It's back to the old drawing board

Jim Ryun's comeback backfired in L.A., Marty Liquori was forced to scratch and Tom Von Ruden won
March 13, 1972

The race had been run and Jim Ryun had finished forlorn and last in 4:19.2 and now, when all he wanted was to be alone, he stood in a gloomy tunnel of the Los Angeles Coliseum and answered questions. When as a Kansas schoolboy he had run the best milers of the world into the ground the public had made him bigger than life, and even then he wondered at the insanity of it. But the public likes its heroes to be heroic and is annoyed when they are anything less, and this Jim Ryun understands. So last weekend, sick at heart, he accepted his defeat as gracefully as he had accepted his victories.

"No, I don't know what is wrong," he answered, with blank eyes. "Is it mental? Perhaps. I don't know. No, if it is, I don't know why. No, I am not quitting. Yes, I knew when I was out of the race." A small smile appeared. "When I was 150 yards behind and everybody was pulling away from me."

"Why don't they give him a blindfold and a cigarette?" a friend said to Anne Ryun, his wife.

"Jim doesn't smoke," she said absentmindedly. "Oh, we've got to get him away from this."

"I'll tell him he has to see a doctor," said the friend.

"Yes," said Anne. "No. Then they'll think he's sick and they'll get on that and they won't believe him when he says he isn't."

"No, I have no excuses for the way I ran," Ryun was saying. "I felt heavy the first lap and then I began to tighten up. A mental problem? Somebody asked that. No, I'm not sure about that. No, I can't reconstruct the race. I don't even want to think about it now. Later I'll go over the race. I have to get back to the hotel now. Thank you."

A few hours later, in his hotel, after he had decided to order dinner from room service, Ryun probed a little deeper into his problems, but only a little. A 4:19? He hadn't run that slowly since he was a senior in high school.

"Before the race I felt good, really good," he said. "Then as soon as the gun went off I got tight. Maybe it's psychological. I don't know whether it is or not. I'm going to think about it, but I don't want to talk about it. The thing now is just to forget this race, to get away from it.

"I know I'll figure it out," he went on. "I'm discouraged now but I know I'll figure out what's wrong. It's something I'm doing wrong the last hour before a race. The difference between what I did today and what I can do is such a little thing. That's what's so disgusting about this. It hasn't been easy. It takes all the fun out of running. And it's been hard on my family. I understand it but it's been hard for them."

Ryun ruled out running any mile races in the near future. Until he is sure he is ready, really ready, he will limit his competition to an occasional leg in a two-mile relay.

"I don't want any more pressure situations for a while," he said. "I'll go back to Kansas, and Coach Bob Timmons and I will work it out. The thing for me now is to relax. The best thing is that I still have time to get ready for the Olympic Trials." He sighed. "I guess you can say that this was not one of my better days."

Ryun had returned to Lawrence, Kans. from Santa Barbara, Calif. two weeks before—his third move in a year—to train under Timmons once again. The quiet little coach already had spotted a flaw in the once perfect machine. "Physically, Jim is as good as ever," he said. "But Jim was so consistently a winner he never thought of losing a race. Then came the physical problems, the pressure of Mexico City, the loss to Keino and the races he didn't finish. Someplace in all of this something happened. There was a change from 'I can win' to a worry about losing."

Marty Liquori's problem is wholly physical. He was scheduled to run against Ryun in the Meet of Champions, but he never got closer to the action than a TV set in Rosemont, Pa. Last October, Liquori, who ran the second-fastest mile (3:54.6) in the world in 1971, tore a ligament in the heel of his left foot and it has worsened steadily. Last week two New York City doctors told him that the only cure was total rest for at least a month. "Can I jog?" Liquori asked hopefully. "No," he was told. "And even then there is no guarantee."

In 1969 Liquori ripped the same ligament in his right heel and it took six months to mend. "The only way I can describe it," Liquori said, "is that it's like a rope. Just a lot of little twines. You tear one and then another, then another. They keep snapping."

Ordered to rest for 10 days in November, Liquori postponed his enforced vacation until after the NCAA cross-country championship, in which he finished 30th. "I really tore it then," he said. "I couldn't even walk for a while." He found himself in a frustrating cycle of resting, training, then resting when the injury flared again. When he attempted to run a five-minute mile he couldn't walk the following day.

"Every time I tried any speed work it hurt," Liquori said. "So I just did 10 or 12 slow miles, like at a nine-minute pace. Every time I thought it had healed I'd quickly find out it hadn't."

In February he ran an 8:31.6 two-mile in the Astrodome, came up limping, and rested for a few days. A week later he ran a two-mile relay leg, and rested for 10 days. He aggravated the injury again two weeks ago training on ice and snow, which is when he was told to forget it for at least a month.

"I'd give two other years for this one," Liquori said. "I'm not worried about the Olympics, that's six months off. But the Trials are in July and right now it doesn't look good. If it clears up in four weeks I can still make the team. But if it goes on much longer it will be hopeless. Damn, it's strange to think about stopping now."

When Ryun learned of the extent of Liquori's injury, he was equally dismayed. "I hate to think of Marty not being on the Olympic team," he said the night before the Coliseum mile. "He's such a great competitor. The thing I'd tell him is not to lose his confidence. He's always in such great shape, a four-week layoff now shouldn't hurt him much physically. Marty has that great toughness going for him. And I know what he's going through. I had a similar injury in 1968 and I just decided to keep going." He laughed. "At that point you've got nothing to lose.

"You know, after I was injured a doctor made me a piece of thick leather padding that went inside the shoe under the heel. It was awfully uncomfortable but the injury never bothered me again. I wonder if that would help Marty?"

On the morning of the race, Tom Von Ruden, the U.S.A.'s forgotten third man in the 1,500-meter final at Mexico City—he came in ninth—took to breakfast with him the responsibility of being the country's current No. 1 hope in that event at Munich. With Liquori injured and Ryun flagging, no one else is even close. The 27-year-old Oklahoma State graduate student doesn't mind the unexpected burden, only the way he got it. He's a tough and talented competitor who would gladly run over Ryun and Liquori at their best, but at the same time he finds little satisfaction in passing them when they aren't. Von Ruden cannot forget that they were sub-four-minute high school milers while he couldn't get under 4:35.9. In fact, he didn't duck under the barrier until he was 23. "I couldn't have broken four minutes in high school," he said, "if I had started running in kindergarten."

For Von Ruden, high school was in Notus, Idaho, a town of 313. Since his school had fewer than 100 students, including girls, Von Ruden played all sports, giving him only six weeks a year for track and baseball, and the closest track was six miles away. At Oklahoma State the track coach was a sprint specialist so Von Ruden found himself again on his own. "I am the only coach I ever had," he said wryly, "and at first I wasn't too good." In 1967, at Bakersfield, Calif., Von Ruden finally broke four minutes, running a 3:56.9. "I liked that," he said, "but I'd rather have won." The winner was Ryun, in his world-record 3:51.1. Seven runners were under four minutes, including Liquori, who was in high school.

"I feel like I've been running in Ryun's and Liquori's shadows all my life," Von Ruden said. "And it hasn't been that bad. Losing to them is bad but when I see the pressures they are under, the way they are hounded, well, I'm kind of glad I don't have that. Liquori seems to handle it well but I can see it bothers Ryun. I'm like Ryun, a private person. When I go back to school at Stillwater after a race nobody bothers me because nobody knows who I am. That's how I want it."

This time Von Ruden didn't expect to have any problems handling Ryun. "He doesn't have the motivation anymore," he said. Von Ruden, who has plenty, won nine races indoors this winter, including a 3:57.9 mile at Fort Worth, was disqualified after finishing second in another race and lost to Kip Keino by 3/10ths of a second in a 4:01.2 mile. Ryun won one mile in 4:06.8, came in sixth in another in 4:13.2 and finished up the track in a two-mile.

"We've got a rabbit, and if he sets a good pace for three quarters there won't be any problem," Von Ruden predicted. "If you look at Ryun's races since his comeback, any time there's pressure put on him he hasn't done well."

Finally they got to it, with Bob Messina, the rabbit, setting off at a 59.2 first-quarter pace, the rest falling dutifully in behind. Running stiffly from the start, Ryun was third, fell back to sixth going into the second lap and lost contact three quarters of the way around the Coliseum's brand-new Tartan track. At the half-mile point Von Ruden began to wonder where Ryun was. Then he heard the public-address announcer say that Mark Winzenried, the half-miler looking for his first sub-four-minute mile, was challenging for the lead. "Oh, oh," thought Von Ruden. "I had better stop worrying about what's behind me and worry about the race." That was the last thing he remembers hearing.

Going into the bell lap, George Young, the 35-year-old two-miler, had the lead, followed by Winzenried and Von Ruden. Then John Lawson sprinted from fourth to first. With 160 yards to go, Von Ruden kicked into the lead and began to pull away. He has run a 46.6 mile-relay leg and doesn't think there is a miler in the world who can out-sprint him. This day there was none. He won easily in 3:57.8, followed by Winzenried (3:59.5), Lawson (3:59.5) and Young (3:59.6). Like Winzenried, Young got his first sub-four-minute clocking, but his elation was short-lived. A few minutes later Young discovered that someone had stolen his sweat suit, his wallet and his car keys. It could have been worse. If he had run in the two-mile as he originally had planned, the thief would have had time to steal his car as well.