The best cross country runner ever from the state of Illinois came to Riverside-Brookfield High School Friday evening to speak to the RB boys and girls cross country teams.
Craig Virgin delivered an inspirational and motivational message to the RB runners. He exhorted them to restore RB to its glory days in cross county in the late 1960’s and early 70’s when RB was a state power, culminating in a second place team finish at the 1973 state cross country meet.
A year before, Virgin, who is from downstate Lebanon High School, set the state meet course record of 13:50.6 on the 3-mile course at Detweiller Park in Peoria, a record that still stands today some 38 years later. In that 1972 race, Virgin won his second of his two state individual titles in cross country.
That was only the start of a brilliant running career. In 1973, Virgin set a national high school record running in the 2-mile run with a time of 8:40.9. He went on to run for the University of Illinois and eventually made three U.S. Olympic teams (1976, 1980, and 1984) in the 10,000-meter run and is the only American man to win the world cross-country championship (1980 and 1981).
Friday night, wearing a U.S. Olympic team white shirt, Virgin thrilled the assembled runners and many of their parents with video clips of his high school state championship races and his come-from-behind win in the 1980 World Championship cross-country race.
Virgin told the RB runners that hard work, self confidence and mental toughness were keys to his success.
“The biggest secret to success is hard work,” Virgin said. “This is not a cheap sport. You’ve got to make a commitment. Mental toughness is believing in yourself. Mental toughness is a combination of attitude and experience.”
Riverside-Brookfield freshman Clare Bollnow, who asked Virgin how he stayed so mentally tough in races, found his answer inspiring.
“I thought he was really motivational and I thought it was great to hear him talk right before the postseason,” Bollnow said. “I think it’s getting everyone in a good mental attitude right at the time you need it.”
Dan Curtin, a freshman who ran his first varsity race last week, said that he was motivated by Virgin.
“It was just like really inspiring,” Curtin said. “Before I was like mostly serious about cross country and I was like yeah I kind of want to run in the winter, but now I actually think I’m going to push myself to commit (the) whole year round.”
Virgin came to RB because he was in Chicago for Sunday’s Chicago Marathon and because he has some connections to the school. He went to high school with Jeanine Buttimer, the mother of the boys team’s top runner, Keegan Buttimer. Jeanine was a cheerleader at Lebanon High School, cheering Virgin on when he set his high school records.
But that was not Virgin’s only connection to RB. Pat Mandera, who finished seventh at the 1969 State Cross-country Meet when he was a senior at Morton East and raced against Virgin in college, is the father of RB senior cross country runner Ryan Madera.
Last week in their last tune-up before the conference meet, both the girls and boys teams finished strong at the Elmwood Park Tiger Invitational.
The girls won the varsity title with 56 points. Leading the way for the Bulldogs was Maggie McLaughlin who finished fifth in a time of 19:36. Jacki Grisafe was close behind finishing seventh in 19:43 and Gabby Ulloa (20:11), Miranda Ryan (20:12) and Alma Rodriguez finished close together in 13th, 14th and 17th.
The RB boys varsity team finished third behind Joey Melone’s 16:58 finish.