Craig Virgin Recalls His Epic Victory at the World Cross Country Championships, 40 Years Later

Interview by Jonathan Gault
March 9, 2020

The day before the 1980 World Cross Country Championships, Craig Virgin went to study the course at Paris’ Longchamp Racecourse. He noticed the venue’s thick, energy-sapping grass, designed for thoroughbreds, not humans, and realized he would have to run on the worn section a few feet off the rail, where the grass was beaten down. He studied the barriers he would have to hurdle — three on each of five 2,450-meter loops, initially set at the steeplechase height of three feet but lowered to two after concerns that, with the runners unable to generate as much energy jumping from long grass, massive pileups would ensue.

More than anything, Virgin, then 24, studied the finish. After taking sixth in his World XC debut in 1978 and 13th (despite a fall) in 1979, Virgin had his sights set on a podium finish in 1980. And to do that, he needed to have the final half mile down cold.

“After seven miles of racing, you’re pretty much on fumes,” Virgin says. “And your brain is not functioning too well. You need to be on autopilot or instinct or just memory.”

What Virgin noticed, as he jogged along the final half mile: the final straightaway was long. It reminded him of the finish at his home course at the University of Illinois, and Virgin knew, from running that course over and over, that it would be vital to measure his effort correctly at the end of the race. He also knew there would be tens of thousands of fans at Longchamp the next day. So he searched for landmarks — any sort of pole or tall object, easily seen in a crowd — just in case he found himself in a battle for the medals and had to know when to kick.

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He found one 800 meters out. That would be gear change #1. He found another 400 yards out. Gear change #2.

“If it’s really a tough race, you’ve gotta have two gear changes,” Virgin says.

Virgin identified one final landmark, roughly 180 meters from the finish line. If he had anything left, that was where he would use what he described as his “Hail Mary” gear.

If you’re reading this story, you might already know that Virgin required all three of those gears the following day, March 9, 1980, when he became the first American man to win the World Cross Country Championship. Forty years later, Virgin, who added a second title in 1981, remains the only American man to conquer World XC. He spent almost two hours on the phone last week with; below, in his own words, Virgin recounts his memories of that week in Paris. 


From Illinois farm boy to World XC

Cross country was and is my favorite form of running. I was a farm boy. Cross country was just all natural. I considered myself a white Kenyan or an Ethiopian, because I grew up on a farm; a lot of the Kenyans and Ethiopians come from farms. So what did my dad have me do? He didn’t have a cow dog, he didn’t have a horse. So if he wanted the cattle rounded up, he’d snap his fingers and say, Go bring ’em in, Craig. And I would go run out in the pasture in my work boots and jeans and herd the cattle.

There was no world track championships (Editor’s note: The first Worlds didn’t start until 1983). It was just the Olympics every four years. And [World XC] was the one event that we could look at where the best in the world could all attend.

In early World [XC] Championships, not every country was there. And it really was a European Championship. And then the rest of the world started to come, including the United States. In 1980, there were a lot of countries there, it’s just that Kenya and Ethiopia weren’t. But Morocco was. And in ’81, they started to come and that started to change the complexion of the race.

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It was what it was. They were all there the next year, and I beat them. We didn’t go to the ’80 Olympics, and I saw [Miruts] Yifter and [Mohamed] Kedir take 1-3 in the 10,000. And they were both in the race in ’81 and I beat both of them. Now I will tell you this — this is a story for next year — they miscounted the laps [in that race]. They didn’t understand English very well, and they started kicking with two laps to go when they thought there was one lap to go. I was about the only guy that went with them. And that’s how I won in ’81.

[1980] was my third [World XC] team. I qualified for 10 teams. That was the record. Nobody could ever do that now, because it’s every other year, which is disappointing to me.

I worked very hard in ’79 and ’80 to help recruit some of our best distance runners [to run World XC]It was such a wonderful experience. The team would get together and we’d go over there on the Sunday or Monday before. So we’d be at the World Championships for 5-7 days. We just built wonderful relationships. [World XC] was my favorite team. You can take all the other world teams that I made, mainly for the Olympic Games, and nothing compared to having nine distance runners.

The guys that made the team, there was no money at the trials, there was no money at the World Championships. Not only did we get some of the best Americans to run, but they did it for all the right reasons. They did it for absolutely free. And they did it [because] we all dreamed of being on that one team that would win the World Championships one day. That’s one of the few disappointments in my career, is that we were second five times on the teams that I was on and we never got the first-place trophy.

They also did it because they knew if they did well at the World Championships, historically, it would prove to be a good thing that summer (with success during track season). And agents and some coaches today don’t promote that. In fact, they say just the opposite, and that’s part of the problem we have in getting our best guys and gals to go out for the World Championship team now.

Pre-race: fine French cuisine and Linda Ronstadt

Virgin used this Walkman to listen to Linda Ronstadt and Billy Joel before his World XC victory (Courtesy Craig Virgin)

We had met an American that was over there attending Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. [He] invited [team manager David Martin] and I out to dinner and he made a homemade French feast for us the night before [the race]. We had such a wonderful time, David Martin and I did, with this American, and he made us such a great meal.

The next morning, we went to the course. Now this was March 1980. In December 1979, I did the Fukuoka Marathon. And guess what I got my hands on in Tokyo on the way to Fukuoka? They had just introduced the Walkman.

The rest of the team could not believe that this little bitty box would hold a cassette and batteries and you put the earbuds in your ears and you could listen to this wonderful music. The sound was absolutely spectacular compared to anything else we’d ever heard. And so as I was sitting in the stands before we started warming up, I was listening to Linda Ronstadt and Billy Joel and people like that. 

That music on that first generation Walkman really helped me to build up some real enthusiasm and focus, just like guys do today with whatever they use to play music. That was very new back then. By the way, I still have that Walkman.

The race, and Virgin’s four “moments of truth”

The gun went off and suddenly they started shooting the gun again and pulled a rope up, neck-high. That’s a very effective way to stop a field. I’ve never seen it done before. They put a rope up, taut, neck-high, 100 yards into the race to stop everybody because somebody at one end of the line had jumped the gun. And we (the Americans) had such a great start, we were cursing on the way back to the box.

I had my back turned to the field and I was positioning the guys [for the restart], and the starter did not say ready, set go. He just shot the gun. I was facing the wrong direction. The guys ran over me, and I was spinning, and I went down on one knee and somebody grabbed me by the shorts and kept me from going flat on my face. I stabilized and jumped up and started sprinting. 

That’s when I encountered my first moment of truth. I had four moments of truth in that race. The first one was first kilometer in, when I was caught behind a mass of runners. They were like eight or nine or 10 abreast. I was just stuck. I couldn’t go anywhere.

I said oh my gosh, just like last year — except I wasn’t as far back. The year before, I fell in the mud and was over 100th at the first mile and I had to work my way back up to 13th.

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I knew I was about 60th. So I wasn’t terribly out of it. But I was chagrined and I wanted to give up. And I had to just ask that question: did you train for four months and come 3,000 miles to give up, or did you come to fight? I just decided to hang in there and hope that somewhere in the first two miles, I could find some gaps to slip through.

And that’s exactly what I did. For the first two laps of the race, I waited for any kind of an opening where I could slide through and work my way up, just like a NASCAR driver does that starts from the back of the pack and works their way through with a faster car.

With two laps to go, I broke through and found the back of the lead pack. I was back there for about 200 yards, and I had my second moment of truth. [England’s] Nick Rose was about 75 yards out in the lead. And the second moment of truth was when I asked myself, do I stay here in the safety and the security and just draft off the lead pack, or do I go out after Nick Rose? 

We were old nemeses (Rose was the 1974 NCAA XC champ for Western Kentucky; Virgin was the 1975 champ for Illinois), and I knew Nick Rose was not gonna die. I thought, did I come 3,000 miles to run for second, or did I come 3,000 miles to try to win this damn thing? I said, well, I’m going. I just started focusing in on his back and his legs and I tried to make sure that my cadence was faster than his. I set my goal to catch him at the bell. At first, I wasn’t making a dent, and then I started to get closer and closer.

They shot off a rocket with one lap to go and also rang the bell. Nick Rose looked behind and saw me less than 20 yards and closing. And he looked back at me, recognized me, and took off. And I had just used up all my gas. My knees were buckling. My breath was coming in ragged sears into my lungs. My arms were heavy. Everything just hit the wall. And the announcer said on TV, “Oh that Virgin, he may well have blown it.”

But then I asked myself, did I come 3,000 miles to jog it in, or did I come 3,000 miles to fight and win? And I just decided to fight a little bit longer, and when [the chase pack] guys came up on me, I forced myself to stay a step ahead of them. For the next 400 yards or so, I just used their presence to help push me and get me out of that malaise. Sure enough, within 400-600 yards, I started to level out again.

I looked behind, and there was a Belgian (Leon Schots) who had won the World Championships [in 1977], there was a top Russian who had been second and third in the World Championships (the Soviet Union’s Aleksandr Antipov, 2nd in 1978, 3rd in 1979), there was the West German (Hans-Jurgen Orthmann), who had won [bronze in] the 3,000 meters at the European Indoor Championships [the week before]. I had run against [Orthmann] in high school on my second junior team, and I knew he was a big kicker. I used the Belgian and the Russian and the West German to help push me, and I got my second wind.

[There was] an uphill before we made a right-hand turn and started that 800-meter [finishing] straightaway. And I sensed Rose starting to falter, just a little bit. And the German did too. Hans, he’s on my shoulder, and suddenly I could feel him start to make a move.

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And that’s the fourth moment of truth for me. As Orthmann started to run and go past me and try to reel Nick Rose in, I had to make a decision whether I should go with him or whether I should just stay close and stay to my pre-assigned tactical plan for that last 600 yards. I just decided to stay to my plan.

He left me and started to close on Rose. I tried to stay close and he pulled up to Rose, and Rose fought him off for 100 meters, maybe longer. Finally, I could just see Nick’s shoulders slump, and I knew what was happening. Orthmann started to gap Rose. 

I hit the 400-meter mark and changed gears one more time. I’m getting closer to Rose at least, if not to Orthmann. And that’s when I hit my Hail Mary landmark. There were races where I reached down for that Hail Mary gear, and it wasn’t there. But on that day, I was able to change gears. That gear change allowed me to rush past Nick Rose, and in the last 100 meters, close on Orthmann.

As I was coming up on Orthmann — and I teach this to high school kids when I show them the race — I basically did an old Penn or Drake Relays tactic. So I come up straight behind him so he can’t see me very well. And then, based on what direction his head went, I would go the other way. In this case, as I got up right behind him, his head went left, and I quickly surged past on the right side. So by the time he got his head around again and realized it, I already was sailing past him and had one or two strides on him. And that really is a demoralizing tactic if you can pull it off. 

I just kept pumping my arms for all that I was worth. I started to rig up with just a little bit in the last 15 yards. But my arms — and that’s why it’s so important to do upper body work as a distance runner — my arms are what kept me going.

What I’m proudest of is that I made the right decision and persevered through those four moments of truth when I was tempted to give up. A lot of people’s biggest victories, they can look back at certain moments in that race where they came oh so close to caving in and giving up. And on that particular day, in that particular race, I answered the bell every time.

Champagne celebrations, napping through a press conference, and bonding with the French people

I came out of the chute and David Martin met me and shook my hand and gave me a huge hug and said, you just made history. And Doris Brown Heritage (five-time winner of the International Cross Country Championships, the predecessor to World XC) gave me a big hug and was so happy that we finally had an American male winner.

The award ceremony, Orthmann, Rose and I were there. Somebody had handed me an apple. They had no drinks, and I shared my apple with Rose and Orthmann.

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In 1980, I got a medal, and I got a vase. And that’s it, other than having my expenses paid. In 1981, I didn’t even get a vase, I got just a medal. And yet those are very precious gold medals to me, because for two days in my life, I was the best in the world at something.

The world championships, not only was it televised all over Europe, but they had 30,000-35,000 people in the stands. They had people on two decks of that stadium. It just was fantastic to know that a cross country race was that popular. And when we left the awards ceremony, it was like being a rockstar.

We celebrated that night with a team dinner and then Fred Lebow and Kathrine Switzer took me out on the town with a French journalist. I did not get in until 4:00 a.m.

We didn’t have to buy champagne, because as soon as the bars we went into found out I was there, they would give us a free bottle of French champagne.

I had to go to the adidas France headquarters the next morning for a business appointment and for a press conference. I was so hungover that I got to the hotel and the adidas rep at the time was so understanding, he looked at me and said, “You didn’t sleep last night, did you?” I said, “Nope.”

He said, “I tell you what. You go lay down. I’ll give you two hours to nap — we’ll stall the press conference.”

Well all this media was there in that room. And when he told them I had got drunk on French champagne that night, they all started clapping. They all went out for coffee and they came back two hours later and there was not one complaint. The American media would have ripped me a new one for that.

French don’t particularly like Americans. And they don’t like Americans right now, at all. So many Americans do play out that caricature of being arrogant and cocky and, well that’s not the way we do it back home. But I ate French food and I saw the French historical sites in the two or three days with the team before the event and I drank French champagne all night long. And that word got out, and suddenly I was a hero in Paris, and it lasted for several years. I didn’t have to buy a meal or drink for a long time in Paris, because I had bonded with them.

On Thursday, Virgin will be inducted into the National High School Track & Field Hall of Fame in New York, though he will give his acceptance speech with a heavy heart: his high school coach, Hank Feldt, with whom Virgin was very close, died last week at the age of 86.

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