The heavy rain that had drenched Topeka, Kans. all day stopped toward late afternoon, leaving the streets full of puddles. A raw October wind made winter seem near, and indeed, as it became dark and the temperature dropped, the dampness in the air carried a hint of snow. In short, the weather was mean, ugly and uncomfortable—a lovely day for a run.
The jogger, dressed in a blue sweat suit, turned off Gage Boulevard on the outskirts of town and headed up the long hill on West 35th Street. To his right was a housing development, the farthest advance of growing Topeka. To his left was a field of sunflowers. Normally, he would have been running in the field, or in one like it, but it was soggy from the rain.
It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary jogger. His stride was long and powerful. He held his hands high and his fists were clenched, except for the thumbs which stuck straight up. His head was tilted slightly to one side. Familiar, somehow.
Nor would any ordinary jogger contemplate this training routine: a three-mile warmup followed by a dozen 2:30 half miles, each up a steep hill, and a slow one-mile run home. No, the jogger—make it runner—who just went barreling by on one of those halfs was Jim Ryun, the world-record holder in the mile (3:51.1), the boy wonder, the disappointing silver medalist to Kipchoge Keino's gold at Mexico City, the troubled young man who abruptly stepped off the track in midrace at the National AAUs in Miami 16 months ago and, as far as most people could tell, off the edge of the earth as well.
November 2, 1970
Well, Kip, old buddy, here's the latest. Jim Ryun is in training again. He won't say what he has in mind—indoor-season, outdoor, Munich—but coming up the hill on that gloomy Kansas evening, he was looking pretty intense.
There is no point in rehashing the depressing scene at Miami or trying to explain the reasons behind it, save for a few basics. In a mile that included Marty Liquori, who had beat him the week before in the NCAAs, Ryun, in good health, dropped out after one lap. He had quit several other races, too, sometimes because of injury, sometimes not. Even now Ryun finds it difficult to explain, but per haps Mantle, Palmer and Namath would understand. From the age of 17, when he became the first high school boy to run a sub-four-minute mile, until he was 22 and a national hero, Ryun was in the public eye. Almost anyone who is under pressure for that long at that tender age would crack. And anyone who has run seriously knows that sometimes the desire not to run can be overwhelming.
So Ryun quit, just like that. A few days later he got a postcard with a one-word message: "Quitter." There were others. And the press was roughing him up. After Ryun failed to finish a half-mile leg in the Drake Relays, a columnist proposed a plaque to commemorate the spot where he stopped. Here Is Where Jim Ryun Quit. "This should serve as an inspiration for future Drake Relay runners as they prepare to hit the backstretch," he wrote. Another reporter phrased it this way: "The nastiest four-letter word in sports is quit. It looks as if he'll have to enter the 100-yard dash to finish a race." And, from still another wit: "This writer votes for Herb Elliott as the best miler in history. Elliott finished what he started."
After Miami—Ryun says "after Miami" in much the same way one might say "after Pearl Harbor"—Ryun and his wife Anne stayed with her family, the Sniders, in Bay Village, Ohio, where he had a degree of privacy. The Ryuns had intended to tour Europe with the U.S. track team, but now he had no stomach for running or for the often devious politics of the sport. "I honestly didn't care if I ever ran again," Ryun recalls thinking.
While in Bay Village, Ryun received a phone call from Rich Clarkson, a close friend and the picture editor of the Topeka Daily Capital and State Journal, where he had worked as a photographer the previous four summers. Clarkson told him that a staff photographer had been killed in a car crash and that a job was open. Would he like it? Ryun already had a summer job at a bank in Lawrence, Kans. but it involved work he found distasteful—being on display at a desk by the front window and signing an occasional autograph. He accepted Clarkson's offer and began work at once, commuting to Topeka from his apartment in Lawrence.
By the end of the summer, when Ryun was about to begin his senior year at Kansas, he was so charged up about photography that he decided to switch his major from business to photojournalism. To do so and still graduate with his class, he had to take 19 hours. Since he had only one semester of cross-country eligibility left and didn't feel like running, Ryun decided not to go out for the team. Moreover, because of an academic letdown following the Olympics, he lost his athletic scholarship. To pay the bills, Anne taught second grade.
It was a pleasant school year. Ryun studied hard and did no running, except for a few jogs with Anne, or, at Christmas in Bay Village, with his father-in-law, Moose Snider. Ryun's weight soared from 165 to 198. "I think it might have topped 200 in April," he says. "The 198 was just after a game of paddle ball."
Then, last May 18, Ryun began running again. There was no special reason for beginning on that date, other than that it happened to be the last day of classes and that he felt like running. He ran five miles. Ryun has been keeping a diary to record his progress. The first entry. "Last serious running effort June 28, 1969 in AAU prelims." There are notations on distances: "May 27-31: 4½ miles a day"; minor complaints: "Tired and sore"; and a few personal notes: "Mother-in-law here."
Here are other excerpts: "June 1: graduation from K.U." Although Ryun graduated with his class, he is one three-credit course (Elements of Advertising) away from receiving his diploma and is taking a correspondence course to make it up. But, as he says, "I'd better start corresponding pretty soon."
"June 11-14: No running. Ill and took Army physical, which I failed because of back problems??" The question marks are because Ryun felt he would be turned down on account of his hearing, not his arthritic back. Then someone discovered that this was the Jim Ryun, and how bad can the back be if you can run a 3:51.1 mile? A second back test was ordered, which Ryun passed, but he failed this physical because his hearing is only 50% of normal due to a malformed inner-ear bone structure.
"June 21: Heather DeKlyn Ryun was born at 3:29 p.m.; 6 pounds 8 ounces, 19½ inches. Anne great."
Early in June, before Heather was born, the Ryuns moved from Lawrence to a modern two-family house in Topeka, and he became a full-time photographer for the Capital-Journal. He continued to run, jogging through the streets in the evening after the worst heat of the day. Folks along Skyline Drive would sit on their lawns and greet him as he went by. Children waited across the street for him to open his front door and set off. Ryun soon experienced many of the jogger's problems—dogs nipping at his heels, teenagers driving by and banging on the sides of their cars. "Kids aren't what they used to be," he says wistfully.
By September, Ryun had extended his workouts. "Twelve miles to Lake Sherwood in 1:15," he notes in his diary. "Ten in 63" and "fourteen in 1:32." To relieve boredom, he varied his courses, running all over town, past Governor Robert Docking's estate, Cedar Crest, and by Alf Landon's old, white-columned home. Landon is 83 now, but he is up early every morning riding horseback. He is a great fan of Ryun's and has often suggested that the two of them work out together some morning.
In September, Ryun began planning his workouts a full month ahead, drawing up a calendar on a large piece of cardboard and penciling in his intended distances. What he actually ran is written in ink. Pencil and ink don't always coincide. For example, "14 miles" is penciled in for Sept. 12, crossed out in ink and "rain—sick and dizzy" superimposed. But, generally, the distances and times show that Ryun had moved out of the jogger class. On Mondays, one of his days off, he has been going to Lawrence to run with the Kansas cross-country team. Hence, "Sept. 14: Three-mile warmup. Six-mile time trials in 33:14—10th place." He also began running on weekends with his friend Conrad Nightingale, a former miler who is now at the Kansas State School of Veterinary Medicine and hopes to qualify in the steeplechase for the Munich Olympics.
Recently, Ryun began two-a-days—a leisurely run in the morning, a more taxing workout at night—and this is what he is doing now. Twice a week he must be at the paper by 7:30 a.m., so he rises and is out on the road while it is still dark. "You have to pick roads you know well," he says, "roads with no gravel or bumps. All I have to do is look at a stone to get a stone bruise."
The Capital-Journal is a 12-minute ride from home in Ryun's green Volkswagen station wagon, which is equipped with a two-way radio so that he can let the paper know where he is. To the Capital-Journal, Ryun is 22, as in Agent 22. When he starts the motor he reports, "Twenty-two in car."
In the office Ryun is regarded as just another staffer. He is tall, lean and conservatively dressed—dark blue blazer, button-down shirt, striped tie. His horn-rim glasses, which he wears because he is nearsighted, give him a scholarly look. He is mild-mannered—Jim Ryun, mild-mannered photographer for a small metropolitan daily—apparently incapable of anger, at least outright anger. It sometimes seems he isn't aggressive enough for his trade.
There has been a three-car collision on Topeka Boulevard. Ryun is assigned to check it out. He grabs his camera case and rushes from the building. "Twenty-two in car," he reports. A package of Melba toast is on the seat of the car, a sign that Heather was there. Ryun reaches the scene in one minute and discovers three cars bumper to bumper. Not very photogenic. He gets out of the car anyway and looks it over, then climbs back in. "Twenty-two returning to office," he radios. Later, a leather-goods store is robbed, but the owner doesn't want any pictures taken. There is nothing to shoot anyway.
That afternoon Ryun finally gets a picture. The Journal has a feature called "Cook of the Week." Ryun is assigned to shoot a Mrs. Sharp, next week's winner. She is waiting in her apartment, dressed to the nines. Her kitchen is too small for pictures, she says, so she has set up a few empty dishes on the dining-room table. Nothing in them, mind you. She was told she didn't have to prepare her specialty, vegetable casserole, for the picture. Ryun asks Mrs. Sharp if she has anything that might serve as a centerpiece. Some flowers? she suggests. Ryun fetches them and places the vase in the center of the table. He attaches his strobe equipment and crouches. Mrs. Sharp smiles. Flash. Ryun rises and moves the vase of flowers one way, the casserole dish the other. He crouches again. Smile. Flash.
Ryun thanks Mrs. Sharp and packs his gear. She thanks him and asks, "Are you Jim Ryun the runner?" It generally comes sooner or later. Ryun says, yes, ma'am. "My husband has seen you jogging," she says. "We have lots of joggers in this apartment house and...."
Later Ryun explains that he never tells subjects who he is. "They tend to get all gooey," he says. When someone asks who's calling, he tells them the Capital-Journal. But most people find out anyway. He can be photographing a Topeka executive and suddenly there are a couple of secretaries standing in the doorway, seeking an introduction and, well, acting all gooey. If this pains Ryun, he doesn't show it. He merely looks a trifle embarrassed.
The Ryun apartment is a clutter of equipment, baby and sports. Heather's swing hangs from the ceiling. Nearby is a teeter-totter. Behind it, on the floor and almost hidden in a corner, is the Sullivan Award. The silver medal from Mexico lies on an old steamer trunk. Track shoes are scattered about. One pair belongs to Anne, and surely the Ryuns must set a family record for difference in shoe sizes. He is 11½, she 3½.
By the front door is a large basket containing tennis rackets and balls, a basketball, several baseball gloves and two paddle-ball rackets. Yes, he is very much interested in all sports. "I watch the Monday-night football, the Sunday football—as much as I can," he says. "The guys in the office keep trying to get me out for the touch football team. I'd like to, but it's a rough game and the chance of injury...."
On a wall in the alcove is a painting of Ryun running the 3:51.1. The artist is Gene McClain. "He was a good miler, a 4:05 miter," Ryun says; then, a moment later, adds, "Well, a fair miler." It's not a putdown, merely a correction.
It is evening at the Town Club on the 17th and top floor of Topeka's First National Bank Building. The Ryuns are having dinner out. Jim has on a dark gray suit with a vest. "Is a daiquiri O.K. to order before dinner?" he asks. A waitress with a mountain of silver hair brings one for Jim and one for Anne.
Ryun won't discuss why he has resumed training. If he did, it would create pressure. "I don't want to commit myself to anything," he says. But besides his training schedule there are signs that he is serious. On the day he started running again, Ryun flew to Austin, Texas to see Jack Daniels, the assistant track coach at the University of Texas and a research physiologist. There Ryun underwent tests involving skin folds to determine how much body fat he had, and he breathed into bags to gauge his oxygen debt. Daniels had tested Ryun before, so he was able to compare his condition. He has since tested Ryun in Kansas, and indications are that he has regained most of his stamina.
While Ryun won't admit that Munich is his goal, the city keeps cropping up in conversations. Anne asks the price of renting a house there in, oh, say, 1972. When she is told $5,000, she nearly faints. Ryun listens to a theory that man reaches his physical peak at 25. "Good," he says. "That's how old I'll be for Munich." He also asks about Liquori, what he's up to, if he's running. When he in turn is asked to describe the perfect setting for the race of his life, he says: "About 70°, no particular track, top competition. Only the competition matters." Does that mean Keino and Liquori? "That's right," Ryun says, and behind the bland expression, the horn rims and the gray vest, you can almost hear the competitive juices bubbling.
But he says no more, so we must guess. How about a semisecret mile at the K.U. indoor track against K.U. runners? If that goes well, a return to competitive running at an indoor meet this winter—Los Angeles, maybe, or New York. After that, selected races and more intensive training. And, of course, Munich has to be it. As his friend and boss Rich Clarkson says: "You can bet Jim isn't getting ready for the Mt. SAC Relays."