Obviously he is too tall and gangling to be a great sprinter. Probably he is too young and impatient even to bother with something as arduous as the marathon. But patently it is not too farfetched to believe that University of Kansas freshman Jim Ryun is capable right now of smashing world records for all the distances in between. If you do not believe that, there are 17,253 people who sat in on the 26th annual Coliseum Relays in Los Angeles last week who do. On a chilly, damp evening they saw Ryun outleg the strongest two-mile field ever assembled in the U.S. and add the American two-mile record to the one he already owns in the one-mile run. They saw him follow a bristling fast pace for most of the race and then gallop past Kenya's world-record holder at 3,000 and 5,000 meters, Kipchoge Keino, in the last curve. Then they saw him hold off a desperate challenge by Jim Grelle in the final straightaway and, with a lunge at the tape, win in 8:25.2, which was just 2.6 seconds over Frenchman Michel Jazy's world record.
Even for 19-year-old Jim Ryun the victory was impressive, but last weekend it was no more memorable than performances by his equally talented contemporaries. In Seattle, Washington State's spindly, sparrowlike sophomore, Gerry Lindgren, 20, turned in the second fastest three-mile run in history, 12:53 flat, just three-fifths of a second slower than Ron Clarke's world record and 11.2 seconds under his own American record. In Fresno, Calif., Bob Seagren, 19, capped what started off as a very bad evening with a world record in the pole vault. Seagren took three tries to get over 15 feet 6 inches. He took three tries at 17 feet 8 inches, too. He never did make the height, but he could not have cared less. On his third attempt at 17 feet 5½ inches, he had soared over the bar in perfect symmetry, and that was higher than anybody had gone with the aid of a pole before.
But it was Ryun's race that captured the imagination. The fact that he was in the two-mile race rather than, for him, the more comfortable mile, denoted nothing more significant than the fact that that was where the action was, and Ryun, in remarkable running condition, was looking for competition. There were the legitimate two-milers: Tracy Smith, the young blond who ran 8:32.4 indoors this year; Keino, who, despite a 3:54.2 mile to his credit, prefers longer distances; and UCLA's sturdy Bob Day, whose fastest mile is 3:56.4 but who also considers himself a two-mile-or-more man. And there were the milers: Ryun, Grelle and Dyrol Burleson, all of whom had run well this spring.
"I see the race breaking down into two cozy little groups of three," Ryun said, only half humorously, on the eve of the race. "The real two-milers will be out in front trying to set a fast pace. The rest of us—me, Grelle and Burleson—will be trailing behind hoping we can stay close enough to outsprint them in the last quarter."
This prediction was not too far off. Wearing his customary orange cap, Keino sped to the front before the crack of the starter's gun had ceased echoing around the cavernous Coliseum and hurried through the first quarter-mile lap in 61.6 seconds. With Day right in step behind Keino and Grelle and Ryun bringing up the rear, the six men sped along in single file through a 2:05.1 half, a 3:09 three quarters and a 4:13.6 mile. Then the pressure of this fast pace began to break up the field of runners as if they were pieces of moldy plaster.
With 600 yards to go, Keino, still leading, made the singular gesture that fills the people in the stands with delight and the runners on the track behind him with apprehension. He reached up, grabbed his orange cap and flung it onto the bright green grass of the infield.
"Oh, my gosh," thought Grelle as he saw the flash of orange. "If that means he's starting his kick, I don't know how we're going to make it."
Ryun remained unawed. "I figured it was just taking up energy," he said. "He seemed to be waving it around for a while before he threw it away."
Ryun may have been right. Keino's finishing sprint ended about 100 yards earlier than he planned it to. As the three runners raced through the last turn of the last lap, the Kenyan faltered and broke stride. Ryun rushed by him and Grelle, a few feet back, followed. The record-breaking pace had left four fine distance runners tottering almost meekly along the track behind them, but the two survivors hurtled down the finishing straight seemingly as fresh as when they started a few minutes earlier. Grelle, beaten often but never badly, pulled up to Ryun's right shoulder and it seemed he might pass him, but he never got any closer as they ran through the tape. When the race was over Ryun, suffering from an agonizing headache and nausea, was in no condition lo feel at all elated. Grelle, however, was quick to point up the Significance of the youngster's victory.
"Look at me. I'm hardly tired at all," he said. "I should never have lost by a foot like that. My problem is that I can't seem to hate the rest of the guys in the race enough. But that's what makes the difference between a good runner and a great one—like Herb Elliott, like Peter Snell, maybe like Ryun. Plenty of runners are fast, but there are not too many mean enough to just stay out there in front regardless of how they feel and never let you by."