Wednesday, March 21
In a nice turn of events, we are able to announce today that Illinois distance running legend Craig Virgin will be at Distance Night this year. A two-time Olympian and World Cross Country champion, Virgin will be handing out awards and speaking with athletes throughout the night. Who wants to come race and then get their award from an Olympian?
For me, there have always been three defining forces in Illinois distance running: Joe Newton, Craig Virgin, and Dana Miroballi. All three found great success on the track, but it was their contributions at Detweiller Park in Peoria that everyone truly remembers. If Joe Newton is the godfather of team excellence in Illinois, then it is Virgin and Miroballi who really set the standards for individual excellence. Dana Miroballi from Wheeling is the only athlete - male or female - to win four consecutive state cross country titles. And Virgin...well, everyone knows about the state titles and the great track times, but his legacy is all about one number: 13:50.6.
The Illinois boys state cross country meet moved to Detweiller in 1971. Craig Virgin had placed sixth as a sophomore in 1970, running 13:06 for 2.75 (?) and finishing 27 seconds behind Lincoln-Way legend Dave Merrick (results here). But over the next year, the farm boy from Lebanon set his sights on bigger and better things. The match between Virgin and Detweiller was one made in heaven as he used the extra distance to pound the competition into submission. In that first year, he ran 13:59 and won by 30 seconds over Lee Erickson from Lincoln Way (results here).
That first state title, won in 13:59, had to be impressive. Virgin's drive and will to win were already legendary by then, I would assume. But we would be talking about Virgin as being among the Illinois greats if his legacy stopped there. Jorge Torres ran 14:00. Donald Sage ran 14:03. The greats from the 1970s ran right at that mark too: Tom Graves 13:56, Dave Walters 13:57, Jim Spivey 14:00. However, the seconds between 13:59 and 13:50.6 have proven to make all the difference (1972 results here). Those 8.4 seconds are all that separates Virgin from being among the greats. They are the fleeting bits of time that have always stood between Virgin and the rest of the pack in the land of imagination and myth.
I have been to every Illinois state final since 1980. It is always special when an athlete begins to gather the momentum to challenge the mark. The hype builds through the season and the whispers start to gather force: Will this be the year it goes down? I was sure in 2007 that Chris Derrick would be the man. He fell just short in 13:52. Then, in 2010, my sense of surety extended to Lukas Verzbicas - an athlete who broke the national indoor 5K record as a freshman (albeit at sophomore age). Verzbicas managed a 13:54 and blamed his near shortfall on a "divine wind" pushing him back in the last 400 meters.
In an age where so much has ostensibly gotten better for athletes - shoes, nutrition, training methodologies, racing opportunities, etc. - Virgin's 13:50.6 has managed to hold off the onslaught. It is a mark of pure myth. Many thousands have tried and none have conquered. When you look at the resumes of those who have "failed," the mark's transcendence is even more impressive. Spivey: 3-time Olympian. Derrick: four times in the Top 10 at NCAA Division I cross country, 4th at the Olympic trials in the 10K. Torres: NCAA Division I cross country champion, 10K Olympian, Verzbicas: 3:59.71 for the mile and a national record 8:29.46 for the two mile.
I have met Craig Virgin multiple times and always been impressed by two attributes within him. First, he is incredibly supportive of Illinois cross country, especially its top tier runners. Each year at Detweiller I see him welcome new members into the club of "ultra" elites. I have seen him take multiple young athletes under his wing and impart advice that only the truest of champions need to receive. The man has simply raced and succeeded at every level, and watching him pass that knowledge on to younger athletes has always been generous.
And second, I have always been struck by his pride in that mark. What drove a boy from a small town, who grew up on a farm and had virtually no resources to train with, to run that time? What clues can we find in his makeup? It has always struck me as a great American story. The man born to a small and humble life discovers that he has potential that will take him farther than anyone around him could imagine. There is a different kind of American ferocity in such work. The mark does not come from a suburb or a comfortable middle class home. Something in those 8 seconds comes from the place itself - Lebanon, farm country, land of humility, early mornings, and unnoticed and life-long hard work.
Virgin has finally released that story for all of us to read, and I encourage all cross country fans to give his new book Virgin Territory: The Story of Craig Virgin, America's Renaissance Runner a read. I recently ordered my copy for spring break reading and can't wait to see the back story to Illinois' most renowned runner.
Many thanks for Craig's appearance need to be extended to Palatine alum Patrick Carpenter, who put this all together. Patrick was a member of our 1980 Class 2A state runner-up cross country team, and he bleeds for the sport. He is our awards announcer at Distance Night and will work with Craig throughout the evening. Thanks for reading everyone! All I've got to say now is: Who's next? Let's go!