As a running coach, Mike Mittelstaedt never cared how good his athletes were.
He cared about how good they wanted to be.
“Mike wasn’t in (coaching) for the accolades, that his athletes did this or that,” Chuck Aragon, the former Los Lunas middle-distance star, Notre Dame All-American and the first New Mexican to run a sub-4-minute mile. “He was in it for the love of the sport.
“It seemed like anybody who really had a love of running and wanted to be better gravitated to Mike because they realized that what was going on there was special.”
Mittelstaedt, who worked with Olympic gold medalists and world-record holders but who coached New Mexico college, prep and pre-teen runners with equal devotion and enthusiasm, died on Tuesday in Albuquerque from complications of Parkinson’s disease and COVID-19. He was 78.
A native of Bloomington, Illinois, Mittelstaedt was an All-America middle-distance and cross-country runner at Illinois State. He first came to New Mexico to train in the late 1960s, served in the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam war and returned to Albuquerque after his discharge.
Aragon was 13 and running for the legendary Duke City Dashers when he first met Mittelstaedt, a Dashers middle-distance coach.
“My career goes back to the Duke City Dashers, and Mike coached me ever since then,” Aragon, a Billings, Montana, anesthesiologist, said in a phone interview. “I went off to college, came back to New Mexico and needed a coach, and here was Mike waiting to coach me as a pro.”
Mittelstaedt also encouraged and cultivated runners while coaching physical education at Kit Carson Elementary in the South Valley.
Jerry Arguijo, in a tribute to Mittelstaedt, writes that he was a third-grader when he and the coach first met.
“Mike was known as the crazy Gringo that would run down the ditch banks in his Marine boots alongside 10 little Mexican kids. Not sure why we were running, (but) Mike would just smile and say, ‘It’s good for you and it’s fun.'”
Arguijo went on to excel in track and cross country with the Dashers, at Rio Grande, at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, and in post-college competition.
After his work with the Dashers, Mittelstaedt founded the Nosotros Track Club in the late 1970s. Many young Albuquerque runners – among them Aragon, Simon Gutierrez, Mica Comstock, Andy Zimmer, Glenn Morgan – flourished under his guidance. University of New Mexico runners like Ibrahim Hussein and Kathy Pfiefer, who later became Aragon’s wife, joined as well.
In the 1980s, scores of world-class international runners came to Albuquerque to train at high altitude in temperate weather. Some of them already had heard about Mittelstaedt, having competed with Aragon in international competition. Others became acquainted after their arrival.
Gradually, the roster of Mittelstaedt coached runners became a who’s who of the sport.
Hussein, three-time winner of the Boston Marathon and twice an Olympian.
Peter Koech, a world-record holder and an Olympic silver medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Peter Rono, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist at 1,500 meters.
Falilat Ogunkoya, a silver medalist for Nigeria in the 4-by-400 meter relay.
Pat Porter, Aaron Ramirez and Shelly Steely, U.S. Olympians.
One of Mittelstaedt’s strengths, Aragon said, was his ability to coach runners at multiple distances – from quarter-milers to marathoners.
Exhibit A in that regard might have been the remarkable career of Gutierrez, an 11-time La Luz Trail Run winner and a three-time World Masters mountain running champion.
All of that, Gutierrez wrote in tribute, was achieved with Mittelstaedt providing guidance.
“My running career has spanned close to four decades now,” Gutierrez wrote. “This, all because Mike shared his love of the sport with me.”
Without question, Mittelstaedt was a master motivator as well as a teacher and tactician. But he motivated, his protégés say, with a fatherly hand.
“Mike is a selfless and generous soul who taught me many competitive and life lessons to include patience, control, discipline and leadership,” wrote Zimmer, like Comstock, Morgan and Gutierrez a former Del Norte star. “Mike always saw the best in his athletes and the best in people.
“Mike is a visionary.”
Mittelstaedt is survived by his wife, Angie; a son and a daughter from a previous marriage and two stepsons.