Jim Ryun reflects upon 50th anniversary of breaking four-minute mile

Wichita East High’s Jim Ryun crosses the finish line with a state record time of 3:58.3 in the mile on May 15, 1965, at the Kansas state high school meet at Wichita State University’s Cessna Stadium.
Wichita East High’s Jim Ryun crosses the finish line with a state record time of 3:58.3 in the mile on May 15, 1965, at the Kansas state high school meet at Wichita State University’s Cessna Stadium. Eagle file photo

Six hundred yards into the mile race, Jim Ryun was bumped in the tight pack of runners. He stumbled off the track to the infield.

“I wasn’t even sure I’d finish the race,” he said.

That was 50 years ago Thursday at the Compton Invitational in the Los Angeles area.

Ryun, a Wichita native who later became an Olympian and set world records, recovered and did finish.

His time of 3 minutes, 59 seconds made him the first high school student to run a mile under 4 minutes.

But don’t look for any iconic pictures of Ryun finishing that race. Certainly nothing like the dramatic picture of him crossing the finish line nearly a year later when he won the mile at the state track meet in Wichita with a 3:58.3.

When you finish eighth – as Ryun did that night in Compton – no one is waiting to take your picture.

Ryun, however, also was a 17-year-old junior at East High School competing against a world-class field of older runners.

His placing didn’t matter. His time of 3:59 did.

On Thursday night, Ryun will be at San Diego’s Balboa Stadium when the milestone is honored.

Finding his sport

That Ryun was even there that night on June 5, 1964, is an amazing story in itself.

His early efforts in sports didn’t go well.

He was cut by his church’s baseball team, cut by the Curtis Junior High basketball squad. He couldn’t even make his junior high’s track team.

“During my junior high days,” Ryun said during a telephone interview this week, “I’d go to bed at night and pray, ‘Dear God, if you’ve got a plan for my life, I’d appreciate it if you’d show up sooner or later, because it’s not going very well.

“ ‘And if you could fit sports into it, I’d really like that.’ ”

His thinking was that letter jackets help attract girls.

As a sophomore at East High, he found distance running. In less than two years, he would be running the mile under 4 minutes and making the Olympic team for the first time.

Ryun lost his first high school race to a defending state champion, but he never lost again in the mile to prep-only competition.

He had a passion to work hard and didn’t flinch at grueling workouts developed by his coach, Bob Timmons, a Marine combat veteran of World War II.

Timmons quickly saw potential in the tall, skinny lad. He set lofty goals for Ryun.

After running a 5:38 mile in the fall of his sophomore year, Ryun quickly progressed and won the Washington Relays in 4:21 in Kansas City, Kan. On the bus ride home, Timmons asked Ryun to sit down beside him.

“Congratulations, Jim,” Timmons told Ryun, “but I think you can run faster. I’m thinking you can run under four minutes.”

Ryun went to the back of the bus, puzzled and unable to comprehend what that meant.

“But that was the genesis to all this,” he said.

The whole East High team began working for the same goal of seeing Ryun break 4 minutes. For instance, if the team was running repeat 440-yard intervals, he would start five or six seconds behind his teammates and try to catch up.

“It was a way to get me to the next level,” he said. “They weren’t offended by it. They saw it as a chance to do something historical.”

At the state meet as a sophomore, Ryun won in a record time of 4:16.2. As a junior, just weeks before going to California for his historic moment, he won the state meet in 4:06.4 – not only breaking his state record but also the national mark of 4:08.7.

Ryun was grabbing the attention of meet organizers across the country. The week before the Compton Invitational, he ran a 4:01.7 at the Modesto Relays in California.

East High students raised $121 to help pay for his and Timmons’ trip to Modesto.

“I was running well at the time,” Ryun said.

Still, there were doubters who wondered whether this high school kid belonged at Compton.

The race field was impressive during a track era when the 4-minute mile was the gold standard. All were either standout college runners or those who had gone on to the Olympics. Many had broken 4 minutes multiple times.

Dyrol Burleson, 24, competed in the 1960 Olympics. Jim Grelle, 27, was also a 1960 Olympian who had run a dozen miles under 4 minutes. Cary Weisiger was a former American record holder. Tom O’Hara, 21, was coming off an indoor season that saw him run a world-record 3:56.4.

For a taste of home, there was Archie San Romani Jr. He also was an East High product and was running for Oregon at the time.

But Ryun had been invited, so there he was. He and Timmons had a definite goal in mind.

Awakened by bump

Ryun focused on running the race, not on the pedigree of those on the track with him, with 7,800 people watching.

He was tied for second at the end of the first lap, but then came the bump heading into the turn at 600 yards. He stumbled off the track, then quickly regained his balance and was running again.

“It kind of awakened me,” Ryun said. “Sometimes when you run a race, you get into a zone. You’re so focused on the race that you aren’t focused on it.

“When I stumbled, I had to figure out how to get back in the race. It was like a shot of adrenaline to help me refocus.”

Or maybe it was just part of the plan.

“God works in mysterious ways,” Ryun said. “It could have been I was just floating along. It could have been a moment that helped define the evening.”

He was back in the race with 200 yards to go, trailing the leader by 10 yards.

In years to come, when he was running at the University of Kansas under Timmons’ coaching, he would be noted for his kick. He was once timed at 10.2 seconds for the 100-yard dash.

But on that night 50 years ago, the 6-foot-2, 165-pound teen wasn’t close to that kind of leg strength. The experience and power of the older runners took over.

“I’m just hanging on hoping to finish the race,” Ryun said. “I’m so tired. When I crossed the finish line, I was a little discouraged, because I thought I hadn’t done it.”

But he quickly learned that, for the first time, the top eight finishers all had broken 4 minutes.

Burleson won in 3:57.4. Weisiger was one spot ahead of Ryun at 3:58.9. Only 1.6 seconds separated the eight runners.

And Ryun had his 3:59 – the exact goal he and Timmons had set for the race.

He didn’t sleep well that night. He tossed and turned, thinking how quickly he had reached a goal that once seemed so far away.

“It was hard to comprehend it happened,” Ryun said. “Then when it did happen, it was a matter of thinking, ‘Well, what if I had applied myself a little more?’

“Little things, like taking care of injuries.”

Initially, the sub-4:00 was Timmons’ goal. Gradually, it also became Ryun’s goal.

“For me, that night was greater ownership,” Ryun said.

One of five

Only five high school runners have broken 4 minutes, with the most recent coming in 2011 by Lukas Verzbicas with a 3:59.7.

Ryun did it three times, including the 3:58.3 at the state meet as a senior and a national-record 3:55.3 in June in San Diego after his senior year. The latter mark stood for nearly 36 years before Alan Webb’s 3:53.43 in 2001.

Ryun also forever changed the way high school runners thought. That was certainly true for Marty Liquori.

Liquori was 15 when Ryun ran that 3:59. Three years later, he would become the third high school runner to break 4 minutes, with a 3:59.8.

“Before Jim Ryun, milers were 27, 28 years old before they hit their peak,” Liquori said during a documentary done a number of years ago and now found on YouTube. “Jim told us all we didn’t have to wait, that we could be good or even great at a young age.”

Ryun’s state meet record won’t be broken because Kansas abandoned the mile for the 1,600-meter run in 1979. The Kansas Relays is one of the few meets in the country that still has a mile race.

There are movements, such as Bring Back the Mile, to have more mile runs. Ryun also would like to see the mile return.

“I think the general public relates more to a mile,” said Ryun, who lives with his wife, Anne, in Washington, D.C.

The mile – and track in general – was good to him, and he was good for the sport.

Ryun was a three-time Olympian, earning a silver medal at the 1968 Games, setting world records in the mile, half-mile and 1,500 meters and becoming a five-term congressman for Kansas’ 2nd District.

And while those mile races may seem long ago, his historic moment will be back in the spotlight Thursday night in San Diego.

Just in case people forget what it takes to break 4 minutes, a special race will be held for media at Balboa Stadium.

Everyone will run for 3 minutes, 59 seconds.

“We’ll see how far they get,” Ryun said.

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