Jeff Benjamin did this review of the Virgin Territory, a book on Craig Virgin by Randy Sharer. Craig Virgin was a fine high school athlete, fine college athlete and fine elite athlete. Benjamin speaks about all of those areas discussed in Sharer’s book.
Book Review by Jeff Benjamin
This writer truly faced a perplexing challenge in writing this piece. When I joined my high school track team as a Sophomore back in 1981, my track coach Steve “Zac” Zacariello (who loves the sport and had a penchant of comparing us young runners with the great ones) took out this issue of the Runner Magazine below and claimed I reminded him of Craig Virgin!
Craig Virgin on The Runner magazine cover, June 1981
Then, one year later after the New York Road Runners Trevira Twosome 10-Mile Race in Central Park, my club coach Art Hall introduced me to Frank Shorter, race victor Matt Centrowitz and race announcer Craig Virgin, who was probably nursing one of his many injuries and did not compete. Virgin’s friendly encouragement and inclusiveness on that day and in several encounters throughout the years since have had a profound affect upon me.
That favoritism towards Virgin was what made this writer a little nervous about reviewing the new biography on Virgin’s life, “Virgin Territory”. But, I have found that author Randy Sharer and Virgin himself have assuaged those feelings for me and the readers, as this book about the life and career of one of the nation’s greatest distance runners is replete with not only positive praise of Virgin, but also his failures and others’ criticisms throughout the decades which are ALL included in this remarkable book which Sharer covers in all facets.
First the positives. Virgin, a young HS phenom out Lebanon, Illinois HS in the midwest of America (Who York High School’s Legendary XC Coach and Rival Joe Newton said was “the finest runner ever to have run.”) would achieve Legendary attention with mind & body-numbing performances, notably breaking the National HS 2-Mile Record held by Steve Prefontaine. At the University of Illinois, the 9-time All-American continued to excel, winning the NCAA XC and finishing 2nd in the 1976 Olympic Trials 10,000 meters behind Shorter.
But Virgin’s greatest fame would be at the World XC Championships, where he would be the first and last American to win the Championships against the best in the world –and Virgin did it twice!!
“It’s worth Olympic Gold Medal status in my mind,” says Bill Rodgers, a Bronze Medalist in the World XC meet in 1975 in the book. “but unfortunately it’s not known in America.”
That Olympic medal was something Virgin never got. Sadly, like others in their athletic prime, the 1980 Olympic team boycott destroyed Virgin’s shot at a Gold, Silver or Bronze. Virgin did make the 1976 and 1984 Olympic teams at 10,000, but was beset by either illness or injury during those star-crossed challenges.
What is astoundingly inspirational in this book is Virgin’s illnesses and injuries along with his unbelievable racing records. Imagine surviving near-death surgery as an infant, then battling all kinds of kidney issues along with running injuries, illnesses and still being alive today. Then, take into account Virgin’s competitive racing record, duly noted at the end of the book. The racing record of Virgin, beginning in August of 1969 and ending on February 2nd, 1991, consists of more than 50 races listed on each page over a total of 11 pages–someone else can do the math!!
Equally astounding are the high quality time performances, as, in his second-to-last race of his career, Virgin, at 35 years old and after all those illnesses, injuries and surgeries, could still crank out a 23:47 8K performance!! Add to that his 10 berths on the USA National XC team, along with a relentless training and work ethic, and Virgin’s concept of pain tolerance can, in my humble opinion, only be experienced by few human beings on the planet.
Add into this mix was that for the most part, at least by this writer’s interpretation, there was no periodization, long-term developmental plan, which was not unusual during this era of the Bill Rodger’s and Alberto Salazar’s of that first running boom. One interesting anecdote retold was when after winning his second World XC Championships in 1981, Virgin’s sponsor adidas wanted him to run the Boston Marathon against Rodgers and Japanese legend Toshihiko Seko. After all the racing Virgin did throughout 1980 and 1981, author Randy Sharer writes:
“To prepare for Boston’s Hills, Craig trained on a monster called Lindeman Hill in Kirkwood, Missouri, 10 days before the race. Three days later, he ran 18 miles faster than he ever had, averaging 5:16 a mile.”
Virgin would duke it out and beat Rodgers, but Seko would win in 2:09:26. Virgin would run 2:10:26 for 2nd place, at that time the 6th fastest marathon time by an American who had never (in my opinion) planned long term to run at Boston! Like Alberto Salazar at the 1982 Boston Marathon, Sharer quotes New Zealand Legend Rod Dixon and Virgin’s friend Brion Boeshans as saying that Boston also took something out of Virgin as well. “I still think to this day it might have done a little bit of damage to him,” said Dixon.
Just like in competition, Virgin was never fearful of confronting critics and detractors, and, along with Sharer, he gives his critics fair coverage in the book as well. From his stormy tenure at Athletics West, to his relationship with Indiana Coach Sam Bell, as well as written critiques of Virgin by Kenny Moore and Tom Derderian (All included verbatim in the book!), Virgin, as is his character, takes them all head-on, sometimes agreeing, disagreeing and regretting (but also at times having no doubts) that he lacked hindsight and even taking the blame at times, especially recalling an incident involving strawberries on a ferry trip with Athletics West teammates. Virgin, when dealing with the intertwining and hypocritical amateur system as it was falling apart in the early 80’s also went his own way in dealing with the governing hierarchy of The Athletics Congress, now USATF. Virgin also shows these qualities in addressing his failed marriages, friendships, and potential political career throughout the years as well. But, if Virgin does feel he is right or wrong about something, he’s not afraid to say it in the book, that’s for sure, even alluding to his possibly speeding in a car he crashed up severely in 1997 which almost cost him his life and led to many surgeries once again!
Sharer also with Virgin does have his supporters as well. Dixon, Rodgers, Nick Rose, George Malley, George Hirsch, Ollan Cassell, Matt Centrowitz and so many others from that bygone era of the first “Running Boom” get their say in too. What had always been a Sport with little financial help and support for athletes would by the 1980’s, begin to grow (albeit not so grand in my opinion!) into the rise of a professionalism not seen in running before.
It’s not that Craig Virgin was just a part of it like the others. But it’s the singleminded stubbornly tenacious, ferocious and longtime competitor who traveled from race to race over more than 15 years that one can say at the highest level, that he “Lived It”.
Hey Coach Zac! Notice the resemblance??
Craig Virgin and Runblogrun’s Jeff Benjamin taken in 2016 at York High School’s Salute to Legendary XC coach Joe Newton.
To contact Craig Virgin and to purchase a book please go to https://www.craigvirgin.com/
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