Search

A Kansas boy with a man-size task

Sept. 14, 1964
Sept. 14, 1964

Table of Contents
Sept. 14, 1964

Simes
People
Harness Racing
Swimming
Texas Wolf Hunt
Baseball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Departments

A Kansas boy with a man-size task

This week in Los Angeles, 135 athletes will be competing for 60 positions on the U.S. Olympic track and field team. Some of them—such as Dyrol Burleson, Bob Schul and Henry Carr—have already clinched a spot on the team, provided they are still in good shape, by virtue of their victories in the Olympic trials in New York last July. Others, like Tom O'Hara, Fred Hansen and Gerry Lindgren, are almost certain of making the team. Then there is a third group, those who may—or may not—be just a step behind the others. One such athlete is 17-year-old Jim Ryun, a 1,500-meter runner who until two years ago had never run a race.

This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1964 issue Original Layout

last June at Compton, Calif. Jim Ryun, a tall, quiet, loose-limbed youngster with a flattop haircut (see cover), finished eighth in a one-mile race. This apparently unspectacular result nevertheless prompted the winner, Dyrol Burleson, to remark: "There was nothing unusual about my victory. The entire story was back in eighth place. There is simply no way to imagine how good Jim Ryun is or how far he will go after he becomes an adult. What he did was more significant than Roger Bannister's first mile under four minutes."

What Ryun had done was run a mile in 3:59 only six weeks after his 17th birthday. It was the first time in history that a high school boy had broken four minutes. In doing so he achieved one of the two goals that he and his coach at Wichita's East High, Bob Timmons, had set for him earlier in the year. The other was to make the 1964 U.S. Olympic team, running in the 1,500 meters. This week young Jim Ryun will get his chance.

It will not be easy. Ryun has never beaten Burleson, nor has he beaten Tom O'Hara or Jim Grelle. However, when he ran the 1,500 in the national AAU meet in late June, he finished fourth in 3:39, just a 10th of a second behind Grelle. Ryun has beaten Archie San Romani Jr. and Bob Day, who will also be trying for an Olympic berth, but they have beaten him too. It is obvious then to both Ryun and Coach Timmons that to make the team, Jim must run the finest race of his young life.

Finest does not necessarily mean fastest. Ryun thinks Burleson, with his tremendous finishing speed, quite likely will prefer a slow race ending in an all-or-nothing dash to the tape. O'Hara, Ryun believes, will set a fast pace all the way. That is what Ryun hopes will happen. A fault apparent so far in Ryun's brief career is his inability to recover speed after he tires. In a 100-yard sprint for the finish, he might be left behind, but both he and Timmons figure that in what they call a "quality mile," one that is fast all the way, Jim should have as much strength left at the end as anyone.

Ryun has been in strict training for his big race since mid-August, when he left home in Wichita and went to Lawrence, Kans., site of the University of Kansas. He has been living there with Timmons and his family—Timmons has been made assistant track coach at Kansas, a move the university hopes will attract Ryun—in a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere. Jim says very little, but in the company of close friends such as the Timmonses he shows a sly, low-key sense of humor. Recently, when asked if he liked the meals Mrs. Timmons was serving, Ryun said: "I have no complaints. The only things I don't like are cucumbers and"—stopping to let the effect mount—"coaches."

Ryun does not limit his terseness to the spoken word. He keeps a diary but in it are found none of the customary references to girls, the Beatles, secret dreams or dashed hopes, no exulting at success. Here is the complete entry for June 27, written after the national AAU meet: "I feel great. I have that funny feeling that I can win. Easy striding until loose. Then a few calisthenics until loose and a few sprints. Mentally I'm ready. I placed fourth in 3:39 flat. I was under old American citizens' record. Easy striding to warm down."

Then, the entire entry for the next day: "Ran five miles at a good pace on school grounds."

On June 5, after becoming the first schoolboy to break four minutes in the mile, this was all Ryun had to say: "Ran mile at Compton in 3:59 flat. Did striding and sprints. My warmup was not good, and I was bumped off the track."

Those entries reflect a central fact about Ryun: at this stage of his life he has only one consuming, passionate interest—running—and nothing else has ever engaged so much of him. He has never cared particularly for other sports. He has never collected stamps or robbed birds' nests. He likes girls, but he has never gone steady. He does attend the Church of Christ faithfully, twice on Sunday and every Wednesday, but unlike many youths he goes to church solely as a matter of faith, having no interests in church-centered secular activities for young people.

But intense as it is, Ryun's interest in track has been acquired so recently that Timmons thinks one of the most important steps in preparing Ryun for the Olympic trials is to make him comprehend the importance and the significance of the Olympic Games themselves. Ryun readily acknowledges that in 1960 he cared nothing about the Olympics simply because he was only 13 and had never heard of them.

It was not until the spring of 1962 that Ryun, then attending Curtis Junior High School in Wichita, had a try at track. Since he lacked sprinting speed, he went out for the longest available event, the 440-yard dash, but his best time of 58.5 was hardly spectacular. The next fall he entered East High and again went out for track. He impressed no one immediately, least of all Coach Timmons.

"I didn't even know how to spell his name for the first part of the season," Timmons recalls. "I thought it was Ryan or Rhine or Rhone or something like that. So did a lot of people for a while. But somewhere along midseason he worked his way onto the B cross-country team, and when we went to Shawnee Mission for an invitational meet, Jim took first place. After that he moved quickly up to the A squad, and about a month later he placed sixth in the Class A state meet."

Within five months Timmons realized that he had the makings of a real star. Jim won the second competitive mile he ever ran in a respectable 4:26.4.

"After that race," Timmons recalls, "I took Jim aside and told him that eventually he would be a four-minute miler, and that I hoped he would be the first high school boy to break four minutes. But you don't just happen to reach a great goal. You plan, you work. From that second meet on, I urged Jim to think not like a high school sophomore but like a four-minute miler."

Timmons, a short, energetic man, laid out a strenuous routine for Ryun. On a typical day, Ryun would get up at 5 in the morning and carry papers over a 12-block route. Then he would go home, put on running togs and jog at least six miles through the streets. In the afternoon he would work on the track, either before or after delivering his papers. Ryun will not discuss it now, but in his early running days he confided to Coach Timmons that he often grew discouraged, especially on rainy, cold and snowy mornings, running through the streets with no one to cheer him or care, no one to watch him except an occasional early riser who looked upon him as a freak.

As he started to improve, Ryun became desperately fearful that he might give evidence of conceit. In an airplane on the way to Modesto, Calif. in May, he fell into conversation with the stewardess and told her where he was going. By coincidence he encountered the same girl on the way back after he had pressed O'Hara and Burleson and run a 4:01.7 mile, almost two seconds faster than any school boy had ever run the distance.

"How did you do?" the girl asked.

"I finished third," Ryun told her, with no elaboration.

Since the Olympic trials early in July, where he finished fourth behind Burleson, O'Hara and Grelle, Ryun has taken it easy just one week—when he ran only 40 miles. He has been doing 106 miles a week since then.

Late in August, Timmons put Ryun through a workout with emphasis on his weakness, speed recovery in the face of fatigue. The session took place late in the afternoon on the track in the University of Kansas stadium, ringed by 45,000 gray and empty seats. It had been 90° early in the afternoon, and it was still 87. Already that morning Jim had been up at 7:30 and run six miles over the rolling pasture land and rutted and stony roads near the Timmonses' house. He had come back, eaten a breakfast of cereal, toast, milk and orange juice. He spent the morning doing the odd jobs that any accommodating boy without a regular summer job does around the house. He carried in bags of groceries for Mrs. Timmons, put a sickle bar on a small tractor and adjusted a power mower. He ate Swiss steak and drank iced tea for lunch, then watched television in a desultory way. Around 5, Timmons drove him to the stadium. Waiting there to work out with Ryun was Bill Dotson, himself a sub-four-minute miler. Dotson now lives in Lawrence and is preparing for the indoor track season.

Dressed in sweat clothes, Ryun and Dotson began by striding a mile and doing loosening-up exercises. Already drenched with sweat, they stripped to shorts and T shirts and ran four 110-yard and four 60-yard sprints. They followed those with a fast 1,320 and a strided 880. Next they ran two 660s within a four-minute interval, counting the times of the 660s. Then came another strided 880. Next four 330s within three minutes, followed by another strided 880. Now they did six 100s in two minutes and eight 60s within one minute.

At that point Ryun complained of sore calves and asked if the workout could be curtailed. Timmons said no, but promised him a whirlpool bath after practice. "I've a surprise for you," he said. "I'm going to open the gates and let you run a little outside."

At the top of a fairly steep hill, visible through the stadium's open end, stands a memorial campanile. It was at least a third of a mile from the stadium. "Run up there and back four times," Timmons ordered.

With a trace of acerbity Ryun suggested, "You'd better call your wife and tell her we'll be home for dinner at 8:30 instead of 7:30 like you told her."

"Why don't you tell that to Jim Grelle?" Timmons countered. "Maybe he'll send you a postcard from Tokyo." Ryun smiled and bounded off up the hill with renewed speed and determination. Timmons' session on speed recovery was an apparent success.

Ryun runs with a short stride, his knee lift never exaggerated. He is 6 feet 2 inches and 150 pounds and has been described as "a stork in shorts." His legs, not heavily muscled, appear slender but strong. His running is fluid and limber, marred only by his habit of turning his head from side to side as he runs. Timmons is trying to break this habit, reasoning that it uses up energy and that the repeated head motion can lead to nausea.

Ryun so far outclassed his school rivals that only in the last six months has he acquired a body of experience in running against other men instead of against a watch. "He has lacked the initiative to take the lead in a race and that cost him in the first Olympic trials," Timmons says. "He has had trouble stumbling, too. Gerry Lindgren beat him in a two-mile when he fell. He stumbled and fell off the track at Compton. He stumbled at the National AAU—ran too close to the curb. You know Burleson was kind enough to tell him right during the race, 'Jim, run wider, or you'll stumble again.' I'm trying to correct all these things, but remember, Jim's like so many tall teenagers at the awkward stage."

Almost every day in the last few weeks Timmons and Ryun have discussed strategy and tactics for the Olympic trials. They talk about when Jim should make his move if it turns into a slow race and what position he should try to hold if it is a fast one. As the day of the trials approached, Timmons was contending with one psychological problem which beset the coaches of few other Olympic track and field aspirants. Ryun is so young that it would be easy and perhaps natural for him to cherish the belief that if he does not make the team this year, he will probably have at least two more good tries at it. Some well-meaning friends have been telling Jim just that. But Timmons will have none of it. "I've told Jim that a lot could happen between now and 1968 and 1972," he says. "He could get the mumps, be run over by a truck or come up with a bad stomach the day of the trials in 1968 or 1972."

Timmons seems to have made his point. "I'm going to try my hardest for the team this year," Jim said shortly before departing for Los Angeles. "A lot can happen between now and 1968 or 1972. I might get the mumps, be run over by a truck, come up with a stomachache..."

Jim Ryun is ready to make his big effort now.

PHOTOON A LONELY ROAD in his native Kansas, young Ryun trains for his day in the spotlight.