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It's going to be a busy week for Craig Virgin.

The Illinois track and cross-country icon — part of the first class for the school's athletic Hall of Fame — loves to talk about running.

He will have plenty of chances in the coming days. Virgin is the Guest Legend at this year's Illinois Marathon. As part of his duties, Virgin is giving the keynote address at Friday's Speaker Series. He will have a 20-minute talk at Friday's Pasta Feed. And he will co-host the Illinois Radio Group's prerace coverage.

"I'm both informational and entertainment," Virgin said.

"I'm really happy to be here."

Past speakers include Frank Shorter and Dick Beardsley. Big names in running to be sure.

But Virgin has a special connection to the community. And to the school.

He remembers competing at the Big Ten cross-country meet his freshman year. The event was held at the Orange and Blue Golf Courses in Savoy. With 5,000 in attendance.

"It was the biggest crowd they had ever had at a Big Ten cross-country meet," Virgin said.

He made it worth their while, winning the individual race.

The final event of Virgin's Illinois career, the 1977 NCAA outdoor meet, was held at Memorial Stadium.

Track and cross-country were big deals on the Illinois campus. That's what Virgin will tell the audience Friday.

"I want to try to help build it back up," Virgin said. "We have a rich history in track and cross-country at Illinois. We'll probably have more Hall of Famers than any other sport on campus."

One big difference between then and now: the number of home meets. The current team had two indoors and one outdoors.

"We had easily four home meets indoors and at least two or three outdoors," Virgin said. "We had the chance to build a relationship with the fan base at Illinois. You just have to have that contact. You can't fall in a love if you're not with somebody frequently. We were lucky that we had that opportunity."

A big fan

During Virgin's Illinois career, running for fun and fitness wasn't as popular as today.

"We were sort of a minority out there," he said.

The Illinois Marathon has been a hit. Among runners of all abilities.

"This is a testament to Jan Seeley and Mike Lindemann, about the vision they had," Virgin said. "They grew it and they nurtured it.

"They fill up as many hotel rooms for this weekend as they do for a football game."

Virgin first attended the race in 2018. He liked what he saw.

"I think it was a stroke of genius to finish inside Memorial Stadium," Virgin said.

Three of Virgin's four high school state championships were in the stadium. He ran four more years on the track while at Illinois. And ran seven more years after he graduated.

"I close my eyes and I can be in that stadium and I can see the stands full of people for the NCAA championships my senior year," Virgin said. "That was just a highlight for me to have the national collegiate championships on my home track.

"It's a homecoming in so many ways for me."

Worthy recipient

Virgin was in C-U recently for a track and field reunion. The new UI track will be named in honor of Virgin's former coach, Gary Wieneke.

"I have been encouraging that for some time now," Virgin said.

Wieneke took over as head track coach during Virgin's sophomore season.

In Wieneke's first year, the Illini edged favored Indiana for the Big Ten outdoor title.

"Everybody had to contribute," Virgin said.

One of Virgin's Illini teammates, Olympian Mike Durkin, "did the craziest double I've ever seen done in the Big Ten championship" in winning the 800 and steeplechase.

Other than the powerhouse fencing squad, it was the first Big Ten team title for Illinois in more than a decade.

"We celebrated all the way back from Iowa City," Virgin said.

Wieneke, who is recovering from a stroke while also battling cancer, has been selected for the school's athletic Hall of Fame. He will be inducted during a ceremony in September.

Virgin plans to be here. With a bunch of his track buddies.

"You will see a fantastic turnout from my teammates," Virgin said.

Just like they did for Virgin's induction in 2017. There were 20-plus Virgin supporters in the crowd. Football great Dick Butkus was impressed.

In the future, Virgin hopes to see former Illinois track coach Leo Johnson inducted. From 1938-65, Johnson led the Illini to three national titles and multiple Big Ten championships.

"I got to meet the man my senior year," Virgin said. "He told me stories. It was a wonderful experience."

Virgin, 63, married Karen Fox last July. She is a former Southern Illinois runner. Virgin's 18-year-old daughter Annie will be attending American University in the fall. Karen has a 22-year-old son Kevin.

Besides motivational speaking, Virgin is involved in sports marketing and does TV work.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.