Craig Virgin has a wish. One day soon, he says, he'd like to speak at Atlanta's famous Peachtree Road Race, then run it at a 7- or 8-minute a mile pace among the masses.
As things are, the first part of his wish is more likely to come true than the latter.
This month, Virgin, 56, of Lebanon, was inducted into the USA National Track & Field Hall of Fame.
His accomplishments include:
• His record time for running three miles in Illinois Boys Cross Country — 13:50.6 set in 1972 — has not been broken.
• Qualifying for three Olympics in 1976, 1980 and 1984.
• Being the only American to win the World Cross-Country Championships twice, in 1980 and 1981.
As ecstatic as Virgin is about his induction, he has more he wants to do on the road. He doesn't want to win, or even race; he merely wants to run a 10K again. Right now his body won't let him.
During the last 15 years, he's been involved in a head-on auto collision while driving 70 mph, suffered a fall on black ice that tore his right quadriceps from his knee and underwent 15 surgeries on various parts of his body. This year, he experienced pulmonary embolisms that would have killed most people. All this is on top of three surgeries related to a congenital kidney condition.
These days, he said, if he can eke out 2 miles of jogging and walking, it's a good day. He's been forced to become a gym rat to stay in shape.
The fact that he's running at all is impressive though not totally surprising, said Dr. Richard C. Lehman, an orthopedic surgeon with Health South Surgery Center. Lehman has operated on Virgin multiple times.
"A lot is really grit and a lot is preconditioning," Lehman said. "If you go out and run 70 or 80 miles a week, your brain and constitution are conditioned to pain and to keep on going. But even at that, he's a machine."
Mike Durkin, one of Virgin's teammates at the University of Illinois 35 years ago, and a two-time Olympian in the 1,500-meter distance, once told a sportswriter for the Bloomington Pantagraph, that he didn't think Virgin was the most physically gifted runner in terms of leg speed or strength.
"He could push himself through sheer willpower to levels that very few people on the world class level could achieve," Durkin said. "His mind was a very powerful instrument and he had desire."
'TON OF DAMAGE'
Virgin underwent seven surgeries in the four years after his auto accident in 1997, when his car collided with a vehicle going the wrong way on Interstate 64.
He had two surgeries on his left ankle to repair chipped bone and torn cartilage, one on each shoulder to fix torn rotator cuffs, one to repair an abdominal hernia, one to put a pin in his crushed pinky finger and plastic surgery to repair his forehead and nose. "He had a ton of damage," said Lehman. "His joint surfaces in his ankles were broken down, and we worried there might be some dead bone."
Virgin also worked with Scott Van Nest, physical therapist and owner of Sports Medicine & Training Center in Webster Groves, two to three times a week.
Nine months after the accident, he ran a 10K at the NCAA Cross Country Championships at Furman University in South Carolina and won the master's division.
"That was a reward and an incentive to say that I was on the right track," he said.
Virgin continued running in regional races until 2004, when he fell on some ice and ruptured his right quadriceps.
Lehman surgically repaired the tear, and Virgin spent eight weeks in a hip-to-ankle cast.
"By the time they took it off, my leg was so ugly I didn't want to claim it," Virgin said.
He lost about an inch and a half from his quadriceps muscle because Lehman had to cut off jagged tissue. It would take three months until he could bend his knee enough to ride a bike. The stiffness changed his gait and put stress on his left knee.
"If you have a serious injury on one side of the body that lasts months or years, you'll have worse problems on the other side of the body," Virgin said. "When your body gets out of balance, bad things happen."
He's had three surgeries on the right knee and five on his left.
The quadriceps tear, he said, has been much harder to overcome than injuries from the car accident.
This year, he was hospitalized for pulmonary embolisms that resulted from blood clots in his leg that moved to his lungs.
According to Virgin, doctors said his veins were big from all his years of running, allowing the clots to move through them to his lungs. Otherwise he would have died. He's been on a blood thinner since.
"The Coumadin allows the blood to flow freely and the body's natural process to melt the clots," Virgin said.
His left knee still hurts and he's considering having stem cell injections. He needs cataract surgery, but can't undergo any type of procedure until the clots are gone and he stops taking the blood thinner.
Meanwhile, he exercises at least five times a week, lifting weights, cycling and using an elliptical trainer. He also jogs in the deep end of the pool, using a snorkel to breathe, and on occasion, out on the road or treadmill.
Now that he's in his 50s and his metabolism is slowing, Virgin said, he has to work out as hard to stay fit as he did to compete.
"I'm no longer Craig Virgin the Olympian," he said. "I'm Craig Virgin the middle-age everyman who wants to lose 10 pounds."
More than anything, though, he wants to run and run long. It's not just what he did for 40 years, it's who he is.
"Jimmy Connors still plays tennis. Jay Haas and Hale Irwin still play golf," he said. "Running is something you do because you love it. I still have a passion for it."
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the distance of the Illinois Boys Cross Country race that Virgin still holds the record for. The error has been corrected in the fifth paragraph.