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Craig Virgin: Life in the fast lane

International running star succeeds by setting his own pace

With a running career that spans more than two decades and includes national and first-class ratings in cross-country, track and road racing, Craig Virgin moved ahead of the pack most of his life.

Virgin grew up near Lebanon, Illinois, 25 miles east of St. Louis, and still lives in the area today. With a father who farmed and a mother who taught school, activity and academics were emphasized equally within the household of six.

“Farming was very physical work; there wasn’t as much automation as there is now,” Craig remembered. “We raised crops and livestock, but my dad didn’t have a horse or a dog. He’d simply snap his fingers and tell me to go round up the cattle!”

Beyond farmwork and schoolwork, the other defining aspect of Craig’s childhood was a life threatening congenital urological disease discovered while he was in kindergarten. After years of monitoring, testing and antibiotics, Craig underwent successful surgery in eighth grade that finally corrected his kidney problems.

Craig Virgin, University of Illinois

“Looking back,” he said, “the physical challenges of working on the farm and the mental toughness that came from managing my childhood disease both contributed to helping me develop my running potential.”

Craig harbored early ambitions of playing professional baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals in spite of his illness. It wasn’t until his freshman year in high school that he discovered an unusual talent for running. Craig turned out for the cross country team the day after his 14th birthday. He not only outran the varsity team during tryouts, but lapped the team members for five days straight. On the sixth day, Craig woke up so sore he could barely move and decided to quit.

“I really wanted to play baseball, but the second baseman (also the team captain) was a senior, and I knew I’d wind up on the JV team at best,” Craig recalled “I figured I could either ride the bench during the varsity games that year, or I could go back to cross country.”

That’s exactly what Craig did. He encountered phenomenal success during the next four years, winning the “triple crown” of cross country with mile and two-mile titles by the time he was a junior. Craig won five state championships (two in cross country, three in track), and in 1972 he set a national two-mile record at 8:40.9 — besting the former time of Steve Prefontaine, one of his own personal running heroes. The record stood for 36 years.

Craig attended the University of Illinois after high school, earning a degree in radio and television in 1977 while participating on the school’s Division I cross country team. His accomplishments included nine Big Ten Conference championships, an NCAA cross country championship and several Olympic qualifications.

“One of my proudest achievements: my college cross country team ranked within the top five in the country by the time I graduated, and we only had one foreign athlete,” Craig said. “We were just a bunch of home-grown Midwestern guys. Some people think of track and cross country as individual sports, but they’re the most enjoyable when you can achieve success both as an individual and as a team. Some of my old teammates are still my closest friends today.”

And the hits just kept on coming. In 1979, Craig became the first American to break 28 minutes for 10 kilometers three times in the same year. He was a member of 10 U.S. World Cross Country teams, and the only American male to win the World Cross Country Championships, a feat he accomplished twice. Craig held the U.S. National Track and Field Championships meet record from 1979 until 2004, and the USA Olympic Trials 10,000-meter meet record for 24 years. He also racked up a second-place finish in the 1981 Boston Marathon.

Craig retired from running in 1992 to focus on public speaking and his role as president and founder of Front Runner, Inc., a sports marketing consulting company specializing in running and fitness promotions.

Craig’s achievements are undisputable on paper, but his personal definition of success is more practical and philosophical. 

“Certainly, one aspect of success is being gainfully employed and on a path where there’s a future and you’re making progress toward it,” he said. “The other component is happiness. Whether or not you like your work has such a profound effect on your self-esteem, but people who are unhappy may not feel strong enough to make a needed change. It takes courage to reinvent yourself. I’ve had to do it. Change is constant. You have to have a game plan, but also the courage and smarts to alter it mid-race, or even throw it out completely and innovate. I learned a lot of those lessons as a student-athlete, and many are still paying off for me now.”

Craig urges current and future student-athletes to work hard at both academics and athletic involvements.

“Good grades give you choices and options, but a combination of good grades and athletics will open even more doors,” he said. “The competition, the perseverance, the commitment you learn through athletics—these are character strengths that carry through the rest of your life, and ultimately allow you to be more successful.”

Biography

Craig Virgin
President and founder of Front Runner, Inc.

Hometown: Lebanon, Illinois

Current City: Lebanon, Illinois

Education: Bachelor’s degree in radio and television, University of Illinois, 1977

Sport: Cross country

Fun fact: He won 48 consecutive high school cross-country races, setting course records in 46 of them.

After the Game

We are proud of all our former student-athletes, and in recognition of their accomplishments after their playing days, we launched NCAA After the Game.  Our goal is simple: to celebrate the former student-athlete.

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