Turn back one page and take another look at the rapturously pooped young man gazing contentedly into his eyelids at the Kansas Relays. Someday that picture is likely to be viewed as a historical document, at least to one dedicated horde of appreciators: the track buffs. It shows one of the finest athletes in the world at the precise instant when he realized that the goal of his lifetime was attainable, and not after eight or 10 more years of torturous training, but soon. Maybe even this year. At the age of 19.
This is an article from the June 20, 1966 issue
The young man is Jim Ryun of Kansas (see cover), and his goal of a lifetime may surprise you. While other milers have taken aim at Michel Jazy's world record of 3:53.6, Ryun's goal lies well beyond the Frenchman's mark. Ryun is out to fracture the next psychological barrier: the 3:50 mile, usually known as "the mythical 3:50 mile" (just as the four-minute mile, now run by everybody except your laundryman, used to be called "the mythical four-minute mile"). If the taciturn young Kansan succeeds, he will have taken the next step toward the mythical 3:30 mile, posited by Dr. Roger Bannister as the fastest possible for the human machine as it is at present constructed. If such an ambition sounds presumptuous, then Jim Ryun is presumptuous, though out around the University of Kansas (or KU, as it is familiarly called) they will tell you that if freshman Jim Ryun is presumptuous, then Truman Capote is modest, Paul Hornung is ascetic and James Meredith is yellow.
Said a spectator at the Kansas Relays earlier this year: "That mile race almost changed Jim's personality. It was like a test of his body, a test of himself. It was the first time in ages he had been able to rest before a race. He tapered off on Monday of the week before and did practically nothing till the race. There was no competition or pressure in the mile and still he ran 3:55.8, which was the fastest in the world this year, and when the race was over he wasn't exhausted or sick, the way he had been at other races; he wasn't exhausted at all.
"The minute he heard his time he did one of the most un-Ryunlike things you ever saw. He began to grin from ear to ear. He was walking down the track with this smile on his face, and he was like a kid trying to quench it, hold it back and he just couldn't. He'd be looking up into the sky with his eyes shut and a big smile. And I found out later what he was thinking. He was thinking that he understood what he could really do this year. He said, 'You know, I feel there're gonna be some very fine times this year,' which, if you know Ryun, is a really wild thing for him to say."
"Ryun hates any talk of records or goals," says his coach, a stubby fireplug of a man named Bob Timmons. "He regards his goals as very private things." Mainly this is because Jim Ryun is by nature the most self-effacing of men. Says his father, Gerald Ryun, a tool-maker at the Boeing plant in Wichita, Kans.: "If we were sitting around here talking, and his mother or I mentioned one of his records, he'd wait till you left and then he'd scold us for bringing it up." When Ryun was 17 he came in third in a mile race in California and clipped four seconds off the fastest time ever clocked by a high school boy. When somebody asked him later how he had done, he said, "Only third." Pressed for his time, he said politely, "It was no big deal. Third is third." Another time he ran the best mile and half-mile double in high school history, losing in both events to college runners. Timmons asked him: "What did you tell your folks?" Said Ryun: "That I lost."
The man who is a cinch to break the world mile record and a good bet to break the 3:50 barrier has been described as "a stork in shorts" by students of ornithology and "a kid with a perfect build for the mile" by former Kansas star Wes Santee. At 19, Jim Ryun has not yet fully developed his body, and one has to beat down a temptation to address him as "Skinny," although he is filling out rapidly. Tall and ungainly at 6 feet 2 and 160 pounds, he does almost everything slowly. "Off the track he'd make Stepin Fetchit look like greased lightning," says Coach Timmons, and a friend adds: "If Jim moved any slower he'd have to be reclassified as a statue." Watching him shuffle across the grass on the KU athletic field, you wonder if you shouldn't help the old gentleman.
Ryun has protruding ears and short black hair parted far to the left and big hazel eyes and a white-toothed grin that would disarm a Gurkha. He picks up a high coloring from the sun, and this is accentuated by a pigmentation problem that keeps him from tanning on places like the elbows, knees and knuckles, so that he winds up each summer looking like someone who has been mottled in an Easter egg contest. Notwithstanding all this, he is a strikingly handsome young man, all the more so because he appears totally oblivious of his own personal magnetism, and indeed spends a goodly part of his time running himself down. He is square across the shoulders but not overly wide, and he has the usual concave stomach. His arms are scrawny, as befits a middle-distance runner, and when you look at his legs you fail to see the expected Western Electric cable of muscles, ligaments and protruding veins that serve on most runners to show how close to the limit they have strained their bodies.
James Ronald Ryun has a long way to reach his limit. He is 10 years ahead and only a tenth of a second behind mile record holder Jazy, and still a growing boy. His potential is bewildering. The most pedestrian prognosticators around him reckon that someday soon he will hold all the middle-distance records and bring new luster to the potato race and the three-legged race at church picnics in Wichita.
The fact that such a nonpareil runner should come out of Kansas will come as no surprise to students of track and sociology. Kansans are, for the most part, a calm and relaxed people, going about their business without the nervousness and downright panic of the big-city folk to their east and west, and it is easy to mistake this low-pressure mode of life for rusticity and vapidness: the old Kansas caricature of the mid-'30s, when galloping conservatism and choking dust almost put the state out of business. But underneath its placid exterior Kansas has a stiff backbone. "We produce wheat, salt, airplanes, cows and milers," says a proud native son, "and we don't talk about something till we've done it."
Ryun's home city, Wichita, does not mind describing itself as "a big old country town" despite its huge Boeing plant and its thriving private-plane industry, but when CBS Correspondent Hughes Rudd recently characterized it as one of the two dullest places in the world, Wichitans were ready to fight. "I don't know about that Evian-les-Bains, the other place he mentioned," said Don Granger, a Wichita newspaperman, "but anybody who thinks Wichita is dull just hasn't been going to the right places at night."
The "right places at night" were never an attraction to the pious Gerald Ryun family of Edgemoor Street in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of the proud town, and they never will be, but in many other ways Jim Ryun's native Wichita and his native Kansas are reflected in the athlete. Quiet and modest in his exterior, almost too soft and easygoing in his relationships with others, he, too, has a stiff backbone, an almost superhuman capacity to push through pain toward his goals. "The name of the game is pain," says his old friend J. D. Edmiston, a high school track coach, "and Jim can take it with the best of them."
As a young boy, Ryun almost died of peritonitis; at a time when his appendix was about to burst, he was telling his mother that he had a slight stomachache, and only when the appendix had ruptured did he admit that perhaps they should see a doctor, who operated with minutes to spare. A few days after a herniorrhaphy, Ryun begged his mother to drive him to school. He was not able to walk the three blocks, but if she would drive him, he said, he would manage to get himself from class to class and, most important, to the sidelines of the Little League baseball game, which was the passion of his life in the pre-teens.
When track had replaced baseball in his affection, a few years later, young Ryun plunged into the sport with the same enthusiasm and indifference to suffering. "It gets down to the real reason Kansas has always produced great milers," says Ted O'Leary, a student of track in general and Ryun in particular. "You can become a great miler if you're willing to suffer, and the weather in Kansas gives a young athlete more opportunity to suffer than almost anyplace I know. When Ryun was 14 and 15 years old he was running through ice and blizzards and 100° heat and slush and everything imaginable. Now you can compare that with, say, a California kid. The California kid wakes up in the morning and if there's a little fog outside he says, 'Ah, it'll be real nice tomorrow and I'll work out then.' The Kansas kid wakes up and there's a cold rain falling outside his window and he says, 'I better get the hell out and run this morning because tomorrow it's gonna be sleeting and snowing.' "
Ryun got the hell out and ran. Indeed, he ran so indefatigably as a sophomore at Wichita East High School that some wondered whence came the motivation that could make a spindly adolescent stagger out of bed at 4:30 in the morning and deliver a paper route and run six miles before breakfast, and then repeat the same routine after school before supper. Everybody knew why Kansas Miler Glenn Cunningham had been willing to suffer such pain; he had been rebuilding his body after third-degree burns in a fire. And Kansas Olympic Miler Archie San Romani Sr. was motivated by the fact that he had almost lost a leg when a truck ran him down in childhood. And another great Kansas metric miler, Ray Watson, had his hand amputated after a shotgun accident in junior high school. It was not necessary to have a physical handicap to become a star miler, but something about the agony of physical torment stiffened a man to endure the agony of training for the middle distances. There was no question that the relationship, however vague, did exist.
Ryun's great leap forward into distance running came shortly after he discovered a physical problem of his own. "Some time in junior high school we began to notice that he was asking us to repeat a lot," says his mother, Wilma, a vivacious and attractive lady who works in girls' clothing at Sears, Roebuck to augment the family income. "And I said to him, 'Well, why don't you pay attention to me when I talk to you?' And then one day the school called and said they thought they should give him some lip-reading lessons. Later the doctors told us that he'd suffered inner-ear damage from a virus or a high fever or something like that, and there was nothing that could be done about it. Not hearing aids or operations. But he's made a good adjustment, and he'll fool you and not let you know if he thinks he can get by with it. Except you might wonder why he keeps saying, 'What did you say?' I guess a lot of people wonder, 'What's wrong with that kid? Can't he hear?' "
"You'll be talking to him and he'll say, 'Pardon me? Pardon me?' " says Coach Timmons. "One time I said to him, 'Jim, I wish you'd do something about your hearing; maybe you ought to have a hearing aid or something.' I said, 'Jim, I'm saying this because there've been times among newspaper people when you haven't come up with the right answer because you didn't hear the question.' He got pretty disturbed with me. I don't know whether it was me or the idea that he'd have something in his ear or that he didn't like the thought of any of it. No, he didn't rant and rave at me, he's not that type, but I could see the idea didn't set right with him."
By exploiting the same concentration that won him competitive events on the track and scholastic honors in high school and a B average in college, Ryun has been able to overcome the problem of hearing loss. "If I'm not paying attention or I'm tired," he says, "I have some trouble, but I'm not as deaf as people think."
Says a close friend: "Sometimes I wonder if there's a hearing loss at all. He can look right at you and not hear you, but then some little thing that you don't want him to hear, he'll hear perfectly. I think what he has is selective hearing."
But if a partial deafness served to propel Ryun into middle-distance running, it has sometimes hampered him on the track. For one thing, he seldom hears split times shouted to him, and this makes it difficult for him to pace himself properly. This was less of a problem when there were adequate pacemakers available, but as Ryun edges closer to the speed of light it has become more and more necessary for him to boss his races, to go to the front and set his own pace. "I'm not very good at pacing myself," he admits, "and so it's important for me to hear my splits."
On at least one occasion Ryun almost lost a race because of his hearing problem. Well ahead of the pack in the mile at Modesto last year, he never heard the footsteps of San Jose State's John Garrison, who made a run and almost caught Ryun at the tape (both were timed in 3:58.1). As time goes on, such closing spurts will become less of a threat to Ryun. In his best mile to date, the 3:53.7 at Compton two weeks ago, there simply was no one able to spurt at him; he won the race by 20 yards over Jim Grelle, who posted a fine 3:56.0 himself and was soundly thrashed. Some felt Ryun missed his chance for a world record when he looked over his shoulder in the stretch, perhaps to see what he feared he was not hearing.
The more serious threats to young Ryun's glittering future lie in subtle areas: the areas of overwork and boredom, track politics and expediencies. Already he has been harnessed to solve dozens of problems for KU and his coaches and various meet promoters and civic leaders. "Jim understands right now that he's gonna be used for the rest of his life," says a friend. "And it's only been lately that he decided to stand up and fight about it." Says Coach Timmons, who belatedly understood Ryun's rebellious frame of mind: "It's been a very trying season. He's had to run a quality effort week after week. There's great pressure for him to show up everyplace. Now he wants to take some time off this summer, and I'm all for it."
For Ryun the overwork began in high school, under the same Coach Timmons, and the results were the first sub-four-minute mile ever run by a high-schooler and a college athletic scholarship for a happy Jim Ryun. "Timmons sets up the toughest training program of anybody in the country, both for himself and for his boys," says one observer, "but don't get the idea that he was being cruel to Ryun. A tough training program is exactly what the kid wanted in high school. It's only now that he's got to college that he's begun to discover there are other things in life besides running."
Says his mother: "You see, James didn't run into track, he dived into it. In the ninth grade he couldn't make the team and his coach said he'd never make a runner, and the next year he came in second in his first high school mile and won every high school mile he was in after that. But I was always concerned he was going to hurt himself physically. I thought he would ruin his health. When he'd come home at night he'd be sick and too tired to eat his dinner. He'd throw up after every race. He'd go to bed without eating his food night after night."
Says his father: "At first he'd always try too hard, before he had enough strength. He had vision, I guess, but his body wasn't trained and he'd tear off and pull ligaments. His body wasn't ready, and he had to suffer to get ready."
Early in his sophomore year Ryun was told by Coach Timmons that he stood every chance of becoming the first high school boy in history to break the four-minute mile. Timmons worked on a goal program, with each athlete setting a seasonal goal and upgrading the goals as they were reached. The measure of Timmons' own vision and Ryun's own dedication is the fact that the boy ran 3:59 in the first mile race in which his specific goal was to break four minutes. To accomplish this feat as a high school junior Ryun had to make training a year-round proposition, and there were a few times when he grew discouraged.
"Once in his junior year he came to me and I could tell he was down in the dumps," Timmons says. "It was the off season, and he'd been out running in the dark, in the snow and ice and rain, all by himself. There weren't any other runners out day after day like that, and it hurt him. And I could see that he was beginning to wonder if it was worth it. And I told him, 'Jim, I'm not gonna fight you on this. If this goal—the four-minute mile—isn't worth enough to get out and work day after day, then just forget about it. Nobody should browbeat you into achieving anything, as great as the goal may be. And if you don't want to do it, well, forget about it altogether. But I don't want you to come back at the end and tell me that if I had made you work you could have made it.' "
Predictably, Timmons found himself charged with overworking the boy, an accusation which makes all 5 feet 3½ inches of him bristle with indignation. "Yes, I've heard that I'm working Jim too hard," he says. "But, as coaches, I think what we all want is for each boy to achieve his maximum potential. That's our job. And it seems a little unfair that if a boy is highly talented you should have to apologize because you've done this. You wind up apologizing for the quality of his performance, and I find it a little hard to do. It's like some kids'll say, 'Why shouldn't so-and-so make straight A's; he studies every night!' Or they'll say, 'Why shouldn't he be a good piano player; he practices four hours a day!' That's absurd."
It is impossible to understand the training rigors to which Ryun was subjected without understanding Timmons, the coach who started him off at Wichita East High School and continues with him as head track coach at KU. One hears all sorts of stories about Timmons: that he is running for election as U.S. Olympic track coach, that he is trying to command the highest salary in track coaching, that he is power mad, etc., etc. None of the stories are true or even partially true. As J.D. Edmiston, Timmons' successor at Wichita East, puts it: "Bob Timmons is one of those coaches who do it for the love of the sport and not for the money. He lives it. This is his life. Where other coaches like me are in it both for the love of the sport and to make a dollar, too, Bob'll coach for nothing, and he has, in the past, in track and swimming clubs around Wichita."
Says Gary Barr, a shotputter on Timmons' squad at KU: "The guys resist his training program, because it's too tough. I resist it, too. But secretly a lot of us admire him and his system. I resist him, but the thing I like is he lets me resist him. Some coaches wouldn't. I don't think he's ever lost his temper. He puts on that smile of his and the worse things get the more he smiles."
Says another member of the team: "Bob Timmons is that old-fashioned word, dedicated. He's no driven man, no Sammy Glick or Willy Loman. He's the Boy Scout Handbook with all the corniness taken out. He just plain cares about the guys, and if he drives us hard, if he cuts the blood out of us, why, he cuts the blood out of himself, too. You go by that field house any night at 11 and you'll see the light on in his office. He's a hell of a little guy."
The graduating seniors at Wichita East wrote in 1964: "To put into words all of our feelings about him would be rougher than running 40 quarters, for we who have worked under him have learned to admire, respect and love him." As for the veneration in which Timmons and his goal system are held by others, he recently spent 15 minutes on the telephone detailing a three-week training program to the father of a high school senior with ambitions in the mile. The father was Glenn Cunningham.
But neither Timmons, for all his skills, nor Ryun, for all his ability, was able to cope fully with the demands of 1966, the first full year (for both of them) at KU. When the U.S. Track and Field Federation scheduled an indoor mile in New York, pressure was applied to bring Ryun east for the race. When a special freshman mile was created for the Big Eight indoor meet in Kansas City, nothing would suffice but Ryun's presence. He was so much in demand at the Emporia State College relays that he ran in three events ("And Jim is a guy who doesn't like to double and absolutely hates to triple," says a friend). Ryun was showing up everyplace; he and Timmons were both like the girl who couldn't say no. Timmons was reacting to pressure from the university and elsewhere; Ryun was reacting to pressure from Timmons.
The worst scene of all was at the Texas Relays in Austin. If ever there was a track meet that Ryun should have passed up, it was the Texas Relays. His training schedule for the previous week (and neither Ryun nor Timmons ever had deviated from a training schedule) called for him to run more miles than the Orient Express, and by the time he traveled to Texas he was in a state of near exhaustion.
None of this kept the promoters, and the newspapermen trumpeting the anticipated glories of the meet, from grandly predicting "the first four-minute mile in Texas history," and trying to fill the stadium on the basis of Jim Ryun. There was another pressure on Ryun and Timmons, too: some of the Texas colleges had been making noises about skipping the Kansas Relays this year, and Ryun's attendance at Austin would help put them in a better frame of mind about Kansas. Off Ryun went, on a mission that was more political than athletic.
In the stadium at Austin, to his deep embarrassment, Ryun was introduced to the crowd by a P.A. announcer who requested a standing ovation. Then Ryun went out and won the race in 4:03.9. When the time was announced, the crowd booed. A newspaper headlined the next day: DISAPPOINTING MILE: RYUN WINS RACE BUT DRAWS JEERS. The article was in the same vein. "The standing ovation was uncalled for," wrote the newspaper. "The ears of the 18-year-old miler may have been burning Saturday night en route back to Lawrence, Kansas, on the round-trip airplane ticket provided by the Texas Relays people." And a sports editor lamented publicly: "He owed it to the 16,000 people to put on a better mile than he did.... For two weeks everyone had pumped up this special mile as one in which Ryun would haul down Wes Santee's record of 4:00.5.... If he accepts the responsibility of coming down here, knowing what the people want to see, then he must accept the criticism.... He let them down." Ryun slunk out of town thoroughly ashamed of a performance that hardly anyone else in the world, under similar conditions, could have duplicated.
Timmons quickly stepped in and tried to shoulder the blame. "At KU we point for a few events at the end of the season," the coach said. "And that's what people don't understand. So if they want to blame anyone, they can blame me. We took all the strength out of Jim in his workouts. Under his program, he won't be able to run a great race till he gets down to the very end of the track season, because he's working out twice a day till then; he's running tired."
But no amount of explanation by Timmons or anyone else could calm the anguished Ryun. Although his public position is that journalistic criticism does not bother him, the truth is that Ryun, in his introspective way, suffers deeply when he is accused of jaking it. His reaction to the Texas criticism was to talk about quitting track, quitting KU, giving up everything that he and Timmons had worked for. Says an insider at the university, "It could have wrecked the whole thing: the first 3:50 mile, Jazy's record, everything."
As a result of Ryun's dissatisfaction, he and Timmons had a long talk. The minutes of the meeting have never been publicized, and doubtless never will be, but the results were apparent immediately. Ryun was withdrawn from several Mickey Mouse track meets. A month-long summer vacation, with no workouts at all, was penciled into his schedule, the first such layoff since he had gone out for cross-country as a gawky 15-year-old in high school. And, best of all, he was allowed to taper off his training during the week before the Kansas Relays, and thus was able to run the relatively effortless 3:55.8 that opened his eyes to the possibilities of the future.
"The problem is solved," said a member of the KU establishment. "Now Timmons and Ryun understand each other better. They understand that they can't please everybody, that their ultimate aim for Jim will be accomplished if they pass up a few minor events. We're resting easy around here now."
Timmons did not see the future in such totally roseate terms, although he clung to the feeling he has had for four years: that Jim Ryun is potentially the greatest middle-distance runner in history. "I just worry that he'll get the idea he's arrived," Timmons said in a final, brutally frank discussion about his protégé. "When the day comes that he thinks he's arrived, he'll be finished. If he doesn't continue to improve, then people are gonna cut him to ribbons. And that's one reason I think it's better for him to give up some of the things college kids do. If he has all the social life that some youngsters have, if he has all the academic life that some of the others have, and if he's got a girl friend and he's got a car and he's doing all these things that some college kids do—this is fine, but he won't be a champion runner! So he has to sacrifice, just the same way that the guy who makes straight A's has to sacrifice. He lived a Spartan life by his own decision. I don't threaten him or force him. I feel that he ought to become the best miler in the world, but it doesn't matter how we outsiders feel. It's all up to Jim. He does the work; he gets the credit, and he should make the decisions about himself. He has to decide if he wants to go to the top of the world himself."
As usual, Jim Ryun was keeping his mouth shut. But only a few days after Coach Timmons delivered his summing-up of the future, Ryun ran away from everybody in the mile at Compton and finished a near-record performance with plenty of gas in his tank. A week later, in Terre Haute, he almost casually broke the world half-mile record. Plainly, the retching, gasping Ryun of the past was gone, and in his place was a mature young athlete, a child become a man, the next look in middle-distance runners—lean, relaxed and ready to go to the top of the world.
FROM FRANCE, A PREDICTION OF GREATER THINGS
Michel Jazy, the present world mile record holder, offers his sincere appraisal of Ryun
If Jim Ryun breaks my mile record I may try to win it back. But for the moment at least I am concentrating on the 1,500 meters, Herb Elliott's record. That's the one I want. I am currently training very hard, but I have no plans to run a mile. I wasn't surprised to read that Jim Ryun had come within a tenth of a second of my time. I thought, in fact, that he would beat it. Track records are set to be broken, aren't they? One day sooner or later all records fall. Especially in a period like ours, extraordinary things can be expected on the track.
I would like very much to run against Jim Ryun. The question is, of course, where and when. I will be participating in Budapest in September in the European championships. But perhaps Ryun will come to Europe this summer with the American track team. Maybe then a race could be arranged.
I first saw Ryun in the Olympics. I mean in training. I saw him a second time in the Soviet Union on television in the U.S.-U.S.S.R. games. I can't say that I was particularly impressed on those two occasions, but since then, reading about Ryun in the press, I have realized that he is extremely talented. He can certainly do better than he did in Compton. Will he take the mile record away from me? He certainly should. I hope he does do it. I say that sincerely.