FIRST EXCERPT: In 1975, Illinois hosted six indoor meets, which helped build a fan following.
“There would be a crowd on both sides of the track because at that time they had bleachers on the backstretch, on the homestretch and on one of the turns,” he said. “It was a real rocking atmosphere.” But the night of the Illini Classic, Rose was the rock star as he won in 8:34.4 while Craig took second in 8:41.0. The next day Craig anchored his distance medley relay to a meet and school record of 9:41.2 with a 4:06.5 mile. That relay narrowly missed Pittsburgh’s world record of 9:39.8. “I probably cost us that world record,” admitted Craig, who couldn’t tell if he was trying too hard or not trying hard enough. He knew for sure he was “in a physical slump.” Craig’s indoor season came to an early end in the Big 10 meet at Bloomington, Indiana, where he roomed with Durkin because both were battling colds. In the mile prelims on March 7, Craig advanced with an exhausting 4:11.7. Three hours later, he built a 40-yard lead in the two-mile, passing halfway in 4:17. His suffering, however, had begun after only 880 yards. “The second half of the race was like a nightmare,” said Craig, who began weaving between lanes one and two. His final 440s took 68 and 78 seconds. Three men passed him the final lap, leaving Craig fourth in 8:55.2, 10.4 seconds behind Michigan State winner Herb Lindsay. In the next day’s mile final, Craig took sixth in 4:10.3. It would be the worst Big 10 finish of his career. After that mile, he flopped on the high jump pit and fell asleep despite the commotion of the meet. The next day, he discussed all aspects of his running with Wieneke. “I just felt like God had taken my ability away from me somehow,” Craig said. When McKinley Hospital staff physician Dr. Robert Pace listened to Craig’s heart, he heard the distinctive friction rub of pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining around the heart. Craig was immediately admitted and remained hospitalized for five days. Dr. Pace, who felt a virus may have caused the pericarditis, told the U of I sports information department he was “amazed by Craig’s competitiveness and the fact he was even able to finish the races in the Big 10 meet. The problem had a great deal of effect on his performance and only because he is a great physical specimen was he able to do what he did.” What Craig couldn’t do for the second straight year was compete in the NCAA indoor meet. Craig’s heart problems put his disappointing NCAA cross country showing in a new light. For the rest of his career, he’d look for medical reasons to explain unexpectedly poor showings, and he recommended other runners do the same. He resumed training April 7, jogging three miles in the morning and three in the afternoon with a 4:40 mile thrown into the latter workout. At the end of each workout that week, he visited the hospital to have his heart checked. Craig sat out the team’s first four outdoor meets, but returned for the Drake Relays where he contributed a 4:09.0 to the sixth-place four-mile relay on April 25 and a 4:13.5 to the third-place distance medley relay on April 26. The medley was especially humbling for Craig, who’d been handed a lead that Nick Rose and Kansas State’s Jeff Schemmel quickly erased. Craig felt he’d been dumped in the deep end and had sunk. After competing in his first major relay carnival, he went for a cool-down outside the stadium. A water balloon launched from a passing car caught Craig in the stomach, knocking him to the ground and out of breath. If the world was trying to derail the ultimate optimist, it would need more than water balloons.