Chasing Greatness

It’s a distance that captures the public’s imagination. One mile. A car going 6o mph covers it in one minute. A horse in full flight can cover a mile in a minute and thirty-two seconds.

For man, the barrier was 4 minutes and until May of 1954, no man had ever run under 4 minutes in the mile until England’s Roger Bannister snuck under with a 3:59.4.

After Bannister broke the barrier, man began to chip away at it. Bannister’s great Australian rival, John Landy, ran 3:57.9. Then Derrick Ibbotson of England reclaimed the World Record, shaving a mere .8 of a second off Landy’s time.

By 1966, Herb Eilliot, Peter Snell and Michel Jazy had successively driven the World Record down to 3:53.6.

On July 17, 1966, no American since Glenn Cunningham in 1934 had held the World Record for the mile run, but that was about to change.

Like Cunningham, it would be a Kansan reclaiming the World Record and he did it 50 years ago today.

At 19, Jim Ryun was an athletic phenomenon, literally born to run. As he would admit years late, he had shown zero talent for any other sports, even getting cut from his church baseball team. Desperately wanting to succeed at something, he’d been persuaded to go out for the cross country team at Wichita East his sophomore year in high school. He squeaked onto the C squad (varsity, junior varsity, C squad), the 21st runner on a team of 21. His coach didn’t even know who he was, for weeks calling him “Max” Ryun.

But three months later, Ryun was the top man on his varsity squad, placing 6th at his state meet and leading Wichita East to a state title. Blessed with incredible range (over his career he would split 21.5 for 220 yards and run 13:38 for 5,000 meters) and a VO2 max of 83, at 6’3″, Ryun was a freak of nature.

He might not have been able to play baseball or basketball, but he could run.

His rise was meteoric. Less than two years after he started running, driven by a coach who was a former Marine drill sergeant, Ryun became the first high school boy ever to run under 4 minutes for the mile, pushing the mark down to 3:55 at the 1965 AAU championships as a high school senior, taking the scalps of the reigning Olympic gold and silver medallists, Peter Snell and Josef Odlozil, en route to his new American Record.

One year later, Ryun ran a World Record at 880 yards, a scintillating 1:44.9, run just two hours after he’d run a qualifying round of 1:51 in the heats of the U.S. Track and Field Federation meet. He did it in a way no other World Record holder had done before or since-he negative split the World Record, running just over 53 seconds on his first lap and finishing with a 51.6 second last lap.

The world had not seen his best, though. The years of 100 miles of running per week laced with superhuman workouts of 40×440 had taken the boy from Wichita and made him into a world beater.

When news came that Poland was to boycott the United States vs. Poland meet in July in Berkley, CA, meet director Sam Bell decided to turn it into an all comers meet and changed the 1500m to a one mile run. As the pieces fell into place, Bell offered to have the lap splits announced over the public speaker system for Ryun, who suffered a 50% hearing loss from a childhood bout of the measles. Three of Ryun’s competitors offered to pace him through consecutive laps and when the race started, the crowd of 15,000 started to buzz. Tom von Ruden of Oklahoma State, who had been second behind Ryun’s 880 yard World Record the previous month, lead through the first lap in 57.9.

As he drifted to the back, Rich Romo of Texas charged to the lead, forcing the pace and ensuring that when Wade Bell of Oregon took the lead, he would lead Ryun through the halfway point in 1:55. Not only was a World Record attempt on, the first sub-3:50 mile in history was a distinct possibility.

As Bell faded on the third lap, Ryun strode to the lead, the crowd now on its feet. They knew they were witnessing something historic and when Ryun hit three laps in 2:55.3, the crowd was in a frenzy. Known for his finishing speed, Ryun had run 52 or 53 seconds on the last lap of the mile before. Unknown to the crowd, though, Ryun was having doubts. He had never hit the three quarters that fast. Years later he said, “I didn’t panic, though. I remembered what my coach, Bob Timmons, had drilled into me. If you get to a point in the race faster than expected, don’t panic. Keep moving.”

Ryun did just that and with 220 yards to go, the clock read just a hair over 3:23. A 30 second last 220 would mean a new World Record, but Ryun did better than that, finishing in 28 seconds and a new World Record of 3:51.3. The crowd roared and that night, Walter Cronkite would begin CBS Nightly News with an account of the race. Later that year, Ryun would win Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year Award as well as the James E. Sullivan Award.

The very next year, Ryun lowered his own World Record, running a 3:51.1 at the AAU Championships in Bakersfield, CA, an effort called one of the greatest World Records ever run by Roger Bannister.

To date, he is the last American to hold the World Record over one mile.




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Drew Ryun

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