It is proved with increasing vehemence each time he runs the mile that 19-year-old Jim Ryun's race is only against the clock. In the U.S., at least, there is no man who can beat him. Even Ryun himself has finally accepted this often painful challenge, and now when he falls short of a world record, however intriguing the race, it is difficult to convince the paying customers that they have not been cheated. It is almost as hard to convince Jim Ryun. He likes to win, of course, but he desperately wants to win fast.
Last week's National AAU track and field championships in New York should certainly have been something more than a showcase for a mile run. Not only were national titles at stake, but also two spots in each of 18 events on the national team that will compete later this month in California in dual meets with teams from Poland and Russia. But Ryun was entered in the mile, and when Ryun is going to run the mile a track fan's heart beats a little faster, his stopwatch twitches expectantly, the world record seems only a click away, and other faces and other events, however fast or fiercely contested, are jostled into the background.
This is unfortunate, because very often the record-breaking race that everyone is so wild to see collapses as though shot down by the starter's pistol. That certainly describes what happened last Sunday on Randall's Island. The field of eight runners moved away from the starting line and through the first curve in the quarter-mile track like men tiptoeing across an icy pond. The boos and catcalls from the record-hungry crowd began at the end of the first quarter, which was run in a dawdling 63.3 seconds. The pattern continued through the second and third quarters, and the race did not really begin until only 200 yards were left. Ryun, leading the field into the last turn, suddenly shot forward as if prodded from behind by an electric cane. Jim Grelle, who plays his role of runner-up as if born to it, belatedly began his chase after Ryun's rapidly vanishing back, and Dyrol Burleson, his lips burbling like a pair of bellows, sprinted after Grelle. At the finish it was Ryun first in 3:58.6, 10 yards ahead of Burleson and 15 ahead of Grelle. He had covered the last quarter in the amazingly fast time of 52.6 seconds, the last 220 yards in 25.4.
Ryun had given the Northeast its first sub-four-minute mile outdoors and he declared himself "pleased with the result." But he said this with something that looked more like a scowl than a smile. The fact is that Ryun is ready to go for a world record practically every-time he climbs into his pink running shorts and his pale blue Kansas jersey. The only thing he is not ready to do is talk about it. A try at the record is something referred to obliquely in vague, hushed tones, as if it were an eccentric maiden aunt locked in the attic.
Last Sunday morning, before the race, Ryun left little doubt as to what he hoped to achieve that afternoon on the banks of the East River. He rose from his bed at the New York Hilton at 8 a.m., put on a dark suit, a white shirt and a dark tie and went downstairs to the coffee shop for a breakfast of V-8 juice, Cream of Wheat, two fried eggs over and a question or two from a reporter.
Would he compete in another mile before the Polish and Russian meets, in which he would run 1,500 meters?
"I don't really know," he said. "That depends on what happens today."
Winning that afternoon and making the national team would surely be an accomplishment to be proud of, but would he be proud if he did it on the strength of something like a 4:03 mile?
Ryun laughed gleefully, but his answer was cautious: "Maybe I'd better just say that...uh...a faster time would be preferred."
On his way back to the hotel lobby Ryun glanced at the Sunday sports section of The New York Times. He held the paper in both hands and gaped wordlessly at a banner headline across the top of the page: BUCKPASSER SETS WORLD RECORD IN ARLINGTON MILE. After a long minute he looked up and grinned sheepishly.