Mononucleosis makes you weak, sleepy and slow. Jim Ryun had it—and he was all those things in sequence. But that was earlier this summer. Ryun is much better now, thank you. Not at his best, but better—which, in Ryun's case, is beautiful.
He is still variously afflicted—by people pulling at his arm so that he can't get warmed up properly, by a sore foot and by people stealing his shoes. But those things were suddenly minor last Saturday night in Walnut, Calif. The rugged, new Ryun ran a 3:55.9 mile. It was only the eighth fastest mile by the man who holds the world record at 3:51.1. but it was a milestone for the man who only a month ago was afraid he would miss the Olympics.
When he laid out his pre-Olympic schedule at the beginning of this year Ryun planned to run a 3:50 mile by June. Then in May—three days after announcing his engagement to Miss Anne Snider of Bay Village, Ohio—it was confirmed that he had mononucleosis, which is sometimes called the kissing disease, in honor of one of the principal ways of getting it. That was a bit embarrassing, but it did explain the terribly slow miles he had been running (until Saturday 4:04 was his best 1968 time outdoors).
There were three weeks of prescribed rest—spent restlessly—during which he missed the first round of Olympic trials. Then Ryun ascended an extinct volcano in Flagstaff, Ariz. to get back in shape at 7,400 feet, approximately the altitude of Mexico City. For two days, according to his roommate, distance runner Conrad Nightingale, Ryun made only one entry in the journal he kept of his daily activities: "Worried."
August 18, 1968
The rarefied atmosphere and the three-week layoff had slowed him down so dishearteningly that at one point he told Nightingale he thought he had mononucleosis again. "I thought," Ryun said, "after all these years of getting ready for the Olympics and then not to even get a chance to try out..."
But he went back to his home track in low-altitude Topeka, Kans. and ran a few reassuring time trials. His doctor told him to stop worrying, he was a well man. And Miss Snider (whom he met two years ago on a blind date during the Thanksgiving holiday) returned to Flagstaff with him and "helped...with some timing." Presumably, any kissing was noninfectious. On July 26 Ryun ran an 880 that, for the altitude, was fast at 1:47.9. And then came last Saturday night at Mount San Antonio College near Los Angeles—a pre-Olympic meet featuring many of the prospective U.S. Olympians who have been training 7,300 feet up at South Lake Tahoe. Ryun easily reestablished his supremacy in the mile, and he felt so healthy doing it that he is inclined to believe he will try for a double—the 800 as well as the 1,500 meters—at Mexico City.
Saturday's mile was not among Ryun's most commanding races. For one thing, several of his opponents were presumptuous enough to take a shot at beating him. Usually when he is right Ryun stays toward the front all the way, gradually moving farther and farther away from the pack, whose members fight it out for second place. At Mount SAC, Dave Wilborn of Oregon, Bob Day of the Army and Roscoe Devine of Oregon (who finished second at 3:58.1) all challenged him for the lead, and, in fact, Wilborn passed him just before the half. But at the gun lap Devine was the only one close to Ryun, who steadily ran a 55.1 last quarter and won by 15 yards.
Not a peak performance, Ryun reported. He had trained too hard, he said afterward, and felt "heavy," and "when you feel heavy, you don't want to run a fast time because you are not sure whether you will be able to finish." He also felt tight, he allowed, because he was in such demand among officials in the infield that he never got loosened up. "Every time I wanted to warm up," Ryun said, "somebody grabbed my arm." After the race he was also hurting somewhat from the strained tendon in the arch of his left foot, pulled during the indoor season and still bothering him. He was miffed at the theft, during the race, of one of his warmup shoes. And to top it all off, some 200 people stood around him, after his victory, watching him get sick to his stomach.
Still, crowds don't care to watch anybody but champions get sick. And as imperfect as it was, Ryun's performance fully vindicated an intense, solitary struggle on the black cinders of Flagstaff's volcano. In fact, Ryun's victory was only one of three notable advertisements for Flagstaff as a training site. Ryun and three other rebellious runners—Nightingale, George Young and Billy Mills—have been training at Flagstaff instead of Lake Tahoe, where about 130 Olympic hopefuls are now working out before the gazes of admission-paying tourists and where little chips off the Tartan track there are being sold for 50¢ apiece.
For choosing to train away from the herd, the four were denied the regular $10-per-day allowance by the U.S. Olympic Committee. In their first meeting with the Tahoe men Saturday night. Ryun, Young and Mills "got a few needles in," as Ryun put it, by winning the mile, the 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters, in that order. Then they said that they plan to spend two more weeks in Flagstaff before joining the Tahoe camp.
For all the drama of Ryun revisited, Mills's victory—by a margin of some 300 yards in 28:43.6—was cheered with more feeling by those few fans who stayed on after seeing Ryun in the mile than any other event of the meet. It proved that the 30-year-old Mills, who won a gold medal in the 1964 Olympic 10,000 meters but dropped out of the AAU championships earlier this year with a bad back, is by no means over the hill. And Young, who is aiming for an Olympic berth in the steeplechase, ran the fastest 5,000 in his life, at 13:38.3, closing in on the pending American record of Gerry Lindgren. He said he was too tired from training hard to run his best race.
It was not a meet, generally speaking, in which people ran their best races. It was a meet in which a few people (including Ryun) met the Olympic qualifying standard for the first time this year.
But by trial and error, a bit at a time, an Olympic track team is taking shape. It is slow business, like a continued-every-week serial. But it is comforting to see it grow.
Even more comforting, if not to his competitors at least to the Americans who will be cheering him on, is the fact that Ryun is back. He may be the world's most closely watched ex-mononucleosis man. Still a little sleepy, definitely a bit weak, possibly a bit run down—but certainly not slow.