Turn back one page and take another look at the rapturously pooped young man gazing contentedly into his eyelids at the Kansas Relays. Someday that picture is likely to be viewed as a historical document, at least to one dedicated horde of appreciators: the track buffs. It shows one of the finest athletes in the world at the precise instant when he realized that the goal of his lifetime was attainable, and not after eight or 10 more years of torturous training, but soon. Maybe even this year. At the age of 19.
The young man is Jim Ryun of Kansas (see cover), and his goal of a lifetime may surprise you. While other milers have taken aim at Michel Jazy's world record of 3:53.6, Ryun's goal lies well beyond the Frenchman's mark. Ryun is out to fracture the next psychological barrier: the 3:50 mile, usually known as "the mythical 3:50 mile" (just as the four-minute mile, now run by everybody except your laundryman, used to be called "the mythical four-minute mile"). If the taciturn young Kansan succeeds, he will have taken the next step toward the mythical 3:30 mile, posited by Dr. Roger Bannister as the fastest possible for the human machine as it is at present constructed. If such an ambition sounds presumptuous, then Jim Ryun is presumptuous, though out around the University of Kansas (or KU, as it is familiarly called) they will tell you that if freshman Jim Ryun is presumptuous, then Truman Capote is modest, Paul Hornung is ascetic and James Meredith is yellow.
Said a spectator at the Kansas Relays earlier this year: "That mile race almost changed Jim's personality. It was like a test of his body, a test of himself. It was the first time in ages he had been able to rest before a race. He tapered off on Monday of the week before and did practically nothing till the race. There was no competition or pressure in the mile and still he ran 3:55.8, which was the fastest in the world this year, and when the race was over he wasn't exhausted or sick, the way he had been at other races; he wasn't exhausted at all.
"The minute he heard his time he did one of the most un-Ryunlike things you ever saw. He began to grin from ear to ear. He was walking down the track with this smile on his face, and he was like a kid trying to quench it, hold it back and he just couldn't. He'd be looking up into the sky with his eyes shut and a big smile. And I found out later what he was thinking. He was thinking that he understood what he could really do this year. He said, 'You know, I feel there're gonna be some very fine times this year,' which, if you know Ryun, is a really wild thing for him to say."
" Ryun hates any talk of records or goals," says his coach, a stubby fireplug of a man named Bob Timmons. "He regards his goals as very private things." Mainly this is because Jim Ryun is by nature the most self-effacing of men. Says his father, Gerald Ryun, a tool-maker at the Boeing plant in Wichita, Kans.: "If we were sitting around here talking, and his mother or I mentioned one of his records, he'd wait till you left and then he'd scold us for bringing it up." When Ryun was 17 he came in third in a mile race in California and clipped four seconds off the fastest time ever clocked by a high school boy. When somebody asked him later how he had done, he said, "Only third." Pressed for his time, he said politely, "It was no big deal. Third is third." Another time he ran the best mile and half-mile double in high school history, losing in both events to college runners. Timmons asked him: "What did you tell your folks?" Said Ryun: "That I lost."
The man who is a cinch to break the world mile record and a good bet to break the 3:50 barrier has been described as "a stork in shorts" by students of ornithology and "a kid with a perfect build for the mile" by former Kansas star Wes Santee. At 19, Jim Ryun has not yet fully developed his body, and one has to beat down a temptation to address him as "Skinny," although he is filling out rapidly. Tall and ungainly at 6 feet 2 and 160 pounds, he does almost everything slowly. "Off the track he'd make Stepin Fetchit look like greased lightning," says Coach Timmons, and a friend adds: "If Jim moved any slower he'd have to be reclassified as a statue." Watching him shuffle across the grass on the KU athletic field, you wonder if you shouldn't help the old gentleman.
Ryun has protruding ears and short black hair parted far to the left and big hazel eyes and a white-toothed grin that would disarm a Gurkha. He picks up a high coloring from the sun, and this is accentuated by a pigmentation problem that keeps him from tanning on places like the elbows, knees and knuckles, so that he winds up each summer looking like someone who has been mottled in an Easter egg contest. Notwithstanding all this, he is a strikingly handsome young man, all the more so because he appears totally oblivious of his own personal magnetism, and indeed spends a goodly part of his time running himself down. He is square across the shoulders but not overly wide, and he has the usual concave stomach. His arms are scrawny, as befits a middle-distance runner, and when you look at his legs you fail to see the expected Western Electric cable of muscles, ligaments and protruding veins that serve on most runners to show how close to the limit they have strained their bodies.
James Ronald Ryun has a long way to reach his limit. He is 10 years ahead and only a tenth of a second behind mile record holder Jazy, and still a growing boy. His potential is bewildering. The most pedestrian prognosticators around him reckon that someday soon he will hold all the middle-distance records and bring new luster to the potato race and the three-legged race at church picnics in Wichita.
The fact that such a nonpareil runner should come out of Kansas will come as no surprise to students of track and sociology. Kansans are, for the most part, a calm and relaxed people, going about their business without the nervousness and downright panic of the big-city folk to their east and west, and it is easy to mistake this low-pressure mode of life for rusticity and vapidness: the old Kansas caricature of the mid-'30s, when galloping conservatism and choking dust almost put the state out of business. But underneath its placid exterior Kansas has a stiff backbone. "We produce wheat, salt, airplanes, cows and milers," says a proud native son, "and we don't talk about something till we've done it."
Ryun's home city, Wichita, does not mind describing itself as "a big old country town" despite its huge Boeing plant and its thriving private-plane industry, but when CBS Correspondent Hughes Rudd recently characterized it as one of the two dullest places in the world, Wichitans were ready to fight. "I don't know about that Evian-les-Bains, the other place he mentioned," said Don Granger, a Wichita newspaperman, "but anybody who thinks Wichita is dull just hasn't been going to the right places at night."