There will be an interesting test this Thursday evening in San Diego as the running community gathers to celebrate and commemorate the 50th anniversary of Jim Ryun’s first high school sub-4:00 mile. Local leaders Paul Greer, Tracy Sundlun and Josh Cox joined with Jim Ryun to stage the celebration at the former Balboa Stadium – now home to the San Diego High School Cavers – where Jim ran one of his most iconic races as a high school senior.
It was at the 1965 AAU National Track & Field Championships where the lanky senior from Wichita East High School in Kansas lined up against a truly world-class field in front of 20,000 fans (when track could draw that kind of crowd outside the confines of Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.)
On the heels of Dr. Roger Bannister‘s celebrated first sub-4:00 mile in 1954, Ryun became the twelfth member of the exclusive sub-4 club as a high school junior on June 5, 1964. Running 3:59.0 while finishing eighth at the Compton Invitational just six weeks after his 17th birthday Ryun became a national sensation. The following year in San Diego Ryun not only notched another sub-4:00 mile, he WON the national championship in an American record 3:55.3! And he did it by out-gunning the reigning Olympic gold and silver medalists from Tokyo 1964, Peter Snell of New Zealand and Josef Odlozil of Czechoslovakia, and then American record holder Jim Grelle! It was the performance of a generation, and still resonates a half-century later.
“Imagine an American high school kid doing that today,” marveled Marty Liquori, himself a member of the five-man U.S. high school sub-4:00 club. “An American record in the national championship against the Olympic champion? It would be impossible.”
But that is how special an athlete Jim Ryun was, special enough for Sports Illustrated to name him their Sportsman of the Year in 1966, and top high school athlete of the 20th century. Of course, Ryun went on to become the world record holder in the mile, half-mile and 1500 meters. He made the first of three Olympic teams in 1964 as a high school junior, making it to the semi-finals before being eliminated.
But Ryun would become equally infamous for his unexpected loss to Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino in the 1968 Olympic 1500 meter final in the high altitude of Mexico City. Racing in his third Olympic final in eight days, Keino hooked on to Ben Jipcho’s searing early pace, opening a huge lead that Ryun was unable to overcome with his usual final lap sprint. So consequential was the Keino victory over the long-undefeated Ryun that it set off Kenya’s own running boom that continues unabated to this day.
Organizers have planned a full evening of races and memories on Thursday June 5th, from middle schoolers to legends to pros going for another sub-4:00 mile, the celebration is open to the public at no charge. Three of the five U.S. high schoolers to run sub-4:00 will be in attendance, Ryun, Alan Webb, and Lukas Verzbicas. Marty Liquori was unable to rearrange his schedule, while Tim Danielson, the second high schooler under 4:00 from nearby Chula Vista, California, is in custody awaiting sentencing for a recent first-degree murder conviction.
But will the public come?
“That’s my biggest concern,” said co-event director Paul Greer of the San Diego Track Club. “We did as much as we could to get the word out. Jim and I spoke at the monthly San Diego Hall of Champions luncheon where all the leaders of the local sports community gather. Everyone at the CIF San Diego Section Finals at Mt. Carmel High in Rancho Penasquitos got a flyer, and at the CIF seeding meeting, which all the area coaches have to attend, I surprised them with a visit from Jim. So all their teams are aware, and we hope they will bring their kids.”
Unfortunately from a timing standpoint the CIF State Championships are being held in Fresno this weekend, so the area’s top kids won’t be available. And with the continuing demise of the newspaper business, getting the word out via the San Diego Union Tribune no longer means calling long time fitness reporter Don Norcross, because Don was let go earlier this year.
But what I will find interesting is how many of this past weekend’s 30,000 Rock `n` Roll Marathon and Half-Marathon runners will attend. Sure, thousands came from out of town, but what of the large local fitness running community that Paul Greer coaches as part of the Rockin’ and Runnin’ Program? How many of John Bingham’s Penguins will waddle in to celebrate the flight of eagles? Hopefully quite a few.
But that is where the big disconnect has come over the last 20 years in this sport. Once able to attract 20,000 fans to a track meet, today running stages mass events that attract 30,000 participants to the streets. Everyday runners have become their own champions, even as they have lost interest in following the battles at the sharp end of the spear.
How important are heroes? Everyone knows 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi, who will be in attendance tomorrow evening, along with 2004 Olympic Women’s Marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor who will go for the American master’s record in the mile 4:46.29. But I saw one San Diego Track Club member get introduced to Joan Benoit Samuelson at the Boston Marathon and afterwards ask, “who was that woman?”
I mention John Bingham because John just announced today on his website, The Penguin Chronicles, that he will be retiring in December after a torrid run through the industry over the last 18 years. In many regards John (along with Runner’s World’s Bart Yasso) had become to the Second Running Boom what Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers had been for the First Running Boomers, their Pied Piper, inspiring countless thousands to begin their journey to a healthier future through running. And I’m sure many of John’s followers have heard of Jim Ryun. But I wonder but how many know about Mary Cain, today’s version of Mary Decker Slaney who will be riding in the ElliptiGo Mile against another Olympic and World Championships all-star from the recent past, Jearl Miles-Clark?
Jim Ryun’s 3:55.3 high school mile record from San Diego 1965 held for 36 years until Alan Webb ran 3:53.6 in Eugene, Oregon in 2001. But without the connective tissue from the intervening generation, when track & field lost its cache and other hybrid sports elbowed into the marketplace, today’s vast army of marathon and half-marathon finishers have little knowledge of, nor seeming interest in the sport or its history. After one marathon they just sign up for another jaunt of long, slow distance. Which is all well and good; that’s all they know, and it delivers. So let’s see who comes on Thursday night to celebrate the history of when running was fast and popular, too. Hope I get a big surprise.