Saturday, April 29, 2017

Jim Ryun Turns 70

It's scrolled across my Facebook feed all day long.  Jim Ryun is 70.  Jim Ryun, more than any individual outside of my mother, is why I am, who I am today.  He made me a runner, he cultivated my love of sport and in an more important way, made me realize my shortcomings as a human.

You see Jim Ryun epitomized what it meant to be dedicated to the pursuit of a singular goal.  He pursued impossible, unbelievable goals, that in the end fell just short of what an entire nation expected of him.  It nearly destroyed his career, yet he had the strength few men had to return and dare to dream the dream every great runner dreams, that of winning Olympic gold.

I was a late bloomer when it came to sports. I didn't really dial into the fact that something remarkable was happening just 60 miles away from where I was growing up in Abilene, Kansas.  At Wichita East High School, Jim Ryun along with coaches, Bob Timmons and J.D. Edmiston were re-writing the rules of what was possible for a high school miler.

By 1967 I was fully aware of who Jim Ryun was and what he was doing.  I can remember watching amazed on television as he destroyed Kenya's Kip Keino in running a world record for 1500 meters at the historic Coliseum in Los Angeles.  I knew that Jim Ryun was destined for Olympic glory. 

The following summer I watched in agony as Kip Keino ran, perhaps the greatest 1500 ever run in the altitude of Mexico City to snatch Olympic gold from my hero.  Looking back at the disappointment of that day, there can be no doubt that in defeat and with his Olympic silver, Ryun had in fact run a tremendous race of his own.

I can remember in the fall of my 8th grade year running in a large vacant lot hoping that I had run approximately a mile to see what I was capable of at the distance of my hero from the University of Kansas.  It wasn't until the spring of 1969 I would travel to Lawrence to see him run in person for the first time.  His world record anchor in the Distance Medley Relay was a sort of last hurrah for what been a very difficult season for him.  His career would appear to end a couple of months later as he stepped off the track in Miami during the AAU National Championships and into retirement.

I was just beginning my track career that spring.  I wanted to be a miler.  In those days, 8th graders couldn't run more than 440 yards.  So I can remember running a mile to see what I had in me.  The coach time me and somehow I ran just under six months, a good two minutes slower than my hero.

What was happening to me was happening all over the country.  Ryun and in no lesser extent, Gerry Lindgren, sparked a distance running revolution across the nation for high school boys.  It changed the face of the sport for more than a decade before running out of steam by the dawn of the 1980's when high school coaches started paying too much attention to the pablum served up by Runner's World and not studying the challenging approach taken by athletes like Ryun and Lindgren.

I saw it in my own neighborhood where high school looming for me, a boy down the street who was a couple of years older than me and who shared a love of all things Ryun took me by the hand and led me into the world of cross country.  My path was set and running became deeply ingrained in my life. Little did a know that four years later I would be following Ryun in workouts at Kansas.  From that, two decades later I would help create the defining documentary that chronicled the great milers career.

I became a runner because of Jim Ryun, that sparked my love of sport and led me to a long career as a journalist.  In the intervening years I coached and eventually came to own a running store.  And to this day, let there be no doubt, that Jim Ryun is the greatest American miler, period.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Money Grab

This picture made me mad.  It looks innocent enough, seven runners celebrating the finish at the 2017 Boston Marathon.  Forget the fact that they blocked a clear path to the finish for four or five other runners.  Forget the fact that they ruined the finish line photo for those runners and likely some others.  I'm mad because this is Boston, not Disney.  It's the holy grail of any runner who dreamt of trying to challenge 26.2 miles.

For 80 years or so, Boston drew a handful of elite athletes and a lot of very good local runners.  The first qualifying time didn't appear until 1970, a mere four hour standard.  The jogging boom eventually brought some serious qualifying standards by the end of the 70's.  I remember having to run a sub 2:50 marathon.  I didn't accomplish that until I was 30 years old.  Even then, I passed on the opportunity to run Boston.

By the time I ran the race in 1994 about ten thousand runners gathered for the mass start in Hopkinton.  A lot of my friends talked about running the 100th in 1996 and my only thought was who would want to deal with 20,000 runners in this cramped area.  I returned to run it again in 2003 with 17,000 other runners.  By this time facilities at the start had been improved and the race went off in two waves.  I ended up not running due to an injury.

I noticed in 2003 the large number of runners given entry thanks to ties to the race sponsors.  Few, if any, had qualified by time. Shortly after that came the deluge of charity runners.  They received invitations to run the prestigious race by raising money for a worthy cause.  That forced organizers to use a third wave at the start.  In the last four years, it started squeezing out runners who had qualified.

That's a big part of my beef.  Yeah, I'm old school and Boston to me should mean something.  Letting charity runners in at the expense of runners who ran a qualifying time is wrong.  It's the tail wagging the dog.  And the picture above is an example of why it's wrong.  I can only imagine having to that gaggle if they ran a large portion of the race together.

Running a Boston qualifier is hard.  It requires a lot of dedication.  Looking back, I took it for granted.  I never really stopped to think how lucky I was.  It's the best race I've ever experienced.   The thrill of running through the scream tunnel at Wellesley will stay with me forever.  Running up Heartbreak Hill was incredible.  The finish, gathering with my friends, sharing their racing adventure, it was heartwarming.  Even watching from the finish line for my wife to finish in 2003 was tremendous.

But money now rules at Boston.  The city still fills the streets to support the runners, even though the drama is now drawn out over more than six hours rather than four.  My words won't change the direction organizers have taken the race, nor should it.  But if you run Boston, respect it and those who are running it with you.