Jogging around in front of the starting line last Saturday in his buoyant, energetic style, Kipchoge Keino smiled broadly and bowed to the crowd in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The second-fastest middle-distance runner in the world, Keino had been reluctant to come from Kenya to face Jim Ryun, the fastest of all, in the 1,500-meter run at the U.S.-British Commonwealth meet. He claimed he was not in condition to challenge Ryun, who was clearly in the best form of his remarkable career.
But as race time approached, Keino seemed to lose his doubts in anticipation of a race that promised to produce brilliant competition and a possible world record. He looked fit and confident and ready to give Ryun one of his most severe tests. And Ryun, who stood with hands on hips as Keino entertained the crowd, might have had reason to fear his rival. A week earlier Keino had run a mile in 3:55 at the 5,900-foot altitude of Nyeri, Kenya—a feat that some compared favorably with Ryun's sea-level world record of 3:51.1.
But Jim was not fazed at all by such news. First of all, there were reports that overenthusiastic timers might have had some influence on Keino's almost unbelievable clocking in Kenya. More important, Ryun is so strong now that he could not help thinking that even if Keino were to beat the existing records, he—Ryun—would still beat Keino.
Ryun was told of Keino's decision to come to Los Angeles on the Tuesday before the race. He took a few seconds to ponder that 3:55 mile, then shrugged. "Oh, well," he said, "I guess I'd better start resting up for him."
Awaiting the start of the 1,500, Ryun stared straight ahead, then glanced to his left, where Keino was preparing to leave from an inside lane. The other four competitors—all sub-four-minute milers—hardly mattered. "I had a simple plan," Ryun said. "I wanted to stay just behind Keino and watch his every move." Keino's first move was to drop back casually into fifth place; so Ryun eased into last position as Dave Bailey of Canada set a leisurely pace through the first lap. When Bailey's first-quarter time of 60.9 seconds was announced, most observers resigned themselves to a slow, tactical battle in which Herb Elliott's world record of 3:35.6, set in the 1960 Rome Olympics, would not be endangered. Then, with dramatic suddenness, Keino took his best shot at Ryun. In an explosive burst designed to catch his pursuer off balance, Kip rushed into the lead at the beginning of the second lap. He sprinted the second quarter in 56.5, fast enough to eliminate four of his rivals and put the world record within reach once again—but not fast enough to pull away from Ryun.
Jim seemed to stalk Keino's rapid pace as easily as he had followed Bailey's slow one. "Keino knows he doesn't have the kick to finish with me," he explained, "so I expected him to try and open up a lead with a move like that. I felt loose, though, and it was no strain to keep up with him."
Kip maintained his pace through the third quarter, but the pressure wasn't bothering Ryun a bit; in fact, Jim was beginning to enjoy it. "It was the first time I've had anyone set a good pace for me since my 3:51.3 mile at Berkeley last summer," he said. "I like it that way, because I'm a very poor judge of pace when I have to set it myself."
With 300 yards to go, Ryun decided to make his move. In a few long, smooth strides he was alongside Keino, and the crowd rose to watch the final struggle to the tape. But there was never a struggle and it was all over within seconds. Ryun pulled away from the Kenya champion with surprising ease and drew out to a 30-yard lead through the stretch. He ran the final quarter in 54.1 to finish in 3:33.1, breaking Elliott's record by two and a half seconds. It was a shocking destruction of the oldest valid middle-distance mark, and Ryun naturally was delighted. "This was an even better record than the mile," he said. "This one should be much rougher to beat."
Sipping a Coke an hour later, he repeated what he had said after his mile record two weeks before: "I still don't feel my limit has been reached. I can go faster." In the rough calculations of most track experts, his 1,500-meter time was equal to a mile in anything from 3:48.5 to 3:50. Jim could not argue with that conclusion. A mile is about 120 yards longer than 1,500 meters, and he said, "I could have gone another 120 yards after this race with no trouble at all."
Thus Ryun has completed the astonishing feat of becoming the best ever at the three distances he has tackled seriously. He has now run the fastest mile in history, the fastest metric mile, and he has run the fastest half mile (1:44.9) as well. Because of AAU intransigence, he may not receive official recognition for the half-mile mark; it was set in last year's meet sponsored by the U.S. Track and Field Federation, and the AAU has refused to forward it to the international body for validation (SI, Feb. 13, et seq.). Nevertheless, no runner has ever equaled this achievement.