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Jim Ryun's big experiment
Pete Axthelm
February 19, 1968
The superlative runner from Kansas was aiming at back-to-back four-minute miles, but an emotional Garden crowd upset the plan
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February 19, 1968

Jim Ryun's Big Experiment

The superlative runner from Kansas was aiming at back-to-back four-minute miles, but an emotional Garden crowd upset the plan

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About halfway through the mile run at the U.S. Track and Field Federation's indoor meet last Friday night, Jim Ryun began to draw away from the field. He had taken the lead from little Sam Bair, hottest miler of the winter season, and then repulsed a brief challenge by Dave Patrick. With five laps to go around the 11-lap board track, Ryun was alone in front, concentrating only on finishing the mile in less than four minutes. The big crowd grew wildly excited; the spectators realized they were watching a brilliant performance in the last mile ever in New York's old Madison Square Garden. And Ryun had his own reasons for wanting a fast mile in his first major race of the year. It should have been a classic tableau—crowd roaring, scoreboard clock ticking off the seconds and the runner, face contorted, straining desperately to achieve his goal.

But the runner was not straining at all. Ryun's strides were long, smooth and effortless, and on his face was a broad grin. The kids ringing the track—who came to run in their own college relays and then maybe shake Ryun's hand or get an autograph—nudged one another in amazement. The man who had worked harder and run faster than any of them was sauntering casually past them with a relaxed smile on his face—on his way to a mile in 3:57.5. "I haven't smiled very often in races," Ryun explained later, "but when I moved tonight I just couldn't believe how good I felt or how fast I was able to go."

Jim's elation was understandable. Last weekend he entered two races—in New York Friday night and in East Lansing. Mich. just 22 hours later—in order to conduct a personal experiment. At the beginning of the most important year of his competitive life he hoped to answer two questions: 1) How fast could he run on his strength alone, without benefit of any speed workouts? 2) Does he have the stamina to attempt an Olympic double in the 800-and 1,500-meter races?

The first question was answered dramatically in Ryun's Garden mile. On strength alone he ran faster than anyone but Tom O'Hara had ever run indoors—and he missed O'Hara's world record by only 1.1 seconds. The second question will not be resolved as quickly. Saturday night Ryun won the mile at the Michigan State Relays in 4:03.4, failing in his effort to become the first runner ever to win sub-four-minute miles on consecutive days indoors. The time was disappointing but not discouraging to Ryun, who will try a number of similar stamina tests before he has to make his Olympic plans. He also had several valid excuses for the slow race, although, as usual, he refused to dwell on them. His ankles had stiffened up overnight, he had slight blisters on his soles, he had gotten only three hours of sleep and he had allowed his emotions to interfere with what began as a cool and scientific experiment.

New York's old, cramped, dirty Garden always has been an emotional setting for a track meet. The arena floor is a colorful jumble of bright sweat suits; the track seems constantly alive, with small boys running relays whenever more momentous events aren't going on. The well-dressed spectators in the Garden Club seats can almost reach out and touch the athletes. The kids in the balconies cheer and shout down through the thick cloud of cigarette smoke around the rafters and feel almost as close to the action.

For the final track night in the old arena, the spectators were even more boisterous than usual. It was not a regular track crowd; it was a Jim Ryun crowd. The Federation, the NCAA's track affiliate in the silly war with the AAU, had a meet with no tradition, no prestige and no backlog of patrons and subscribers. Last year the event drew all of 3,629 people. Friday it attracted 15,002, and Ryun made most of the difference. The crowd included few of the venerable faces seen regularly at the older New York meets; the fans were younger, less knowledgeable and more vocal. They seemed to sense that something great would happen Friday—and, of course, they never doubted that it would happen to Jim Ryun.

Jim himself was concerned with more practical problems as he got ready for the race. He hoped for back-to-back miles in about 3:59, but he was not sure he could manage even one 4:00 race. For several months he had been running 16 miles a day on asphalt roads and frozen Kansas fields, training for strength rather than speed. "I feel stronger now than I've ever been in my life," he said, "but I don't know how fast I can go yet. Sam Bair could be hard to beat. He's pointed for this race."

Ryun walked down into the tunnels beneath the Garden, where many runners were jogging to loosen up. "The biggest challenge of the night," he said, "may be just getting warmed up—through dark tunnels, up and down stairs and with cops yelling at you to go the other way." He jogged away, took several laps and paused for a moment. "Hey, kid," growled one of the Garden's inimitable cops, "don't you come round this way again. You're in the way."

"A big indoor meet like this can be pretty exciting, though," Jim said before the race. "The pounding on the boards adds something, and I guess the crowd does, too, although I never listen to a crowd during a race."

Six laps later, just as he was smiling with satisfaction and following his neat plan, Ryun found himself listening to the crowd. "They're practically on top of you," he said afterward. "It would be hard not to react to a noise like that." As Jim reacted, his plans for the weekend collapsed. He stopped thinking about pacing himself and seemed to increase his speed as the crescendo of sound rose. In an emotional three-lap burst he made certain that he would not only break four minutes, but he would be close to a record. On the last lap he tired—"I started wandering between the first and third lanes"—and lost his chance at a world mark. But he still ran much faster than he had dared to expect. Moments after he caught his breath he shook his head. "My God," he muttered, "how fast would I have gone if I had done some speed work?"

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