(WIBW) - The skinny, 17-year-old from Wichita East High School toed the line on a clay track in Compton, California, the only high school boy in a one-mile race, surrounded by older, faster, more experienced competition.
Courtesy: University of Kansas
"I had no idea what I was doing," Jim Ryun says.
Ryun did not win the race. In fact, he finished eighth. But the time he put on the clock the night of June 5, 1964 is what mattered. He crossed the line in 3:59, making him the first high schooler to break the four-minute barrier for one mile.
Ryun achieved the goal set out by Coach Bob Timmons and backed by community members who donated money so the pair could travel to compete at the event.The accomplishment not only inspired a generation of young runners that perhaps they could do more, it inspired Ryun as well.
"After I ran it, I began taking ownership, thinking perhaps if I do a little more, perhaps I could run faster," he said.
A year after the Compton run, Ryun won the Kansas high school state meet in 3:58.3, a record that still stands for races with only high school competitors. His 3:55.3 that same year at San Diego's Balboa Stadium stood as the high school open mile record until Alan Webb broke it in 2001. While more than 1300 men worldwide have run a sub-four-minute mile, Ryun and Webb remain two of only five high schoolers to have done so.
Ryun shared his recollections with 13 News via satellite from San Diego, where he is presiding over the special Jim Ryun Festival of Miles on Thursday night. The event is being held at Balboa Stadium, where Ryun had his record run. Webb will be among those taking part in the activities.
"Within two years this phenomenal thing happened - I went from making the cross country team to being on my first Olympic team," Ryun said.
Not bad for the kid who was cut from his church baseball team, junior high basketball team and, yes - his junior high track team, too.
"I'd go to bed at night and say, 'Dear God, if there's a plan for my life, I'd appreciate if you showed up because it's not going so well - and, by the way, if it could be in sports, that would be great!" Ryun said.
Middle distance running answered his prayers, even if Ryun didn't fully realize it at the time.
"When you're 17-years old and you're running as fast as you possibly can, it's hard to put it in perspective exactly what that means," Ryun said. "It certainly changed my life from that point on."
In fact, Ryun credits a running career which took him from Wichita to the University of Kansas to around the world, including three Olympic games, with his decision to enter politics. He spent 10 years in Congress, representing Kansas' 2nd district. He says the genesis of his elected service goes back to seeing the different governments, including the former Soviet Union. Ryun said he would return to the U.S. and think that perhaps someday he could work to represent the country and make things better.
Today, Ryun operates running camps that include Christian ministry. He continues to advocate for the sport. He is involved with a group called "Bring Back the Mile," which is working to have the mile race featured at more competitions. Ryun says a mile is a distance to which people can relate.
"It's a mile they walk, miles per hour they drive," Ryun said. "They have a concept of how far, how fast means in a mile."
While much attention in the sport today is focused on sprinters and marathoners, Ryun believes the future of middle distance running is strong. He says his camps are seeing renewed interest and he says the young people are coming in with aspirations of being the next Ryun or Steve Prefontaine. As for the lure of money pulling young athletes away from middle distance running, Ryun admits compensation may be better in another sport, but he believes running holds a lure all its own.
"There's that interest in running to see how fast you can go, challenging yourself to see if you break through and see how fast the human body can actually run a mile or a half mile," he said.
Ryun also is embracing the celebration of the 50th anniversary of his first milestone achievement. He's even touting commemorative coins and t-shirts. He says the achievement is significant, not for what it says about winning, but for what it can teach about the losses.
"Adversity isn't necessarily a bad thing," Ryun said. "It teaches you a lot about, when victory comes, you accept it with humility. Those experiences are timeless. They're important for everyone's future and help you remember what winning is all about."
The commemorative coins for the 50th anniversary celebration may be purchased through Ryun's web site, www.ryunrunning.com