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John Blanchette: From a distance, Jim Ryun’s accomplishments continue to amaze

UPDATED: Thu., May 4, 2017

Jim Ryun becomes the first high school runner to break the 4-minute mile record with a run of 3.59 for East High School in Wichita, Kansas, in 1964. He went on to break the record three more times while in high school. (GARY ESTES / Associated Press)
Jim Ryun becomes the first high school runner to break the 4-minute mile record with a run of 3.59 for East High School in Wichita, Kansas, in 1964. He went on to break the record three more times while in high school. (GARY ESTES / Associated Press)

Bloomsday is 12 kilometers of civic satisfaction, and given the race’s size and staying power Jim Ryun is not going to quibble with the metrics – even if he is a feet, yards and miles guy.

OK, a mile guy. Maybe the mile guy.

On Sunday morning, Ryun will bring the usual mob of 40-some-thousand to their marks and set them off in pursuit of a good time – in multiple senses of the phrase – in his role as this year’s official race starter.

Full circle, then, for a runner who for a time was the sport’s most prominent finisher in its most prominent race.

It’s been 40 years since the inaugural Bloomsday and 50 since Jim Ryun put together a running season for the ages: world records at three distances and a pair of NCAA championships, all at the ripe old age of 20. It didn’t get him on the cover of Sports Illustrated – but then, he’d been the magazine’s Sportsman of the Year the previous December, so probably they didn’t want to overdo it.

That was back when being the world’s swiftest miler was a real thing, like being the heavyweight champ or winning the Indy 500. Back when track and field wasn’t – how do they put it nowadays? – a niche sport.

Track itself has been complicit in that conspiracy, and all but obliterating Ryun’s signature race didn’t help.

“I think we did a disservice to the general public when we went to meters,” said Ryun, whose weekend in Spokane will also include a free public speaking engagement Friday at 7 p.m. at Lewis and Clark High School.

“People relate to the mile in so many ways. Now when you’re at a track meet and you see the 1,600 meters or the 3,200, it just doesn’t correlate. I’d love to see them bring back the mile. I think it would energize the sport and energize the public’s appreciation.”

The track-appreciating public didn’t much need to be energized in Ryun’s day, but he did it anyway.

It began, of course, when he became the first high school runner to dip under 4 minutes in the mile, and as a junior, no less. That early promise was soon realized with the stunning world record run of 3:51.3 in Berkeley after his freshman year at Kansas. The photo of him at the finish – head pitched back and mouth searching for oxygen while a timer munched on his pipe – isn’t Ali taunting Liston, but it’s iconic nonetheless.

Here in Spokane and at the very same time, we had our own running prodigy, and Ryun and Gerry Lindgren shared a distant, informal bond that helped them cut the world down to size – both made the 1964 U.S. Olympic team as high schoolers – in a way you rarely see anymore.

“We were at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of events,” Ryun recalled, “but I could key off of his doing well to give me a little inspiration and challenge, and I’m assuming that was true on his side as well.

“But what we both really had was wonderful coaches. Mine was Bob Timmons and of course Gerry’s was Tracy Walters. And I think they collaborated some and strategized – sometimes we knew about it, most of the time we didn’t.”

They shared something else. Lindgren was a self-proclaimed “wimpy guy” – as elfin and non-jockish as they come. Ryun saw himself in a similar light.

“Two years before, I wasn’t able to make an athletic team – of any kind,” he said. “For me, it was an answered prayer just to be on a high school team. I was such a rookie in Tokyo, I didn’t know the Olympics happened every four years.”

The two would eventually meet on the track – Ryun winning the 1968 NCAA indoor 2-mile in Detroit’s Cobo Hall to hand Lindgren his only loss in 12 NCAA races.

“That was a great atmosphere,” he recalled, “and Gerry was a great competitor.”

So, too, was Ryun, though history doesn’t give him enough credit for it.

Those three record races in 1967 ranged from 880 yards indoors to the mile again (3:51.1) and finally the 1,500 meters, where his crushing kick in the U.S.-Commonwealth dual meet at the Los Angeles Coliseum took down Kipchoge Keino and brought Ryun home in 3:33.1, 2 1/2 seconds under the world record. The 1,500 record would last seven years; the mile eight.

But he was ambushed by Keino’s incredible run at altitude in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 – he recalled in The Runner magazine in 1981 that people felt by taking silver he had “let down the world” – and was tripped in the heats in 1972 in Munich. That it was 44 years before another American medaled in the Olympic 1,500 didn’t necessarily soften the critics.

Not that winning does, either: After Matt Centrowitz won gold in Rio, his pedestrian time was ridiculed.

The only thing a track fan wants more than fast times is fast times – faster.

“We’ve come to the mentality where we have to have instant success,” Ryun said. “Runners are made over a period of years and steady development. We want faster results, but that’s not the way distance running is. That’s the conflict every runner has to resolve.”

Mile by mile.

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