By Christopher Cudworth
During the Sochi Winter Olympics, three-time Olympian American distance runner Craig Virgin was interviewed on NPR for his perspectives about the 1980 boycott of the Soviet Olympics by the United States. Virgin’s lucid, compelling observations about the futility of that boycott in terms of world politics has been validated by the political situation in Ukraine following the Winter Olympics. Russia’s move into Crimea has driven futile protests in the West. It was clear back in 1980 that the Olympics were a poor tool for nationalistic policies, and they remain so today.
Virgin’s lost opportunity to represent the United States at the peak of his athletic career had personal costs that continue to resonate today. The lost opportunity to earn an Olympic medal damages an athlete’s value as a personal brand on the marketing front. There were hundreds of other athletes who similarly lost that opportunity in the 1980 games. But none perhaps was a more solid hope than Craig Virgin, who 10 days before the Olympics ran the second fastest 10,000 meters of all time. He was primed and ready to race, the product of years of disciplined and productive training.
It didn’t all come easily for Virgin. At an early age it was discovered that he had a congenital urological problem that in later life would result in removal of a kidney. But Virgin was raised as a tough little farm kid in downstate Illinois. His work ethic was framed in isolation from distance runners in the Chicago area whose weekly competitions raised the competitive stakes in a hundred ways.
Yet it was farm boy Craig Virgin who in 1972 ran the time that still stands as the fastest-ever time recorded on the now-classic Peoria cross country course used for the state championships. There were no school divisions back then. Virgin put the hammer down with his iconic arm-pumping running style and made the most of his smallish frame to begin a legacy in American distance running unmatched by almost any other competitor.
“You could argue that Craig Virgin was one of the toughest competitors of all,” said a former rival Tom Burridge, an All-American distance runner from Kentucky, and former American Half Marathon record holder. “He wasn’t blessed with the perfect body for distance running, and he had to overcome those physical problems. He was the grittiest of runners.”
Such compliments are perhaps overdue in Virgin’s case. His appetite for competition saw him break therecords of Steve Prefontaine and many others. Then his career in college resulted in prodigious honors including national and Big 10 titles. After college he went on to become a top American road racer with victories in all the big-time races from Falmouth to Crescent City to Atlanta’s Peachtree races. Then Virgin went on to win two World Cross Country championships. No other American male before or since has won that title. Craig Virgin was a runner who competed with the world’s best and won.
When Virgin tried the marathon, he placed second at Boston to Toshihiko Seko who by one second broke the course record set by Boston Billy Rodgers.
The gravity of Pre
Some of the potential appreciation for Virgin’s accomplishments was lost in the shadows of Steve Prefontaine’s demise in a car accident in 1975. The echo of fame surrounding Pre’s death turned him into a legend. Even runners who surpassed Pre’s times or exceeded his accomplishments could not match his charm as a personality, the focus of no less than two Hollywood movies about the runner’s life.
Virgin gladly acknowledges the importance of Pre in American distance running as well icons such as Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and lesser known yet just as accomplished athletes such as Lynn Jennings. Virgin is in fact an avid historian for his sport. In conversation he readily relates enthusiasm for fellow competitors yet isn’t afraid to point out the vagaries of runners present and past, including himself.
Recently that perspective resulted in a social media dustup when his commentary about the apparently superhuman capabilities of distance runner Galen Rupp produced a lively discussion on Facebook. Virgin questioned whether Rupp should have been running a set of amazingly hard intervals immediately following a race. The workout consisted of several low-4:00 mile repeats, concluding with a mile run at 4:01 pace.
Here is what Virgin wrote on his Facebook page, which reaches more than 7000 followers. ”
“A week ago I put a post on my FB page (6000+ followers) that saluted Galen Rupp for his indoor AR 5000 race…. and saluted/congratulated him and his coach as best I could in so few words. Nearly 5500 people saw it. 36 hours ago I did the same thing again…. but this time I expressed astonishment/reservations… not about his 8:07 2-mile (which I think is totally conceivable after a 13:01 5K)… but that I found his 5 x 1600 workout just 15:00 after his AR race result to be a bit unbelievable (but not impossible!) especially when it ended in a 4:01…and I expressed concern over whether he was risking illness or injury (that might curtail either his season or career) by doing this…. and simply asked rhetorically what Galen was doing or taking to be able to “recover” so fast. As someone who designed my own training regiment…and reached high results in distance running as a result…from HS to int’l… I feel that I have the credentials to ask that question and not be criticized for “sour grapes.”
That Facebook posting produced thousands of responses. Some were in agreement with Virgin’s perspectives. Some were not. But given the fact that Craig Virgin’s 27:29 10K time is still not that far behind Galen Rupp’s 26:48 10,000 meters 30+ years after the fact, the man does know what it takes to train, and recover, in top level distance training. In fact his best time of 27:29 would have beaten both Mo Farah and Galen Rupp in the 2012 Olympics.
So it is a unique place in the sport of distance running that Craig Virgin occupies. His accomplishments speak for themselves. Yet his ability to elucidate with clarity such issues as Olympic perspectives and the intelligence of training regimens makes him a continually compelling figure in America sport.
As always, with the growing recognition of personal branding as a tool for success, it is interesting to consider the efforts of pioneers in the field, especially among people who broke ground in personal branding before the advent of digital age, and who are now active in the process of leveraging their brand through new and multiple channels.
The Craig Virgin brand
Even in absence of Olympic Gold, Craig Virgin’s accomplishments have earned him status as one of the greatest American distance runners. He was inducted into the National USA Track and Field Hall of Fame for his career-long success that included breaking Steve Prefontaine’s high school two-mile record (a record only recently broken) to setting an American record 27:29.16 10,000 meters. And if you need inspiration to never give up, watch this video of Virgin winning the first of two World Cross Country Championships.
Building on this foundation of success in running, Virgin converted his fame into a career as public speaker, TV commentator and media spokesperson. Minus the opportunity to win an Olympic medal, Craig Virgin had to work extra hard to leverage his name in the distance running world and beyond. He persisted in building a company around the brand name Front Runner, a move that did not directly leverage his name, a decision that Virgin now thinks might have been a better choice. Virgin also fought sniping from other runners who thought he was too self-promotional. All those were hurdles to overcome, but far from the first or last setback Craig Virgin would face in his life.
Craig Virgin is unique in that he achieved world-class status as a distance runner despite the congenital urological condition that nearly cost him his life as a young child. His somewhat isolated upbringing on the farm protected him from childhood diseases until he entered kindergarten. Then he was hit with a series of conditions that stressed his congenitally compromised urological system.
“I had to have a kidney removed in 1994 due to my lifelong urological condition,” Virgin relates. “Then in 1997 my vehicle was struck in a head-on collision with a wrong-way driver that nearly took my life. It took 10 surgeries and extensive physical therapy over a six-year period to get well again.”
In 2004 another freak accident ruptured his right quadriceps due to a fall on black ice outside his office one winter day. All that adversity hit a major PAUSE button on the personal branding program of Craig Virgin. While the initial accident was difficult to overcome, the slip on the ice is what actually stopped Virgin from his approach of pitching himself as a running icon. Given his inability to participate in races, some race directors did not see the value in bringing him on board for promotional purposes.
Yet Virgin is in good company in the pantheon of track and field athletes who have achieved glory yet come to view the meaning of their personal brand in a new way.
Two such examples are marathoner Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar, whose classic race in the Boston Marathon is chronicled in the inspirational book Duel In The Sun. The two runners are now forever paired because the race took so much out of them they never fully recovered as athletes. They have chosen to share their personal struggles and that has resulted in the ongoing effort to give back to the world and make it a better place.
Beardsley used his winnings from running to begin a career in farming, only to fall victim to a farm accident and a car accident that led to a pain pill addiction.
Alberto Salazar struggled to return to world class running form after the Boston race. After years of dark frustration stemming from physical issues, he learned that depression was actually hampering his ability to function.
Both runners moved through these challenges to success in personal branding. Beardsley is now a popular public speaker whose tale is one of triumph over adversity and addiction. Salazar found help in the prescription drug Prozac and is now one of the leading distance coaches in the world. His protégés have won the Olympic medals that evaded Salazar.
In these parallel examples of post-running change and ascendancy, Craig Virgin recognizes that personal brand is something more than what anyone does on the track, roads and cross country. It is in fact the entire journey that counts, a chronicle that may soon become a book about the life and times of Craig Virgin.
Telling the story
Author Randy Sharer, a longtime sports reporter for the Bloomington (IL) Pantagraph, has written a thoroughly researched book about the life and career of Craig Virgin.
The book is well-timed because Craig Virgin is now at the forefront of an international movement to heighten awareness of the sport of cross-country. He just returned from an international conference in Belgrade where Olympians such as Sebastian Coe discussed the role of cross-country in the current running boom. The idea of getting cross-country added to the Olympics has been discussed because of its appeal as a raw, pure sport. But in order for cross-country to be added, some other sport would have to go. That’s a long road to hoe. But Virgin as always is determined to promote the sport.
It all comes at a time when the sport of cross-country and distance running happen to be surging in popularity. Even at the middle school level in America, hundreds of kids turn out for meets where every effort is encouraged and cheered. Parents appreciate the low cost and high physical benefit of a sport that combats childhood obesity and promotes positive social interaction. Many meets are co-ed, and women’s cross country at the high school and college level has grown and continues to thrive.
Virgin is planning to produce a training guide aimed at helping runners in high school/college and older runners perform their best. He is also interested in writing a guide for older runners to help them achieve goals while avoiding injuries and other setbacks. With his success in track, road running and cross-country, Craig Virgin is uniquely qualified to provide advice and direction in training guides such as these.
Craig Virgin the brand
These days Virgin along with distance stars such as Bill Rodgers do work on behalf of major running events in race promotions. “When it comes to getting media coverage, it helps to be able to share more about a race than just the pre-race spaghetti dinner,” Virgin notes. “The major events have a lot to offer runners, and I enjoy representing these races and bringing more attention to the participants and athletes. Basically I help races get their money’s worth in terms of promotion, awareness and exposure for the sponsors, especially in advance of the race.”
Virgin also delivers motivational speeches about achievement and perseverance on the corporate circuit where he relates his training and racing to the disciplines necessary to succeed in business. Certainly the perseverance he’s shown through athletic achievement and personal challenges in both his medical history and accidents are examples of the type of grit appreciated in business.
In recent years Craig Virgin has been shifting his personal brand from the Front Runner moniker to a simpler, more direct focus, including CraigVirgin.com. As always, he’s using his leadership instincts and ability to move ahead. It should be an interesting journey from here on out, especially if he keeps using Facebook to question the vagaries of distance running in the amped-up, big-money era of high-stakes training and racing.