This was originally posted on April 4, 2021. Today is the 41rst anniversary of the Craig Virgin’s second World Cross-Country Victory! This win was one of the most underappreciated victories by an American distance runner ever.
The Thrill and Agony of Victory!
Photo from Mark Shearman – The Runner Magazine
Jeff Benjamin sent us this piece on the 40th anniversary of the historic victory of Craig Virgin.
March 28th, 1981 – The 40th Anniversary Of Craig Virgin’s 2nd World Cross-Country Victory!
By Jeff Benjamin
As Craig Virgin toed the starting line at the Hypodrama de la Zarzuela in Madrid for the 1981 World Cross Country Championships, the defending Champion probably not only felt like a marked man but also that the chips had been stacked against him.
“It hadn’t rained for months in Madrid, but then it poured for eight hours the day before the race,” recalled the Mid-Western Running Legend 40 years later.
“It was also the largest field ever assembled (39 Countries!) and you had everyone there from milers to marathoners.”
“You knew you would be matching wits with the best runners bar none.”
The Ethiopians make their move! photo by World Athletics
Even the atmosphere that day verified Virgin’s assessments as for the first time 7 new teams would be competing, notably Kenya along with a premier team from Ethiopia, replete with stars and medalists from the previous Moscow Olympic Games in 1980 notably the Great Miruts Yifter AKA “Yifter The Shifter.” Virgin, like every American Olympian in 1980, was a victim of the U.S.-led boycott.
Compounding these factors was that the field would be competing at an altitude of 666 meters, and one could argue that the almost 12K distance run in laps around a horse racetrack with a hilly dirt track on the main lap along with 2 sets of log obstacles 27 inches high and one wondered just how dominant the Africans (who lived and trained at altitude) would benefit.
1981 World Cross Country Championships, 1. Craig Virgin, USA, 35:05, 2. Mohammed Kedir, ETH, 35:07, 3. Fernando Mamede, POR, 35:09, photo by World Athletics
Those questions would be answered as soon as the gun went off.
The field of 250 competitors was led through the first kilometer in 2:37, led by a group of about 20 runners with the Ethiopians in the mix. Although Americans Bill Donikowski and 1977 World Junior Winner Thom Hunt were leading team USA in that pack, Virgin seems content to hover behind New Zealand’s Rod Dixon.
“Everything was going perfectly,” said Virgin. “With Rod being 6’2″ he was towering above everyone and I used him as a beacon.”
“I was very aware of Craig Virgin as a college stand-out and 9 time NCAA All American and 2nd in the USA Olympic trials 1976,” recalled Dixon.
“I had raced Craig a few times on the European and Scandinavian Track circuit 1976-1977-1978-1979 and he was tough but let’s not also forget he was the defending World XC Champ!”
“Being the defending male champion brought with it both prestige and pressure,” said Virgin. “I got out in perfect position within the top 5 to 10 and I just stayed there throughout the race.”
“I wasn’t sure who would be the wild card.”
“I simply answered every move that was made while trying to stay positive and alert.”
Then, on the 4th of 5 laps suddenly 6 Ethiopian runners went to the front.
“None of us ever saw this kind of move before from a team,” said Virgin. “It was a big tactical move meant to intimidate.”
It was then that Virgin decided to join them! “I was the only other runner crazy enough to go in the middle with them,” said Virgin, with Portugal’s Fernando Mamede and Britain’s Julian Goater following behind them.
The Champion with his sister Vicki and the Restaurant host
The Ethiopian surge in the next to the last lap appeared devastating.
“I had no choice but to go with them,” said Virgin. “I sucked right up behind them but I was also thinking that these guys have more guts and bigger balls than I do!”
“Coming into the home stretch of the penultimate lap I conceded defeat and let them go,” said Virgin. “I could no longer maintain their pace and still hope to finish.”
But Virgin also sensed something was strangely awry for the Ethiopians.
“By the way, the Ethiopians started speeding up in the straight, I realized they thought it was the finish coming up,” Virgin told writer Cliff Temple in the 1981 Running Magazine.
1981 World Cross Country Championships, A Who’s-Who of Running Legends!
“If they didn’t, and they could have maintained that pace all the way to the end, about another 1 1/2 miles, then they could have it!”
The confused Ethiopians then jogged and a couple of them walked, thinking they had finished!
“Officials were waving their arms around,” said Virgin, noting that the language barrier between the officials and the Ethiopians played a factor as well.
“I also think their coaches and team managers who were political appointments were inexperienced too,” said Virgin, a point even made in recent times about top African teams not only in World Championships but the Olympic Games as well.
“It’s embarrassing to the Sport and to the Country.”
At the time, however, Virgin was not dwelling on those facts.
“I had to move NOW!”
As Temple wrote in his piece, “Virgin didn’t hesitate…He passed them all like a knife through butter!”
With Virgin, Portugal’s Fernando Mamede, and Brit Julian Goater surging, only Ethiopian Mohamed Kedir reacted, as the Moscow 10K Bronze Medalist came upon the trio and took the lead!
In 2020, Craig Virgin was inducted into the National High School Track & Field Hall of Fame!
Joining Virgin (Center) are
L-R, Walt Murphy, Jeff Benjamin, Niece Rachel Glodo, Daughter Annie Virgin-Meek (student Sister Vicki Virgin Glodo (who was at Madrid in 1980 cheering Craig on!)
Virgin bided his time, waiting to make his move.
With 400 meters to go, Virgin began to play those cards, picking them up. “Kedir’s big move was taking a toll.”
Then with 200 to go, “I found my last gear and just blasted by him…I wanted to destroy him mentally.”
But it wasn’t over. Like many great runners who throw in a final surge, Virgin was plagued by just how much energy he had used.
“I still had a way to go,” said Virgin. “There was the danger of tying up and I had to keep driving all the way.”
“I was a hurting buckaroo at the finish!”
That pain was indeed rewarded as Virgin retained his title, the only American Male to not only win a World XC title but to win TWO BACK TO BACK!
“I was absolutely wasted at the end but the searing physical pain was only temporary and most definitely worth it.”
“It took me about 10 seconds after the finish to realize I had won, and then I turned around to see the other finishers,” said a victorious Virgin, as the valiant Kedir finished 2nd with Mamede finishing in 3rd. The top 10 finishers were all within 21 seconds of Virgin.
“Craig’s second World XC championship in 1981 was masterful- he was always up with the leading group and I believe his 10k speed and endurance was the deciding factor and that was confirmed with his second place at Boston Marathon about a month after, incredible!” said Rod Dixon, who finished 11th.
Now, 4 decades later, the passionate American Running Legend is also most proud of the results not only by him but his USA team overall as well.
“Our team had 5 runners in the top 20,” said Virgin, paying praise to teammates Hunt (8th), Marc Nenow (17th), Donakowski (18th), and Bruce Bickford (19th). Team USA finished 2nd to the Ethiopians with Kenya 3rd in a prelude of things to come for the African nation.
“Any other year and we would have won the team championship,” said Virgin, also noting Keith Brantley’s Junior 3rd place finish which led his American squad to the championship trophy over the Soviet Union.
The U.S. women’s team, led by Jan Merrill (2nd) and Betty Springs (5th), Julie and sister Mary Shea (13th & 15th) led the team to a very strong performance, finishing 2nd to the Soviet women. The overall title was won by the legendary Grete Waitz of Norway.
Virgin’s other American teams finished in 2nd place 5 times, and third place twice.
“But,” said Virgin, “That 1981 team was something special that year!”
“We had every reason to celebrate!”
And celebrate they did, as the Americans went out to a Madrid restaurant, where they were saluted as Victors.
“The restaurant owner was pleased to have the whole US team contingent there along with one of the individual world champions,” recalled Virgin.
“He gave us all free champagne and strawberries for dessert!”
Adding the happy vibes was Virgin’s guest!
“The race was even more special that day because my sister Vicki who had been doing college student teaching in Bath, England that semester, had taken a ferry across the channel and backpacked to Madrid along with some of her student friends to cheer me on…I actually had my own cheerleading squad in the stadium!”
“The US team manager allowed her to attend several team meals since she went to all that expense & trouble.”
“She was with me and the US team at our post-race victory dinner…It was so special to have my sister there that year.”
“Having my youngest sister in attendance abroad made the whole event and the final winning outcome even more memorable!”
“I will forever be grateful for the whole experience!”
Here’s hoping another American shortly can have the same experiences!
Bell Lap – To learn more of the stellar career of one of America’s greatest distance runners check out Craig’s biography “Virgin Territory.”
The books can be purchased on the website www.CraigVirgin.com. There is also an option for hardcover or softcover along with a personalized autograph.
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