Jim Ryun, American wunderkind

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a new series called Great Track & Field Performers. Each month, PPTC stalwart Jim Israel will share the stories behind some of the superlative competitors and contests in track & field history, both well-known and obscure. Jim Ryun Sports Illustrated

Readers, permit me to make a small wager: if you’re under 35, you probably have little idea who Jim Ryun is, or the nature of his extraordinary accomplishments. If you’re over 35, yeah, you probably know he did something great in running, but you’ll be damned if you know precisely what.

Well, I’m here to resurrect the memory of Mr. Ryun, perhaps the greatest American miler – 1,500-meters competitions, too – this country has ever produced.

And, everything he accomplished was achieved by the age of 27. Jim Ryun was, frankly, a wunderkind, a running genius at a very young age.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, Mr. Ryun, just 17-years-old and a junior in high school, broke the four-minute mile (3.59.0) at a school meet in 1964.

As a senior, he established a high school and national open mile record of 3:55:3. Astonishing. That record stood as the high school record for 36 years (Alan Webb finally ran faster in 2001). And this was no contrived race with a pace ‘rabbit,’ a la Roger Bannister when he broke 4 minutes. It was a major outdoor track and field event, and he outgunned the great reigning Olympic champion and former record holder, Peter Snell of New Zealand.

Many of the records he established as a high school runner endure today: he still holds five of the six fastest mile times in U.S. high school history (all sub-4:00), and his total of five sub-four minute races exceeds every other junior runner’s output by at least 3 (Alan Webb has two, and Marty Liquori, one).

In 1966, he set world records in the mile and half-mile, although he was ineligible to run for the University of Kansas, the college he was attending (NCAA rules then did not allow freshmen to compete in NCAA competition).

More of his college career: in 1967, he was the NCAA outdoor mile champion, and indoor mile champion in 1967, 1968 and 1969. (Marty Liquori ruled the outdoor mile competitions.)

Even, today, 40+ years after he set them, Jim Ryun continues to hold the American junior records at 880 yards (1:44.9); 800 meters (1:44:3); 1,500 (3:36.1); and two miles (8:25.1).

Yet, and I find this an indictment of the manner in which this country views history as a disposable matter, the sterling record of Jim Ryun is overshadowed by the achievements of other runners, i.e., Kip Keino and the Kenyans, Marty Liquori, even Eamonn Coghlan. My suspicion is that Mr. Ryun set the bar so high, and so much was expected from him in the more gaudy International competitions and Olympics, that fans were somehow disappointed with the latter part of his career.

Congressman Jim Ryun

He did participate in three Olympics: 1964, 1968 and 1972, but he did not capture a gold medal in any of them. The 1968 Olympics were a prime example of Ryun turning in a fantastic performance, yet having to settle for a silver medal and second place behind the great Kenyan, Kip Keino. Some far too chauvinistic writers even accused Mr. Ryun of ‘letting his nation down.’ Idiots.

Let’s parse that 1968 Olympics 1500 race: earlier in the year, Mr. Ryun came down with mononucleosis, and did not train for 4 months. Having recovered from the infection by the spring of 1968, Jim Ryun had to initiate high-altitude training, to deal with the rarified air of Mexico City, where the Olympics were to take place. (Before 1968, American runners never did any high-altitude training; in fact, that particular kind of training has become an essential part of every world-class distance running regimen ever since those Olympics.)

Kip Keino, of course, was used to high-altitude running – Hell, he was born into it, in the mountaineous terrain of Kenya. Plus, for the Olympics 1500 that year, Mr. Keino used a ‘rabbit’, another Kenyan running the race ostensibly to compete, but in actuality to furnish a proper ‘pace’ for Keino. There were no rabbits for Mr. Ryun.

Before the race, Mr. Ryun had reasoned that a time of 3:39 would be good enough to win, considering the high altitude. He ended up running a good deal faster, 3:37.8, but Keino’s 3:34.9 was just too strong at that altitude. Jim Ryun, in fact, thought he would literally die after the race – “I was in tremendous [oxygen] debt, “ he said, “and the pain was the worst I had ever felt.” Yet, Mr. Ryun, in fact, considered the result “as if I won a gold medal; I had done my very best and I still believe I would have won at sea level.”


In conclusion, I’d like to describe one other competition, the US vs. British Commonwealth meet held at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the summer of 1967. Some observers, in which Ryun set a 1,500-meter world record, call this his greatest running performance. Ryun ran the first 440 yards in 60.9, a pedestrian time as Kip Keino took the lead, and then ran the next lap in 56 seconds. Ryun, now just behind Mr. Keino, passed the 880-yard mark in 1:57.0. At 1,320 yards, the two were side-by-side in 2:55.0. Then, leaving Keino in the proverbial ‘dust’, Ryun pulled away to finish 3:33.1, a record that stood for 7 years. With a last 440 yards of 53.9 and a last 880 of 1:51.3, the track reporter for Track and Field News called it “the mightiest finishing drive ever seen.”


Readers: had you heard of Mr. Ryun? Are there other competitors or competitions you'd like to know more about? Leave a comment below.

Jim Israel