The Jim Ryun, Mile Legend, Interview
We need to be far more fan-friendly and that’s why I’m so pleased with ‘Bring Back the Mile’ and what they have been able to do. It’s one of those efforts where we realize they are investing in the future and the public and it helps people to identify with it all.
By Gary Cohen, garycohenrunning.com
Jim Ryun is an iconic middle distance runner who was the first prep runner to run a sub-4:00 Mile which he did in 1964 in 3:59.0. His 1965 time of 3:55.3 stood as a high school record for 36 years. A three-time Olympian in 1964, 1968 and 1972, Jim won the silver medal in the 1968 Olympic 1500 meters in Mexico City. Jim set World Records in 1966 of 1:44.9 for 880 yards (1:44.3 for 800m en route) and the Mile (3:51.1). In 1967 he set World Records of 880 yards indoors (1:48.3), Mile (3:51.1) and 1500 meters (3:33.1). He tied Tom O’Hara’s indoor Mile WR of 3:56.4 in 1971. Four times he broke the U.S. Mile record. Ryun still holds American Junior (19 & under) records at 880 yards (1:44.9), 1500 meters (3:36.1), and 2 Miles (8:25.1). The five-time NCAA champion from the University of Kansas won the indoor Mile three times (1967, 1968 and 1969), indoor 2-Mile (1968) and outdoor Mile (1967). At Wichita East High School Jim was three-time Kansas State Mile champion. He was 1966 Sports Illustrated ‘Sportsman of the Year’, 1966 Sullivan Award honoree, 1966 ABC's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year, and Track & Field News 1966 and 1967 Athlete of the Year. Ryun was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame (1977), U.S. Association of Track & Field HOF (1980), National High School HOF (1983), National Distance Running HOF (2003) and Wichita East HOF (2004 Inaugural Class). He earned a Bachelor’s degree in photojournalism at the University of Kansas. Jim served five terms as U.S. House Representative from Kansas from 1996 to 2006. Each summer he hosts the Jim Ryun Running Camps which can be found at www.ryunrunning.com. Jim and his wife, Anne, of 47 years have four children and seven grandchildren. They reside in Washington, D.C. Jim was so gracious to spend an hour and ten minutes on the phone for this interview in the late summer of 2016.
GCR: It has been over five decades since you were the first high school runner to run a sub-4 minute Mile. Could you describe what it meant then to achieve a breakthrough goal and, even more importantly, what it has meant as it has stood the test of time and only eight more U.S. preps have dipped under this special mark?
JR: Let me begin with the last part of that question – I’m surprised it has stood as long as it has and there haven’t been more high schoolers who have run under 4 minutes. It’s one of those surprising things because I ran under 4 minutes for the first time in 1964 and then Tim Danielson and Marty Liquori followed in the next few years, but then there was this huge gap. I don’t think any of the three of us would have sat down and thought we had done something that was going to last such a long period of time without someone coming along and running under 4 minutes. Let me go back to when I was a young guy growing up in Wichita, Kansas and couldn’t make an athletic team. I was cut from the church baseball team. I tried basketball by invitation of the junior high basketball coach and about halfway through practice he wanted to have a meeting in his office. I went in and he asked if I noticed there was a difference in the way I play and the other boys play. I said, ‘Sure, my game is in the process of getting better and maturing.’’ He said, ‘Maybe when you enter high school you may have developed a basketball game, but just hang your singlet on the door and I’ll see you in gym class.’ At that point I was struggling to find something I could do in sports and I went out for the junior high school track and field team. I successfully stayed out for three years but I never really made the team. I would go to bed every night and say a simple prayer, ‘Dear God, I really want my life to amount to something and it would be nice if it was in sports because if you look now it really isn’t going well.’ I think that everyone who has ever done anything in life or in sports has that kind of ‘Hail Mary moment.’
GCR: So when you went to high school how quickly did your sports experience change from disappointment to success?
JR: Having set that stage for you, when I went to high school I went out for the cross country team, not knowing exactly what cross country was. The longest distance I had run at that point was a quarter of a mile in junior high. So, you can imagine the shock when I ran a Mile and some wind sprints and found out that was just the warm up. But I made my first cross country team, earned a letter jacket and hoped to get a girlfriend. I was hooked on running. Along came my sophomore year of track & field in high school and I lost my first Mile race. Fast forward to racing against the defending state Mile champion in the fourth race that year and that is where the story really begins with Coach Timmons, my wonderful inspirational high school coaches who was very visionary. For me it was one of those moments that go back to a very simple bus ride that took place and after the race in Kansas City we had about a three hour bus ride back to Wichita. We all got a chance to visit with Coach on the bus ride, so I wasn’t the exception but the rule and this is what he said to me. ‘How fast do you think you can run?’ I had run 4:21 in my fourth high school race. He said, ‘I think you can run faster. I think you can run under the school record.’ This was after only four races and the school record was 4:08 which was also the National Record. I thought, ‘How is this possible?’ I was gauging my answer based on the fact that my head hurt, my legs hurt, my lungs hurt and I couldn’t fathom going faster because of all of those physical limitations at that point. Then he said, ‘I think you can be the first high school boy to run under 4 minutes.’ Again, this was after four races at a Mile. I’m really grateful that my parents taught me to be respectful, so I nodded my head and went to the back of the bus puzzled and wondering how that could happen.
GCR: Coach Timmons ended up being correct with his sub-4 minute prediction, but how surprising was it to you that it actually did happen?
JR: Fast forward about 16 or 18 months and I did run under 4 minutes as a junior in high school. I was surprised, but not too much at that point in time because we had done so much work getting ready for it. It was Coach Timmons’ goal up until then and I share this at my Jim Ryun Running Camp that it is important to take ownership of your goals. When I ran under 4 minutes for the first time I began taking ownership, not only that night, but of the future. In fact, I couldn’t sleep. I thought about what would happen if I did a few other things I knew I could do at practice that may assist me in running faster. That’s the whole part of ownership and that’s why running under 4 minutes for the first time opened a door that I never could have imagined and how it would chang my life. I attribute it back to that simple prayer in junior high, ‘Hey God, if you’ve got a plan I’d appreciate if you’d show up because it really isn’t going well.’ From that point on it was an amazing transformation in my life and Coach Timmons was a gift from God for me who helped shape and mold my running for me the rest of my life.
GCR: It is amazing to how what you did inspired others. In a documentary, Marty Liquori said, ‘Jim told us all we didn’t have to wait, that we could be good or even great at a young age. In my recent interview with Rod Dixon a couple of months ago, he said he had a poster of you on his bedroom wall and that, ‘To us kids, Jim Ryun redefined the 4 minute Mile. We couldn’t believe a high school kid could run a 4 minute Mile, so that was pretty cool.’ How does it feel to know you had this effect on some great runners such as Marty and Rod and that it continues even with the younger generation through videos and your running camps and motivational talks?
JR: I’m very honored by all of that, but I have to go back to the original visionary and that is Coach Bob Timmons. He was the one who dreamed that dream and begin setting in motion the process for it to become reality. The workouts became more difficult and the biggest thing was to instill in me the ability to think it could happen. It is one of those things to do the physical work and my Mile time began to fall, to tumble as I was running faster in practice. But it was the mental preparation that he was able to accomplish in that short period of time so I could even believe that it would happen. I’m very honored that these other guys hold me in such high respect, but I pass on that honor to who God gave me in Coach Timmons. He expected a lot of each of us but he gave so much to make that happen. He is the visionary in all of this.
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