By Jack Rux
MCKINLEYVILLE -- You have to start somewhere on the road to becoming a triathlon champion, and for Mike Pigg that was the Arcata Community Pool.
He later started running competitively for the cross-country team at Arcata High. Still later while an engineering student at College of the Redwoods, he started riding a bike to and from school two or three times a week.
Ultimately, Pigg found his way to running triathlons -- endurance races featuring the three regimens of swimming, biking and running -- which turned out to be an almost perfect outlet for his high-energy personality.
Pigg's path led him to a 17-year career in which he became one of the two or three best triathletes of his era.
The Arcata native, now 37, called it a wrap on his triathlon career on Sept. 15 upon completing a race at Pacific Grove near Monterey.
"Mike, along with Mark Allen, was the most dominating male professional athlete up through the first 25 years of the sport," Inside Triathlon writer Timothy Carlson said.
From the late 1980s through the early '90s, "Pigg Power" generally reigned in the triathlon world.
"Mike put 'Pigg Power' on the discs of his bike, and everybody loved it. They shouted, 'Go Pigg Power!' " Carlson said.
What carried Pigg to greatness was "his ravenous appetite for hard work," Carlson said. "What he did so well was he related to the people. He did it like a blue-collar worker. He wasn't an elite athlete. He was the Arnold Palmer of the sport."
Palmer captured the hearts of American sportsmen in the 1960s and spawned legions of new golfers by the way he charged all out in his bid to win golf tournaments.
On perhaps a smaller scale, Pigg had a similar effect on triathlons.
Charging like Arnie
"Until Mike came along, there were four of us who were pretty much dominant," Allen said, alluding to himself, Dave Scott, Scott Tinley and Scott Molina. "We were all pretty fast but steady. Mike started a whole different evolution of the sport."
Pigg would attack all out, "red-lining," especially during the bicycling middle leg of triathlons, build up as big a lead as possible and then fight, as tenaciously as needed, to hold the lead through the run to the finish.
Biking, Pigg said, "was my silver bullet. ... The wider the road the more damage I could do."
Twice he was named Triathlete of the Year (1988 and 1991). He was the four-time National Champion of the U.S. Triathlon series, a two-time U.S. Pro champion.
The one thing he didn't win, however, was the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon World Championship, where his best finish was second in 1988.
Most of the other major races he won multiple times -- the Chicago Triathlon three times, Escape from Alcatraz four times, World Cup Australia five times, the Coke Grand Prix four times. He also was a 30-time winner of the U.S. triathlon series.
He also was a five-time Readers' Poll choice as Triathlete of the Year for Triathlete magazine.
Pigg's success was such at the pinnacle of the sport that it led to his being named the Athlete of the Century for Humboldt County by the Times-Standard in December 1999, topping the list of the top 100 local athletes of the century.
Humboldt a secret weapon
Throughout his career, Humboldt County remained Pigg's home and his base of operations, although for about a decade he trained for about three months each year during the summer in Boulder, Colo.
"It's a great place for a triathlete to train," Pigg said. "Clean air, not too many cars, a lot of hills, great running, and great for exploring. You can get off a main road and get on a fire road and check out a lookout.
"And I've had great community support," he added.
Inside Triathlon's Carlson goes further.
"Mike felt his main strength was his home court, all the hills there around Arcata, the beaches and the back roads," said Carlson, who has been reporting on the sport for several years. "For Mike, it was very much like Brer Rabbit's briar patch. He'd lure other triathletes to come there and train with him, and he had this unbelievable training regimen that would wear anybody else out."
Allen, who trained in Colorado many a summer with Pigg, said, "He was extremely competitive. Even in training, I felt I was in a competition. Training with some guys you could have a bad day. With Pigg there was never an option to have a bad day."
Trek-ing to an interview
Some of Pigg's friends threw him a retirement party about a week ago, honoring his career. And two of the most important people whom he forgot to thank, Pigg said, were his wife Marci's parents, Bud and Shirley McMahan. But his is not a rocking-chair retirement. Rockin' maybe, but not rockin' chair.
When the retiring champion showed up for his interview, he was wearing his bicycle-riding gear right down to his trademark Trek uniform.
Pigg celebrates his early days of retirement by going on a bike training run from his home in McKinleyville to Eureka.
"I'm in training for another race," Pigg explained. "I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone."
It's a 24-hour "adventure run" at Malibu on Nov. 16, he said. "It's three-person teams. You race together all the time -- kayak, bike, run and rappel. You're only as good as your third person. I like it because you have to take care of each other."
And when the interview was done, Pigg was happily ready to continue training on his special, 19-pound, carbon-fiber bike. Only he was delayed by something that you could bank on never happening to him during a triathlon.
His bike had a flat tire.
"It'll be about 5 minutes, maybe 10," he told a photographer.
Details and determination
Pigg lost track of the number of triathlons he ran. But he estimates there have been somewhere between 200 and 225, and he has won 85.
He got this kind of outstanding winning percentage, not by talent as much as by attention to detail, Pigg said.
"I took pride in how I prepared," Pigg said. "I took the position I trained too long and worked too hard to let an old tire, a weak spoke, or that you don't know your course to beat you.
"I always wanted to show up early and check out a course."
About the only thing he couldn't prepare for was the weather, he said.
"You never know about the weather, you just have to race through it," Pigg said.
Some of the top competitors in triathlons had the talent to overcome all kinds of adversity, Pigg said, but for him, it all had to fit.
You only got paid the good money to win, and that's what he did a good part of the time.
Allen, whom Pigg has called "the best of the best," can vouch for Pigg's tenacity.
"He just had a very strong work ethic," Allen said. "He wasn't as talented as some of the other guys, but he worked harder. ... When he was having a great race, he was about impossible to beat."
Pigg, Arcata High Class of '82, left college after a couple of years at College of the Redwoods and having discovered triathlons.
"The first time I got serious about (triathlons) was training for the Hawaiian Ironman in 1985," Pigg recalled. "At the time, I was 21. I did stop going to school, and I did train full time to give the Ironman my best effort. But at same time I also wanted to find out what I wanted to do in school.
"As it turned out, I didn't have to worry about that."
Pigg started doing well at the sport right away and began "making money." In 1986 he picked up a couple of sponsors, in 1987 he picked up some more, and "it got real exciting."
Then in 1988 he burst to the top of the sport.
"It just started snowballing, and I made a great career off it."
In 1988 Pigg came his closest to a triumph in the Ironman, taking second. It's the Daytona 500 of triathlons. Run each October on Hawaii, the big island, out of Kailua-Kona, it is perhaps the most grueling -- a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike race and a full 26.2-mile marathon.
"In three years' time, I got Triathlete of the Year for the first time in 1988," Pigg recalled, and a second Triathlete of the Year honor was earned in 1991.
Being one of the best for several years led to some of the best sponsorships. But being one of the best is not all that is required to get the financial support needed to be successful and make a decent living in the sport.
Think of any bona fide jerk who may be playing one of the major team sports, and that kind of personality would not get to first base in triathlon sponsorships.
Pigg is a nice guy.
"I was lucky I learned a good lesson real early in my career," Pigg said. "There was this guy named Dave Scott, who was already a legend in the sport and still is. He was from Davis, and I asked Dave if I could come down to train with him for three days.
"I was struck by his generosity, that he let this unknown guy at age 21 train with him."
Pigg vowed he would try to emulate that philosophy in his career.
But that being said, Pigg is a super competitor.
It comes out in just asking what his height and weight was when he was running cross country in high school and later as a top triathlete.
"They were both were about 5-10, 160. That's my fighting weight," Pigg said.
The boxing, fighting analogy holds in triathlons, he said.
"Everyone is your enemy. Only one person gets a check," Pigg said.
At another point in the interview he added: "I love to race, but I love racing for money more. It's like playing cards. If you're playing for pennies and quarters, it makes it more interesting than if you're just playing for tokens."
Those close to the sport estimate Pigg made more money at it than anybody, ranging from $200,000 to $300,000 a year.
Some of the bulldog battles he won are among the most memorable in the sport's history.
One came in the 1988 U.S. Triathlon at Hilton Head, S.C.
"He had about a minute-and-a-half lead after the bike," Allen recalled. "I kept closing, and the last part of the race is through the golf course, and I made up a ton of ground there."
Then in the sprint to the finish on a hard road, Allen got within "a couple of yards." But Pigg somehow found some extra energy and fought off Allen for the win.
"He practically collapsed at the finish line," Allen recalled, "and I remember I got a little satisfaction in that. I was thinking, 'At least, while I didn't win, I made him suffer.' "
Bad food and romance
Eating a bad hamburger in Texas led to a big blessing in Pigg's life, meeting his future wife, Marci McMahan, because the resulting stomach ailment forced him to cut back on his training regimen for several months.
"I certainly had to get sick in order to slow down a little in order to meet my wife," Pigg said.
His sister, Michelle, fixed him up with a blind date with Marci, who graduated from Arcata High four years before him.
They married in December 1990 and for several years he had a partner in his travels. Then four years ago, she delivered twins -- Triston and Chloe, and "it was a blessing," Pigg said.
His role in raising them played a big part in his decision to retire, Pigg said.
One of the memories from Pigg's career was racing against Lance Armstrong when the future Tour de France champion was 16 or 17.
"He could have been great in triathlons, but I think he figured it out pretty quick that he couldn't get a gold medal in triathlons and there was more money in cycling," Pigg said. "He made a good decision. Instead of making $500,000 a year, he was making $5 million-$10 million a year."
The dedication to be a champion is the same in both sports, though.
"You have to give up your whole life if you want to be No. 1," Pigg said. "Sure, you can go out to dinner ..." but weekends off are out.
"You swim, bike and run and sleep, and if you're smart, get a massage," Pigg added.
Now Pigg will continue to concentrate on growing the 3-year-old energy bar company of which he is co-owner, Maximum Aerobic Function Group. Phil's Bars and Alma Bars are two of the main products, and they are in many local outlets.
"I recommend sitting and eating a healthy meal whenever possible," Pigg said. But he added that there are times before or during a training run when an athlete needs "nutrition in a small, handy package."
Looking back on his career, Pigg is left with "a very satisfied feeling."
"My mission was to make a living, have some fun and see the world," Pigg said. "Going back and looking through the photo albums and all the places you've been, it's been a delightful trip.
"Granted I worked hard for it, but it was fun."