald, is also in charge of the "transition area" -- the place where the kids go to don helmets and climb onto their bikes after they get out of the pool, and where they deposit their bikes before embarking on the run.
To help the kids prepare, Pigg is holding a clinic at CR two weeks before the race, on June 6. "He goes over all the events and explains to the kids what's expected of them," Ewald said. He teaches them "tricks" to make the transitions smoother and faster, Ewald said, such as using elastic on running shoes instead of shoelaces, and setting up shirts and helmets ahead of time so they can be put on speedily.
Pigg also strives to ease whatever anxieties the kids -- and their parents -- might have, in part by emphasizing that participating, not winning, is the main thing. "He assures the kids that any way they get across the pool is fine -- a kickboard, whatever it takes," Ewald said. "He also explains that on the bike course in particular there will be lots of adults out there on the course to help anyone if they need it."
Pigg's goal is to have 200 kids compete this year -- the previous high was 154 -- and toward that end he has given talks at about ten local schools since February. He clearly relishes his involvement in the event. "Before, I would just show up and sign autographs. When I retired, I thought, `Hey I need to give back here.'" He said the race was a great opportunity for kids to "work out, set goals, win medals. It's a great confidence-builder."
Besides the kids' triathlon, Pigg is coaching kids a bit on the side. Among his pupils: Three sisters, Mary, 6, Sarah, 8, and Grace Orders, 11 [photo at right]. The eldest has met with a measure of success. She went to two regional triathlon competitions last year, in Boulder, Colo., and Phoenix, and won them both. She also competed in a national event held last year in the Sacramento area but didn't fare as well. "Sadly, she crashed her bike," said her mother, Ann Orders, vice-president for business development and strategic planning at St. Joseph Hospital. "She probably would have come in first or second."
Pigg is also working with a handful of adults, people in their 30s and 40s, improving their nutrition, teaching them "heart rate training," in which workouts of varying intensities are employed to maximize cardiovascular fitness.
But, as he put it, "coaching is a part-time thing." His main career focus is real estate, but, again, it's a suit that by his own admission doesn't quite fit right.
"It's a different competition," Pigg said. "You have to rely on other people's decisions." He paused, looking out the window of Carmela's at the passing traffic. "I'm in the world of personalities now. Before, when the gun went off, there were no personalities out there, just the best man crossing the line."
An unspectacular athlete
In his day, the best man was often Pigg. From 1985 to 2002, he competed in more than 200 triathlons -- he doesn't remember precisely how many -- and won more than 80 of them.
But what is perhaps more surprising is that someone who achieved such dominance -- few of his rivals had as high a winning percentage -- was an unspectacular athlete as a youngster.
He credits his father, former Arcata mayor Ervyl Pigg, with setting him on the path that would lead to athletic greatness. Mayor Pigg was instrumental in getting the Arcata Community Pool funded and built, and once the job was done and a swim team, the Mad River Swim Club, was formed, he persuaded his 10-year-old son to join up.
"I started going after school and I liked it," Pigg recalled. "And I think what I liked about it is we got to travel to places out of Humboldt County to go to meets. So I don't know if you're born with a desire to be an athlete or you just start something and you like it and go with it."
By the time he hit high school, Pigg was sold on sports, running cross country and track and field and earning a spot on the basketball squad. He was on the swim team his junior year, one of only two years during his four-year stint at Arcata High that there was a swim team. But he was no great shakes in the pool -- his times were second or third tier. And basketball also proved to be frustrating. "I worked hard, but I sat on the bench," Pigg said. [Photo above left: Mike Pigg running for Arcata high.]
He enjoyed more success in distance running, making the cross country varsity team his sophomore year, and achieving all-county honors when he was a senior. His first major victory came when he competed as a senior at the Humboldt-Del Norte County meet, a three-mile trek across the Baywood Golf Course. Running against some 50 racers, Pigg came in first by a 15-second margin. "There were two guys there that should have beat me that day," Pigg said with characteristic modesty. "That was a great race for me."
But it wasn't enough to get him an athletic scholarship -- he didn't do well in state meets. He ended up enrolling at CR, where he studied environmental engineering -- "not that I knew what it was," Pigg noted wryly.
Just as in high school, Pigg ran cross country and track and field at CR. He was one of the better runners, "but I wasn't a winner."
His breakthrough came, as breakthroughs often do, when he made what seemed like an innocuous decision: He decided to start biking from his home in Arcata to the CR campus. Two or three days a week he'd make the circuit, 17 miles one way, and while he no doubt enjoyed the ride, it wasn't scenery he was looking at. He was pushing himself, seeking to go faster and faster. His record time? Seventeen miles in 45 minutes, and that's including stoplights through Eureka.
He eventually started doing other rides in the area, climbing up to Kneeland, cycling to Westhaven and Trinidad, storming up hills, fighting headwinds. "I got really strong," Pigg said. "I became a great cyclist. I was an average athlete in running and swimming, but biomechanically, cycling was the one thing I excelled at."
"I had the right body for it," he explained. (Pigg today stands 5-10 and weighs in at 165.)
"After all those years of breathing hard and running trying to keep up with everyone," he went on, "here was something [that wasn't so hard] for me."
Then came another breakthrough, this one courtesy of television: He saw Dave Scott compete in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii. It was 1983 or 1984, and Pigg was enthralled as he watched Scott, the best in the sport at the time, and others do what seemed humanly impossible: swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26 miles, in succession. "I said, `I want to do that,'" Pigg recalled.
It was a turning point, not least because he was stalling out in school. "Engineering wasn't that exciting to me, and I still loved being outside. So I said, "Let's just take one year [and compete in triathlons] and see how I do."
Rising to the top
He did well, particularly at the 1985 Ironman in Hawaii, where he finished seventh -- far higher than he initially thought possible. "At first, my goal was just to finish [the Ironman]. Then it went to finishing in the top 100 after seeing how I did in other races. Then it was like being in the top 10."
His performance in that race and several others that first year earned him a $12,000 sponsorship from the National Triathlon Training Camp, designed to encourage promising young triathletes.
That may not sound like much, "But to a 21-year-old who'd never made money in his life in sport that was awesome. I used that money to pay for plane tickets to go to the next race."
Pigg now began his professional athletic career in earnest. He quit his job working at a liquor and grocery store in Eureka and threw himself into triathlon competitions full time. He was beginning to attract attention, and to some degree puzzlement. He had limited athletic abilities and yet he was rising through the ranks.
"He wasn't very good," said Marc Evans, a Bay Area endurance sports coach. "He wasn't a great swimmer or a great runner. But he was there in the hunt. You knew he was coming on."
What Evans and everyone else soon learned about Pigg is that he refused to be denied. They also learned that he could be both fiercely competitive and a nice guy at the same time. "The thing about Mike is that he had this drive and desire and friendliness about him that was extremely captivating. You could see that his work ethic would be harder than anyone else's."
In just a couple of years, according to Evans, Pigg "became an unbelievable cyclist and an awesome runner. He just launched himself to the top. I don't think he would disagree that his athletic skills weren't that great. It was his determination and great positive attitude that made him a success."
By 1987, Pigg landed on the cover of Triathlete magazine, which pegged him as the sport's next big star. By 1988, all doubts about whether or not he as the real McCoy were removed as Pigg had one of the best years any triathlete has ever had. In something akin to the year 2000, when Tiger Woods won three of four majors, or 1941, when Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, Pigg in 1988 won 15 of 20 triathlons and finished second in three others. One of those second-place finishes was at the Ironman in Hawaii, where Pigg, in a time of eight hours, 33 minutes, missed first place by a mere four minutes. He came in behind Scott Molina, at the time a member of the so-called "Big Four," a quartet of the most dominant triathletes of that era that included Dave Scott, Scott Tingley and Mark Allen, the man universally considered the greatest triathlete of all time. Pigg first beat Allen the previous year, in 1987, in the national championships at Hilton Head, N.C. It was a "short-course" race: A 1.5-kilometer (almost one-mile) swim, a 40-kilometer (24-mile) bike ride and a 10-kilometer (six-mile) run. "That's when Mike Pigg arrived," Pigg said.
For his achievements in 1988, Pigg was named Triathlete of the Year by Triathlete Magazine, an honor he would win again in 1991. The next year, 1989, he won an impressive 10 triathlons, but was hampered by a bad bout of food poisoning, so bad that he believes it had a lasting negative effect on his ability to perform in the Ironman. "I was having a hard time digesting carbs [carbohydrates]. That changed me. I went from getting second in the Ironman to barely being able to survive the race."
"I fell back more on the shorter races," he continued. "My body could still store enough energy for them [by resting between events]. But you need some extra energy to have a strong Ironman race."
Whether a bug was really the cause or not is open to debate. But the fact remains that his performance in the Ironman after 1988 fell off sharply -- second place was the best he ever got.
Bug or no bug, for the next several years he was a dominant force in the short course triathlons, known as Olympic Distance triathlons since 2000 when the race became an Olympic event. It was at this distance, and the slightly longer "half ironman" races, that Pigg excelled. In the late `80s and early `90s, Pigg won most of the major triathlon races, and multiple times. He triumphed in the Chicago Triathlon three times, the Escape from Alcatraz four times, the World Cup Australia four times, the Coke Grand Prix four times and, most notably, the National Champion of the U.S. Triathlon Series (USTS) four times.
Bob Babbitt, a leading triathlon authority, said that Pigg is "absolutely" one of the top five of all time in Olympic Distance triathlons. And while he acknowledged the significance of Pigg's USTS victories, he pointed out that that series doesn't exist anymore, while the ironmans, both in Hawaii and elsewhere, are going stronger than ever.
"In triathlon, there's only one question: whether you've won an ironman."
Babbitt said that when it came to the ironman distance, Pigg's greatest strength -- his all-out, go-for-broke style -- proved a liability. "Mike was not suited for the ironman because he was an aggressive type of racer."
If Pigg has remorse about never winning an ironman, he doesn't show it. But then it's easy to feel good about a career that has made you a lasting financial success. When asked how much he made over the course of his career, Pigg declined to reveal a figure, saying only, "Not enough to retire on." But he did disclose that when he was at his peak, he made "more than $200,000" in at least a couple of years. To some extent, the money was prize winnings, but mostly it came from sponsorships. In his day, Pigg's name was associated with leading gear and accessory manufacturers, including Saucony running shoes, Oakley sunglasses, Trek bicycles and Pioneer stereos.
[Photo above left: getting out of the water in a race in Thailand, heading toward the bike.]
After next month's kids triathlon at CR, Pigg plans to start training for a "24-hour adventure race" in Los Angeles in November that involves cycling, trail running, kayaking and navigating through wilderness, among other things. It's a team event that he's taking part in with three other locals, including Ann Orders of St. Joseph Hospital and Dan Johnson of Danco builders. He's the only elite athlete of the bunch, but it's clear Pigg is doing it more for fun -- and to have something to train for -- than anything else. Johnson, who admits to having a fierce competitive drive of his own when it comes to his business, said he's been amazed at Pigg's intensity in competition. "He's a frickin' animal. I don't know how else to put it," Johnson said.
Animal or not, Pigg is grateful things have gone so well for him. And while deep in his soul he probably wishes he could be 24 forever, he's mostly oriented toward the future these days, toward taking care of his family and his own physical and mental health. Acknowledging that he's a bit of a "purist," he eats organic foods whenever possible, doesn't smoke, avoids aspirin and other medications, and drinks alcohol only in moderation.
"I have a goal of living to 100," he said.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.