Former UI star distance runner has 'special connection' with marathon

Former UI star distance runner has 'special connection' with marathon

Craig Virgin ran 100 miles a week around Champaign and Urbana when he was a star distance runner at the University of Illinois, so he knows a bit about what marathoners will be going through Saturday when they traverse both towns during the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon.

Plenty, though, will be different for marathon runners than it was in Virgin's days. Some of what he knew as cornfields will now be populated streets with residents cheering on athletes from both sides.

"Things have developed a lot more than what they were 30 years ago or 40 years ago," Virgin said.

On Thursday, Virgin sat in a booth at the Illinois Marathon Health & Fitness Expo alongside copies of his biography — and his biographer, Randy Scharer of the Bloomington Pantagraph.

Virgin, a former cross-country and 10,000-meter world champion and veteran of four marathons, said he can easily see the appeal in running along the flat streets of what he calls his second home.

"You don't come to Champaign-Urbana for hills, and you don't run hills anyway if you're going to do 26.2 miles," he said.

Plenty of others also see the appeal. About 17,000 shirts awaited runners at Thursday's expo, which will extend into today, although only about 15,000 are expected to run.

After 11 years of making T-shirts for the event, though, Campus Ink owner Tom Coleman and his employees had no trouble shelling out shirts.

"So many of our volunteers come back year after year to help us," said Coleman, one of the owners of the marathon. "We've got it down to a really good art."

While plenty is old hat for marathon organizers, the race has evolved over the years. After the 2015 marathon was cut short because of thunderstorms in the area, the course designated shelters along the route, something unavailable for the runners four years ago.

While rain is in the forecast for Saturday, race co-director Jan Seeley is optimistic they won't have to use those shelters.

"People keep telling me the forecast for Saturday is perking up a little bit," she said. "It's a rain-or-shine event. If we can keep the thunderstorms away, that's the main thing. The cool weather will actually be good for the runners. It's not the best for the streetfest, but the runners will love it; our medical team will be dancing. We just have fewer issues when it's a cool day."

For Virgin, who will be back at his booth on Friday at the expo before speaking at the pasta dinner, the race is a special one, rain or shine.

"I have a special connection to this race, and I have a special connection to the school," Virgin said. "All in all, it's a total package, and I think that's why it's been so successful."

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