Shalane Flanagan, who stands at the top of American women’s distance running and whose only consistent challenger in recent years has been Kara Goucher, showed earlier this month that she is in full command of her powers by placing third at the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships in Portugal. Her bronze medal made her the highest U.S. finisher in this event since Deena Kastor took the silver in 2003. Generally considered the toughest distance championship on the planet–even more than any race at the Olympics, which do not include cross-country–it has been dominated so thoroughly over the years by Africans that even a top-ten finish is, in the eyes of most cognoscenti, worth a medal in any international track or road competition. Lynn Jennings’ three consecutive gold medals in the early 1990s, including her 1992 triumph in Boston’s Franklin Park, very near where Jennings grew up, makes her the only American woman to win more than once (Julie Brown earned gold in 1975). Realistically, the IAAF Worlds is to footracing what the Tour de France is to cycling.
On the men’s side, only one U.S. man has crossed the finish line first in the 39 years the World Championships have been staged. Craig Virgin did it twice, in 1980 and again in 1981.
Virgin is one of those runners who is seemingly regarded by today’s crop of runners and observers as an old-school master without ever being given proper due not only for his lustrous performances, but also for his versatility. His star was perhaps dimmed a bit through no fault of his own by the United States’ boycott of the Olympic Games in 1980, when Virgin was in his prime, but beyond that it almost seems as though Virgin was so consistently at or near the top that his achievements are almost taken for historical granted. When his government held him out of the Moscow Games, he was more than just a threat to medal, itself a status something few Americans have reached as the world’s talent pool has continued to grow implacably broader and deeper. Ten days before those Olympics kicked off, Virgin set his second American record in the 10,000 meters, becoming only the second man in history to dip under 27 minutes, 30 seconds.
There was little Virgin–who ran the fastest outdoor two miles by a high-school runner as a senior in Illinois, clocking 8:40.9 — could not and did not do at 10,000 meters and above, on any surface, anywhere. In addition to those two cross-country wins, he grabbed second at the 1981 Boston Marathon in one of his few forays at the distance. He outran potent international fields to win three of the most prestigious road races on U.S. soil–the Peachtree 10K, the Falmouth 7M, and the Bay to Breakers 12K–a total of six times. He made three Olympic teams (including the ill-fated 1980 squad), set seven national road and track records, and competed a phenomenal nine times at the World Cross-Country Championships. That he garnered nine NCAA All-America honors is almost an afterthought. In a four-day period in 1979, Virgin won the Penn Relays 10,000 meters, set an American record for ten miles with a 46:32, and won a 10K road race in St. Louis, very close to where he was raised.
Virgin never lost his passion for competing, with knee injuries plaguing him later in his career and a serious car crash derailing his masters career early on. The sport was nearly without him altogether, as a urological disorder that required surgery when he was an eighth-grader and cost him his right kidney in 1994 almost kept him from sports.
A fantastic and comprehensive 2010 interview of Virgin puts his candor, thoughtfulness, and love for the sport on display, and offers a thorough look at the runners of both his day and the present one. It shows that you can hang around this sport for a long time, doing it and reading about it and writing about it, without gaining close to a full appreciation for certain people who have shaped it at home and abroad. Craig remains involved in the sport as a founder of a sports marketing company and hopes to be a part of NBC’s broadcasting contingent at the Olympics in London next year.