Monday, November 6, 2017

V7 N. 74 A Review of Books about Matt Centrowitz (the Elder) and Craig Virgin

Once Upon a Time, Craig and Matt Occupied Virgin Running Territory

By Paul O’Shea

Nineteen fifty-five would prove to be an auspicious year for the future of American distance running.  Matt Centrowitz was born to a professional gambler and housemaid in the Bronx, New York.  Six months later Craig Virgin joined an Illinois farm family. Each became a national high school star in the early l970s and went on to impressive collegiate careers and international acclaim.  

There were also haunting days of heartbreak brought on by a U.S. boycott of the Olympic Games, illness and other misfortunes. Each competed in prestigious international events with largely disappointing results.

Now, two new books link Virgin and Centrowitz. They remind nostalgic distance-running buffs about their achievements, and introduce the two to today’s followers.

Like Father, Like Son, My Story on Running, Coaching, and Parenting  (Amazon, 197 pages, $19.95) is the story of two men named Centrowitz, Matt the father, Matthew the son (Matt eschewed Sr. and Jr.). Written by the senior Centrowitz and released earlier this year, Like Father is dad’s autobiography bookended by his son’s Olympic victory.

More recently, Virgin Territory, The Story of Craig Virgin, America’s Renaissance Runner  (Blackjack Road Publishing, Amazon, 310 pages, $26.20), is the fine work of Bloomington (Ill.) Pantagraph sportswriter Randy Sharer.  Territory is an exhaustive recounting of the career of one of this country’s most prolific competitors.

Craig Virgin is still the only American to win a World Cross Country title--he did it twice, in l980 and l981. He qualified by winning both U.S. World Cross trials.  He ran in nine World Cross meetings, an event many have called the world’s most competitive foot race as it brings together runners from a variety of distance disciplines. At 10,000 meters Virgin qualified for three Olympic Games. In high school track and cross country at Lebanon High School he won five Illinois state titles.  His greatest pre-collegiate performance was an 8:40.9 two mile, beating Steve Prefontaine’s record. At Peoria’s Detweiller Park, the state championship site, Virgin’s 13:50.6 over the three-mile cross country terrain is now a forty-five year old record. Moving on to the University of Illinois he collected nine Big Ten crowns in cross and track.
Matt Centrowitz made two Olympic teams and won three New York State high school titles.  He holds the state’s high school record in the mile (4:02.7) and 1,500 meters (3:43.4). In l976 he broke Pre’s Oregon 1,500 meter record.  His major wins include the 1979 Pan American Games 5,000 meters and four U.S. titles at that distance. In 1982 he set the American record of 13:12.91.

From the mile to the marathon, the Midwestern farm boy and the New York City street kid brought international recognition to American distance running. Centrowitz excelled at fifteen hundred and five thousand meters. Virgin’s strengths were in the longer hauls, from the ten thousand to the roads and marathon.  

Virgin Territory
Virgin was an astonishingly productive and durable competitor.  He ran 630 races over a twenty-two year period, starting with a l969 dual meet with Mascoutah High School and ending with the 1991 World Cross Country trials in Florida.  Sharer’s book concludes with an appendix listing each of the more than six hundred events: the date, venue, distance, placing, time and margin are taken from Virgin’s meticulous records.

Like John Walker and Steve Scott, Virgin was always a gamer. In one eight-day period, at the end of his high school senior year, he ran seven track races, at one and two miles.  In a three-day stretch he won the Penn Relays ten thousand, and he and a partner took the Trevira Twosome the following day in Central Park. The third day the indefatigable Virgin was in St. Louis winning a ten thousand meter road race.
Virgin also endured a dispiriting number of illnesses and injuries, beginning at birth when diagnosed with a urological disease.  During his career he suffered at times from viral infections, mononucleosis, a bulging disc, detached retina, kidney stones and a variety of running related damage such as torn ligaments, an Achilles strain, tendonitis, and was forced to have knee surgery. He had a kidney removed.  

With racing, travel and injury, there didn’t seem to be many days left to train.

Finally, and terrifyingly, five years after retiring he was the victim of a wrong-way motorist who plowed into him in East St. Louis, Illinois.  A photo in the book shows the front of his Nissan 240 SX collapsed like a broken Christmas tree ornament. Sharer tells us that Virgin said in the emergency room: “I told God, ‘I’m not in the morgue nor am I in the spinal care unit and for that, I am grateful.  I don’t have to pass this cup.  I can handle it some way, somehow.’”

Over the next thirteen years he would be subjected to fifteen surgeries, each of which required from six months to a year of physical therapy.

Virgin grew up on a farm in Lebanon, about thirty miles east of St. Louis.  His first loves were basketball, then baseball, but warming the bench was out of the question for the eager youngster.  So he joined the cross country team, won his first race and seven of the first twenty that year. He soon became noticed, even in an era devoid of instant information.

At Lebanon High Virgin won his final 48 cross country races, 46 of which set new course records; the other two were his own. “The challenge was to set a record almost every time out,” he wrote in his diary.

Virgin and Centrowitz had several memorable meetings; one of the most significant was at the 1972 International Prep Invitational put on by York High School Coach Joe Newton in Elmhurst, Illinois.  At issue was an assault by the high schoolers on Prefontaine’s two-mile record of 8:41.5.  The Midwest senior won convincingly over his Eastern challenger, 8:40.9 to 8:56.8.  The mighty Pre’s record had fallen.

Another confrontation came at the 1981 National Sports Festival in Syracuse, New York where the principal combatants were the two plus Alberto Salazar. In an epic battle over five thousand meters Virgin defeated Salazar with Centrowitz fading to fourth. Though a complete head-to-head tally is unavailable, Virgin won at least six of nine contests with Centrowitz.

Sharer has worked as a sports journalist for the Bloomington Pantagraph for 36 years, covering track and cross country and knows the sport first hand. A graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University, he held its 1,500-meter record of 4:03.2 for ten years.

The idea for the book, Sharer’s first, came from watching and interviewing the subject himself.   A vast treasury of newspaper and magazine clippings collected by Virgin’s mother was a significant historical resource.  The University of Illinois and Track and Field News were also helpful. Sharer began interviewing Virgin in 2009 and accumulated 260 hours of tape. In addition, the author interviewed more than fifty runners, coaches, publishers and administrators familiar with Virgin’s career, from Nick Rose to Bill Rodgers, from Ollan Cassell to Matt Centrowitz.

Like Father, Like Son
Curiously, the book’s title suggests some parity between the two, but Pop writes much more about himself than about his son, who in winning the Olympic 1,500 in 2016, like the Chicago Cubs, overcame a 108-year American drought.

At five feet ten, 175 pounds, a fourteen-year-old Matt Centrowitz was an unlikely looking distance prospect, but at Andrew Jackson High School he soon became one of the team’s better performers.  Because his mother was on welfare, and his dad had disappeared, Matt had to work on weekends, which prevented him from racing. At season’s end he finally appears and wins the Public School Athletic League’s freshman cross country race against some two hundred other yearlings.

As a kind of cross training he delivered whole Thanksgiving turkeys four stories up in apartment buildings, sometimes carrying three or four birds at a time. In numbers there will be strength.

Later that first year, after a 4:30 mile (the frosh state record was two seconds faster), his coach tells him, “You can break four minutes.”  

The next challenge was the New York high school record of 4:06.  After transferring to Power Memorial High School, and fascinated by the growing success of the runner from Coos Bay, Oregon, Matt Centrowitz didn’t break four as a high school athlete, but he eventually ran 3:54 before he retired. In high school cross country, he was one second off Marty Liquori’s Van Cortlandt Park high school record.

Matt’s first collegiate choice was Villanova, but when the closely held Jumbo Elliott saw the bulky kid from the Bronx, “I didn’t pass the eye test,” Matt grumbles. Despite that 4:02 PR and running on the national junior team there was no elite team scholarship offer.  He ended up at nearby Manhattan College under the fractious tutelage of Fred Dwyer.

Centrowitz visited the University of Oregon and admired its stable of lithe four-minute milers who looked like they came out of central casting. “Why didn’t you recruit me,” he plaintively asks coach Bill Dellinger.  “Because I really didn’t know you.”  We were yet to enter the Internet world.

He runs in the NCAA cross country meet, finishing 29th, a few places away from the coveted All American distinction, but the Manhattan coach does not travel to Spokane with his athlete. Prefontaine wins, Virgin is tenth. When Centrowitz returns home, Dwyer didn’t bother to call him.

Determined to transfer to Oregon, he redshirts his first year with the Ducks. Over time Dellinger becomes his best friend and mentor and Centrowitz trains with Prefontaine, though they were never close.  On the evening of May 29, 1975 there is a party and he and Pre and two others get together for a group picture.  Later that night Pre leaves in his now iconic orange MGB convertible.  The next morning Centrowitz learns of the fatal accident.

In l976 Matt was a miler and splits 1:52 for the half on the way to making the Olympic team. But Montreal would be a hard lesson learned as he finishes a first round, non-qualifying sixth in 3:45.02  “You better be ready to run when the real race starts, often more than half way through the event, and if you’re not ready, you’ll be watching from the stands, which is exactly what I would do,” he confesses.  To be sure, forty years later Matthew was more than ready to push Sport on the console when it came time to finish the Rio Olympic fifteen hundred.  

Training in Eugene after the Montreal Olympics, Centrowitz loses motivation and drifts.  “Instead of focusing exclusively on running and associating with other runners, I realized what being a big athlete on campus could do for you, especially in Eugene if you were a track star,” he tells us.  “I learned how to walk into parties and take control.  I schmoozed professors, hung out with the dean. I had women throwing themselves at me.”  He is briefly attracted to Nike’s newly formed elite Athletics West team, but he decides to sell Osaga shoes instead and train with the estimable Frank Gagliano.

A month before the l980 Olympic trials, President Jimmy Carter announces that the U.S. will boycott the Games in Russia, because of its invasion of Afghanistan.  Despite the sanction the Trials go ahead, and Centrowitz wins the five thousand, his second Olympic team, but a hollow, Pyrrhic victory.

Then comes what he calls the greatest race of his life, running an American record 13:12.91 at the Pre Classic, the sixth fastest time in history. Five years earlier it would have been a world record.

Matt continued on and that year married a woman who was a 2:08 collegiate half miler.  But a lingering hamstring intrudes and the final race for the thirty-year-old is l3:28. His compatriot, Craig Virgin would sum it: “There is a front side and a back side to every career,” he wrote.  “In most cases, there is no storybook ending.”

Centrowitz tries selling shoes for Adidas and then establishes a gourmet coffee business as Dellinger connects him to an entrepreneur in Eugene. That doesn’t work out. In Washington, D.C., where he had moved after his time in Eugene, Centrowitz begins coaching as a volunteer at American University, then is appointed head coach.  It is a post he will hold for 18 years, producing three Olympians.  Daughter Lauren Centrowitz becomes a fine high school runner, winning a scholarship to Stanford where she receives five All American designations.  Matthew is lighting things up as well.  

Like Father, Like Son will not join the ranks of the sport’s memorable literature. Filled with glaring typos, it is much more father, much less son.  The book is a self-published enterprise, printed on demand and fulfilled through Amazon.

Depending on your forbearance capacity you may be annoyed or forgiving of the author who misspells his son’s first name twice on page 181 and confirms the errata by misspelling his son’s name twice on the back cover.  You may thus wonder at the contributions of the two souls brave enough to join forces with the author’s name on the cover.

There are other typographical blemishes.  Matt writes about Van Cortland Park (Van Cortlandt, of course), and the Irish Villanovan Ross Donahughe (it’s Donoghue).  And of other typos, there are more than a few.

On the other hand Robert Johnson of the website LetsRun is a fan. In January he read the book in galleys and wrote: “While the anecdotes make the book, the book is well-written and whoever helped write it did a good job.  I’m not claiming it’s a literary masterpiece (the draft of the self-published book that I read had a few typos but it was going to get another round of edits before publication), but there were passages that were more philosophical than I expected that I really enjoyed.”

Like Father seems to have been dashed off to benefit from the success of Like Son.  There’s a lot of white space showing in its 197 pages. Matt Centrowitz’s style is breezy and self-reflective, but an interval or two short of going the distance.

Virgin Territory is crisply written, rich in detail, a penetrating study of one of this country’s finest runners. Randy Sharer’s absorbing study belongs in the library of every fan who treasures the history of the sport.


Paul O’Shea ran in the 1952 Illinois state high school cross country championship, and years later, in an open race on the Van Cortlandt Park course. He lives in Northern Virginia and can be reached at

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