50 years ago the nation watched transfixed as a young man from Kansas dominated the mile like no other American runner ever had or has since. Jim Ryun was finishing up his sophomore year at the University of Kansas preparing to defend his national championship in the mile and laying the groundwork for a trip to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Ryun was a wunderkind who had burst upon American middle distance running three years earlier by shocking the world of track and field with the first sub-four minute mile by a high school boy. He topped that by snagging a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. He followed up his break through year at Wichita East High School by winning the 1965 A.A.U. National Championships in an American Record 3:55.3 in the mile and taking down Olympic Gold medalist Peter Snell from New Zealand in the process. The four years that would follow at Kansas was unbelievable beyond any Greek heroic tragedy. His freshman year he broke the American Record for two miles, followed that up with a world record in the half mile and then added a pressure packed mile world record clocking a 3:51.3 in Berkeley. Ryun ended 1966 named as the nation's top amateur athlete, winning the Sullivan Award. America and the world was watching for what Ryun would deliver for an encore in 1967. The whispers centered on whether he could be the first man to run under 3:50 in the mile. He would give a hint of things to come at the Kansas Relays in April clocking a 3:54.7 mile. Five weeks later he would run a 3:53.2 in Compton. Two weeks after that Ryun ran a seemingly pedestrian 4:03.5 mile to win the NCAA Championship. The time would be deceptive since it was run at 4,551 feet in Provo, Utah. Shockingly, it was the only outdoor NCAA title he ever won. Five days later Ryun would find himself in California's central valley. He had traveled to Bakersfield to defend his AAU outdoor title for the third time. He clocked a leisurely 4:07.5 in winning his preliminary on Thursday June 22.
The following day offered no hints of what was to come. Ryun told me in a 1997 interview that he didn't feel tip top going into the race. He was feeling sluggish, almost on the verge of a cold. When the gun sounded the field let Ryun slip easily into the lead at a very pedestrian pace. Rolling through the first two laps in a leisurely 1:58.6, there was no sense that something magic was about to happen. But as Ryun told me, the race was beginning to feel special.
Leading into the back stretch on the third lap Ryun began to pull away from the field opening up a sizable gap by the next turn. Now in full flight Ryun hit three laps somewhere in 2:57.6 and the only question was whether he could finish in 52 and break the 3:50 mile. With no one in sight to pressure him, Ryun glided to a new world record of 3:51.1, on a chopped up clay track. Back in 7th place Marty Liquori became the third high school athlete to dip under four minutes in the mile.
Ryun told me it was the easiest race of his life and he headed to altitude to begin preparation for his much anticipated showdown with Kenya's Kip Keino. The year before Keino had pushed Ryun to an American Record for two miles in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Ryun says the sessions at altitude left him exhausted, yearning only for sleep in the days leading up to the July 9th battle, again in Los Angeles. I remember tuning into ABC's Wide World of Sports for the race and listening to the commentators wonder if Ryun could handle Keino, who had run World Records of his own over 3,000 and 5,000 meters. His best in the mile, 3:53.4, which showed the Kenyan had the speed to give Ryun a real match. I remember watching Keino jump into the lead threatening to run away from the field. Ryun worked patiently to stay on Keino's heels. The duo hit the bell in 2:55.0 and on the back stretch with 300 yards to go Ryun easily sprinted away from his rival. When he hit the finish line the seven year old world record for 1500 meters had been smashed by more than two seconds with Ryun clocking 3:33.1. Ryun's coach, Bob Timmons, had clocked the last three laps in 2:46.6. Ryun handed Keino another defeat in the mile one month later in London and finished his season in Germany where he blazed a 50.2 final 400 to win the 1500 meters in 3:38.2. Given the wins in Los Angeles and London over his Kenyan challenger, American track and field fans expected nothing less than gold the following year in Mexico City at the Summer Olympics. The experts knew all too well the challenges of Mexico City's altitude would favor Keino. 1968 would prove to be a challenging year, tragic in a sense. A bout with mononucleosis cost Ryun precious weeks of training. It nearly cost him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But in the end it was the altitude and an extraordinary run by Kip Keino would leave Ryun satisfied with a Silver medal.
Ryun's achievement wasn't enough for many American track and field fans. It brought unmerited criticism to the world record holder and it in part, led to an ignominious end to his career the following summer when Ryun would step off the track mid-race at the AAU Championships in Miami leading him into a retirement that would last more than a year. He was over raced and over trained. Yet his legend remains, 50 years on.