Illinois' Homegrown Champion

Gov. Pat Quinn was captain of the cross-country team at Fenwick High School in the 1960s, and since entering public life, he’s honored Illinois runners. As lieutenant governor, he held a ceremony for every Illinoisan who’d ever broken four minutes for the mile.

So the governor needs to do declare a day for Craig Virgin, who was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame this month. Virgin, who graduated from Lebanon High School and still lives in southwestern Illinois, is not only the greatest distance runner in the state’s history, he’s the greatest cross-country runner in American history. Most athletes’ achievements lose luster over the years, but Virgin’s have become more impressive, because no one has been able to match them.

In 1972, as a high-school senior, Virgin won the state boys’ cross-country championship by running 13:50 over the three-mile course at Peoria’s Detweiller Park. In 39 championships since, no one has broken his course record -- not even last year’s winner, Sandburg’s Lukas Verzbicas, who is one of only five high schoolers ever to run a four-minute mile.

Virgin fulfilled his promise by winning the NCAA Cross-Country Championship for the University of Illinois, and the World Cross-Country Championship in 1980 and 1981. He is the last American distance runner to win a world or Olympic title. Because Keynans and Ethiopians now dominate the sport, he may be the last who ever does.

Virgin is not well-remembered, because despite qualifying for three Olympic teams, he never won a medal. His best chance was in 1980, when he ran the second-fastest 10,000-meter time in history. But, of course, the U.S. boycotted that year’s Moscow Olympics. He also failed to win a major marathon, finishing second at Boston in 1981.

I had a chance to interview Virgin in 2004, while I was writing a story about John “The Penguin” Bingham, the guru of the slow-running movement. Though retired, Virgin’s intensity and competitiveness lit up my telephone, as he condemned “couch-to-marathon” programs that, in his words, “are just getting people fit enough to do the Bataan Death March.”

“If you want to slog through a marathon to say you did it once, fine,” he said. “But there are two forms of satisfaction in running. Number one is going a distance you’ve never gone before. The next logical goal should be ‘How much faster can I get?’. . . Just running the distance, hammering your legs four or five or six hours--if that’s your first marathon, that's OK, but if it’s your third or fourth that’s just stupid.”

Virgin also called the marathon “overrated,” and seemed peeved that more people asked him about his runner-up finish at Boston than his world cross-country championship.

Virgin was badly injured in an auto accident in 1997, and ruptured his right quadriceps during a fall on ice a few years later. After 15 surgeries, the most he can run is two miles. But he still works out at the gym five days a week.

“I’m no longer Craig Virgin the Olympian,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m Craig Virgin the middle-age everyman who wants to lose 10 pounds.”

But he’s still Illinois’s Homegrown Champion.

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