Going the distance

Going the distance

Craig Virgin, the most successful distance runner to run for the University of Illinois and a world-class competitor after college, will be a special guest at the 2019 Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon.

For Virgin, the weekend will be like a homecoming.

Being in Memorial Stadium will bring back special memories for him. That’s where he ran three out of four of his high school state track meets, and it was his home track when he ran for the UI track team.

“I can jog around the football field and close my eyes and still hear the crowd screaming and hear the cheers and hear the announcements,” Virgin said.

He’ll be at the marathon expo during race weekend, April 25-27, and he’ll speak as part of the marathon’s Speaker Series and at the pasta feed. Virgin will talk about his years of competitive running, as well as the adversity he overcame in order to run at an elite level. He’ll also co-host the Illini Radio Group pre-race broadcast on race day.

Blog PhotoVirgin ran for the UI from 1973 to 1977. The Lebanon, Ill., native won nine Big Ten championship track races and the 1975 NCAA cross-country championship, and he qualified for the U.S. Olympic track and field team in the 10,000-meter event in 1976, 1980 and 1984. He was part of the inaugural class of the Illinois Athletic Hall of Fame in 2017.

“Craig Virgin had style -- he was a charismatic figure while running for Illinois -- and substance,” said David Woods, a sports reporter for the Indianapolis Star who wrote about Virgin while a sports reporter at The News-Gazette.

Virgin didn’t start running competitively until he was in high school, after overcoming life-threatening health issues. He was diagnosed with congenital urological disease at age 5. He had two reconstructive surgeries, and the second surgery, when he was in the eighth grade, was successful and saved his kidneys.

His high school 2-mile record of 8:40.9 broke Steve Prefontaine’s national high school track record at the time and is still the second-fastest time run at a high school meet. He still holds the 3-mile Illinois high school cross-country state championship record of 13:50.6.

Virgin was a nine-time NCAA All-American. His favorite memories from his time as an Illini include his wins at two races held on the UI campus: the Big Ten Conference championship cross-country race as a freshman and his third consecutive cross-country regional title as a senior, when the team also won the regional title.

“Every university has a No. 3 sport after basketball and football. It could be wrestling in Iowa or hockey in Wisconsin or golf or baseball at a southern school. Track and field became that No. 3 sport during my four years here, in terms of media coverage and in terms of fan interest and attendance,” Virgin said. “It was such a special time for U of I track and cross-country.”

Blog PhotoHis talent helped the UI become a national player in track and field, said Loren Tate, who was the sports editor at The News-Gazette when the paper was covering Virgin’s years at the UI. Virgin helped the UI gain the recognition it needed to acquire the 1977 and 1979 NCAA track and field championships, held at Memorial Stadium -- the only NCAA outdoor track and field championships held at the UI.

“Virgin was intelligent strategically and unbending in head-to-head competition, though most of his successes were accomplished by a good margin,” Tate said. “He was a fierce competitor with incredible durability over long distances.”

In spite of his achievements, Virgin is one of the most underrated runners in U.S. history, Woods said. One reason for this, he believes, is that Virgin never won an Olympic medal.

Virgin had the fastest 10,000-meter time in the world in 1980 but was unable to compete at the Olympic Games that year because of the U.S. boycott. He is the only American man to win the World Cross Country Championships, winning in 1980 and 1981. Another factor is that Virgin won one NCAA championship, in cross-country in 1975. But he was the top American finisher in eight NCAA races, losing to older foreign runners, Woods said.

“If Virgin were an eight-time NCAA champion, his resume would look different. Ultimately, competing against international runners helped his career, but not his trophy case,” Woods said.

He was third in the NCAA cross-country championship in his senior year, finishing behind two Kenyans who would set world records in the 10K. Virgin was ill during the 1977 NCAA track meet hosted at Illinois, Woods said, but he finished second in the 10,000 meters and fourth in the 5,000 meters, helping Illinois to a seventh place team finish, its highest finish since 1958.

“He almost always rose to the occasion,” Woods said.

Virgin said working on his family’s farm as a youngster, as well as enduring painful treatment for his urological disease, helped him develop physical and mental toughness.

“Adversity is just part of the fabric of sport and the fabric of life,” Virgin said. “The lessons of competition about overcoming adversity and doing more with less and performing on a given day -- all these are lessons that athletics teaches you that will be useful later on, in the workforce or as a parent or a spouse. Even as adults taking up running later in life, it makes it easier to tackle those challenges.”

More recent urological issues resulted in the removal of a kidney. Virgin has also survived two serious car wrecks that required long periods of rehabilitation.

He hopes to run the 5K race on marathon weekend with UI athletic director Josh Whitman and again run through Memorial Stadium.

“I think it gives a special ambience to the Illinois marathon and half marathon and 5K and 10K, finishing on the 50-yard line,¨ Virgin said. “I hope for the people that run this spring that it will be a special place too.”

 

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.

 

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