After the race Jim Ryun sat under the stands in a corner of Detroit's Cobo Arena, drinking 7-Up, and now, as they had so many times before, the people started crowding around, asking for autographs. Ice packs were pressed against his left knee, and towels were placed under his blistered and bleeding feet. Minutes earlier Ryun had come off the last turn to nip Villanova's Marty Liquori in a 4:02.6 mile and assure Kansas the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championship both schools wanted so badly. "No, they didn't hurt when I was running," Ryun said, when asked about his feet. "I had too much to think about just trying to beat Marty."
The victory, however narrow, was an especially satisfying one for Ryun. This season, as in every indoor season, there had been that nagging, frustrating injury, the sharp pain in the left knee that only got worse from the pounding on all those tight corners. His workouts had been irregular, his competition limited to a 4:06 mile early in February. But this winter, unlike those past, people were talking—about Jim Ryun not having it anymore, about Jim Ryun getting lazy since he got married, about Jim Ryun making up injuries whenever he didn't feel like running. There had even been boos at the Big Eight championships when he scratched 10 minutes before the start of the mile.
"I've gotten tired of talking about all the little things that keep popping up," Ryun said the morning of the NCAA mile. "It gets irritating to have all the trash injuries. It's tough telling people about them. I know it sounds bad, but they really are honest."
Controversy over the extent—or even the existence—of the injuries had arisen Friday night, when Ryun dropped out of the two mile after three laps. Villanova Coach Jumbo Elliott was the loudest complainant, pointing to an NCAA rule that says a competitor must give "his very best effort" in any event in which he is entered or be scratched from all remaining races. Elliott wanted Ryun kept out of the mile, claiming he had quit without sufficient cause. Elliott was also upset because Liquori had run a whole race and finished a worthless sixth.
March 24, 1969
The question became, finally, whether the games committee trusted Ryun. After one look at his feet, it did. "I'm tired of people bickering," Ryun said later. "I just wish we could have competition and let it go at that. But there are certain people who will never believe someone is telling the truth."
When the committee decided to let the meet be settled by the runners, the remaining question was whether Villanova's track championship would be enough to overcome Kansas' field championship. "Before the meet started we knew we were going to get our points," said Kansas Shotputter Karl Salb, who broke a meet record with a put of 66'8¾" and led Kansas to a one-two-three sweep in the event. "The only question was how our runners would do."
Villanova, the defending champion, had granted Salb his win but had not expected to get blitzed by 13 points in the shot, nor by the 10 Kansas picked up in the long jump. Suddenly the Wildcats were 23 points down, and for them the meet hadn't even started. "You have to respect anyone with four or five good field men," Elliott had said. "No one's going to trip them when they're throwing the shot or cut in front of them on the long-jump runway. And nine times out of 10 your top fieldmen will come through. You have no assurance of that when you're running."
Villanova did have the assurance, however, of its Mighty Burner, Larry James, who was up against his nemesis, San Jose State's Lee Evans, in the 440. Every time they had raced James had lost to Evans by anywhere from one inch to one yard, and Evans had become a mental as well as a physical challenge.
"The more running I do," said James, "the more and more important I find thinking. When I'm in top condition and in against top competitors, that's when I especially think the most."
"What do you think of?" someone asked.
"Lee," he said quietly.
"What about Lee?"
"That it's about time I beat him."
James led from the start, as he had in their previous meetings, but this time Evans never challenged, and James won in a good 47.3. "Usually Lee charges with a lap and a half to go," James said. "But when he didn't come, I tell you I didn't bother to look back. I just kept burning. For a long time I've tried to picture what this moment would feel like, and now that it's here, well, it doesn't feel any different."
But this meet, as almost everyone knew from the beginning, wasn't really going to be decided in any preliminary event, no matter how attractive or how well run. "The NCAA is the one we want," said Kansas Coach Bob Timmons, "and I don't think we can win it without Ryun. I feel confident, though, about Jim's condition." "I'm using Marty in both races," said Elliott. "We need the points and I think he is good enough and the type of kid to get them for us."
The attempted double was a disaster for both Ryun and Liquori. After their failures in the two mile, they were disconsolate and a bit embarrassed. "Nothing was right," Ryun said. "I just haven't got it put together yet. It was too ambitious to try and double." "I thought of dropping out," Liquori said, "but then I figured maybe I could get a point, and that's what I was running for. But I ended up running all that way for nothing. What a stupid sport."
There is in Liquori a certain brashness that makes him something special. His way is not a swagger, really, but more a look or a smile or a manner that implies he is doing something 19-year-olds aren't supposed to do. It is also bell-bottoms, Gucci shoe buckles, turtlenecks and the model-type girl in the jump suit. Says Elliott, "He's my cool cat." Says teammate Erv Hall, who equaled the meet record of 7.0 in the 60-yard highs, "Marty's cocky, but then the mile is a cocky type race." Says Villanova Sports Publicist Jim Murray, "Marty would race a roadrunner and not think of losing."
Two days before he met Ryun in the mile, Liquori was not only not thinking of losing, he wasn't thinking of running at all. "Other people are talking and worrying about this race more than I am," he said. "Like last night. Sure I was thinking, but it wasn't about Ryun. It was what Jumbo would think about the new pants [powder-blue bell-bottoms] I just bought."
By Saturday, Liquori was not only thinking of Ryun but was also a bit scared. "It's everything," he said, "the bad race last night, having to run Ryun, wondering how fresh he is and how much he has in him. You know, I don't like to think about a race that much ahead of when it's going to happen. You could go crazy that way. So I've developed this method. One hour before, I'll lie down and do nothing but think about running. I think about all the work I've done before the race, then say to myself if I lose it is all worthless.
"You always find that one split second in a race when a runner has to decide whether this is it, whether this is the time to go all-out. I think a lot of us are frightened when we think of this moment. After that thing last night I've really got my back to the wall. But I think I do my best when I'm up against it."
Ryun was against a wall, too. He needed a good race to reassure himself and to help his team. "I know this may sound corny," he said, "but I have to run well for the other 19 guys on the team. I don't want to let them down. And I think we can win this damn thing."
Ryun had an unusual plan for the mile—go out fast and try to burn the drained Liquori. He went out, but Liquori stayed with him through a 60-second quarter and then went by him as they passed the half in 2:03. Ryun came up on Liquori on the final turn. "He could have cut in if he'd wanted to," Liquori said. "I would have broken stride, and the race would have been over right there. But he didn't cut me off. He's too much of a gentleman."
Ryun's victory at the tape and Kansas' unexpected points in the pole vault and in the mile relay gave it the championship, the Jayhawks scoring 41½ points to runner-up Villanova's 33.
Later, lying with his knee iced and his feet wrapped, Ryun looked past those surrounding him. Liquori was walking by. They both smiled, weakly. "Excuse me," Ryun said. "I'd like to talk to Marty alone for a while."
"He just said it was a good race," Liquori said later. "And he wanted to explain that he really was hurt. How do I feel? Well, a year ago I held Jim Ryun in awe. But this time I came closest ever to beating him. I lost by two inches. I think I proved something."