The day after the 2019 Illinois state cross country championship, I turned to the website of my former employer, the Daily Herald, to find a story by Michael Eaken of the record-setting run by a Hersey high school senior Josh Methner:
“Hersey senior Josh Methner ran to his second consecutive Class 3A title, running a time of 13:49.86 over 3 miles to set an IHSA state record at Detweiller Park in Peoria.
I was present the day in 1972 when Craig Virgin ran the course record that would last 47 years. As a high school sophomore standing on the sidelines with my Kaneland High School teammates, it was daunting to witness the soon-to-be-world class Virgin tear through the Detweiler Park course in Peoria, Illinois. How could anyone run that fast? My best times at fifteen years old were in the low 16:00 range.
It was not easy for a small school such as Kaneland to advance downstate in those days. I entered the cross country program at Kaneland as a freshman runner under coach Rich Born and assistant Larry Eddington in 1971. I ran varsity all season but dropped down to help win the sophomore conference title that year. The following year I was second man on the varsity squad that won the first-ever Little Seven conference title for the school. We ran in districts but did not advance.
That winter my father moved our family ten miles east to St. Charles. I led the team that next year to a district title and engaged in heady competition against runners in great programs from Elgin and Dekalb and Naperville in the Upstate Eight conference. Again our team did not advance through sectionals because we traveled east to compete in one of the toughest sectionals in the entire state.
Those were great experiences in both programs. In a result perhaps unique to my own running history, this year both Kaneland High School and St. Charles East won state titles in cross country. So I can share in the joy of those victories, having contributed leadership in the formative years of those programs.
I never got downstate in cross country but witness that record-setting victory by Craig Virgin was a formative experience all its own. A few years back, I reached out to Virgin to inquire whether he had ever considered doing a biography of his life and career. Indeed he was already working on a book about his life with a sportswriter named Randy Sharer, whose diligent research and documentary writing style provided a vivid portrait in the book Virgin Territory. It is a compelling read, a chronicle of the obstacles Virgin overcame in his career, and an honest one at that.
It was interesting in the wake of that contact to get to know Craig Virgin as a person outside his career as a runner. We had lunch together at a Panera in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to talk about running, public relations and life in general. I’d only met Virgin once or twice before, initially through acquaintance with a sports podiatrist, Dr. John Durkin. I also watched Craig run intervals on the indoor track at the East Bank Club in Chicago. Like a shark among goldfish, he was.
That was in 1983 or so. Craig was already a legend in Illinois running by then. As it turned out, his running career would wind down after the 1984 Olympics. He remains the only American to have won the world cross country championships. And he did it twice.
Craig was present downstate yesterday to witness the somewhat unexpected breaking of his course record in Peoria. It must have been wistful and perhaps shocking for him to watch. No one really anticipated that result.
Yet it must also be gratifying for Craig to know that something he’d done literally stood the test of time for so long. The runners who nearly broke his record or followed in his historic wake were the best Illinois had to offer. Many went on to become Olympians on their own. That was a status Craig Virgin achieved three times. Yet he was robbed of his best chance to medal in the 1980 Olympics for reasons that sound beyond ironic in the contest of recent history…”In 1980, the United States led a boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the late 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In total, 65 nations refused to participate in the games, whereas 80 countries sent athletes to compete.”
Of course the United States has now been meddling in the politics of Afghanistan for seventeen years. It is America’s longest war and largely the product of an unwitting devotion to ideology over basic awareness of the danger in this world.
It all demonstrates the hypocrisy of politics and the insanity of war. But through it all, some efforts stand pure and real. Craig Virgin’s race that day in 1972 was one of those events in life that I was grateful to have witnessed. There was nothing false or ironic about it. Just the reality of a well-trained athlete soaring across an autumn landscape dotted with fallen leaves. When he crossed the finish line, we not only cheered, some of us cried.
It was something to witness. It surely was.
But time marches on and this young man who set the new record is the product of a new generation of runners. It must have been something to watch. That should give us hope in a world where so much falseness and hypocrisy persists, and even presidents claim valor for things they did not do.
Here for posterity and a testament to things that are real is a listing of the top times in Illinois cross country history:
13:49.86, Josh Methner, Hersey, 2019 13:50.6, Craig Virgin, Lebanon, 1972 13:52, Chris Derrick, Naperville (Neuqua Valley), 2007-3A 13:54, Lukas Verzbicas, Orland Park (Sandburg), 2010 13:56.6, Tom Graves (Sr.), Orland Park (Sandburg), 1977 13:57.7, Dave Walters, New Lenox (Lincoln-Way), 1973 13:59.3, Craig Virgin, Lebanon, 1971 14:00.0, Jim Spivey, Bensenville (Fenton), 1977AA 14:00, Jorge Torres, Wheeling, 1998AA 14:00, Jon Davis, Fithian (Oakwood) [Coop], 2015-1A 14:02, Soren Knudsen, Minooka, 2016-3A 14:03, Donald Sage, Elmhurst (York), 1999AA 14:05, Jack Keelan, Chicago (St. Ignatius College Prep), 2012-3A 14:06.0, Bill Fritz, Glen Ellyn (Glenbard West), 1973 14:07, Evan Jager, Algonquin (Jacobs), 2006AA 14:07, Lukas Verzbicas, Orland Park (Sandburg), 2009-3A 14:08.0, Len Sitko, Niles (Notre Dame), 1986AA 14:08, Danny Kilrea, LaGrange (Lyons), 2016-3A