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The heavy rain that had drenched Topeka, Kans. all day stopped toward late afternoon, leaving the streets full of puddles. A raw October wind made winter seem near, and indeed, as it became dark and the temperature dropped, the dampness in the air carried a hint of snow. In short, the weather was mean, ugly and uncomfortable—a lovely day for a run.
The jogger, dressed in a blue sweat suit, turned off Gage Boulevard on the outskirts of town and headed up the long hill on West 35th Street. To his right was a housing development, the farthest advance of growing Topeka. To his left was a field of sunflowers. Normally, he would have been running in the field, or in one like it, but it was soggy from the rain.
It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary jogger. His stride was long and powerful. He held his hands high and his fists were clenched, except for the thumbs which stuck straight up. His head was tilted slightly to one side. Familiar, somehow.
Nor would any ordinary jogger contemplate this training routine: a three-mile warmup followed by a dozen 2:30 half miles, each up a steep hill, and a slow one-mile run home. No, the jogger—make it runner—who just went barreling by on one of those halfs was Jim Ryun, the world-record holder in the mile (3:51.1), the boy wonder, the disappointing silver medalist to Kipchoge Keino's gold at Mexico City, the troubled young man who abruptly stepped off the track in midrace at the National AAUs in Miami 16 months ago and, as far as most people could tell, off the edge of the earth as well.
Well, Kip, old buddy, here's the latest. Jim Ryun is in training again. He won't say what he has in mind—indoor-season, outdoor, Munich—but coming up the hill on that gloomy Kansas evening, he was looking pretty intense.
There is no point in rehashing the depressing scene at Miami or trying to explain the reasons behind it, save for a few basics. In a mile that included Marty Liquori, who had beat him the week before in the NCAAs, Ryun, in good health, dropped out after one lap. He had quit several other races, too, sometimes because of injury, sometimes not. Even now Ryun finds it difficult to explain, but per haps Mantle, Palmer and Namath would understand. From the age of 17, when he became the first high school boy to run a sub-four-minute mile, until he was 22 and a national hero, Ryun was in the public eye. Almost anyone who is under pressure for that long at that tender age would crack. And anyone who has run seriously knows that sometimes the desire not to run can be overwhelming.
So Ryun quit, just like that. A few days later he got a postcard with a one-word message: "Quitter." There were others. And the press was roughing him up. After Ryun failed to finish a half-mile leg in the Drake Relays, a columnist proposed a plaque to commemorate the spot where he stopped. Here Is Where Jim Ryun Quit. "This should serve as an inspiration for future Drake Relay runners as they prepare to hit the backstretch," he wrote. Another reporter phrased it this way: "The nastiest four-letter word in sports is quit. It looks as if he'll have to enter the 100-yard dash to finish a race." And, from still another wit: "This writer votes for Herb Elliott as the best miler in history. Elliott finished what he started."
After Miami—Ryun says "after Miami" in much the same way one might say "after Pearl Harbor"—Ryun and his wife Anne stayed with her family, the Sniders, in Bay Village, Ohio, where he had a degree of privacy. The Ryuns had intended to tour Europe with the U.S. track team, but now he had no stomach for running or for the often devious politics of the sport. "I honestly didn't care if I ever ran again," Ryun recalls thinking.
While in Bay Village, Ryun received a phone call from Rich Clarkson, a close friend and the picture editor of the Topeka Daily Capital and State Journal, where he had worked as a photographer the previous four summers. Clarkson told him that a staff photographer had been killed in a car crash and that a job was open. Would he like it? Ryun already had a summer job at a bank in Lawrence, Kans. but it involved work he found distasteful—being on display at a desk by the front window and signing an occasional autograph. He accepted Clarkson's offer and began work at once, commuting to Topeka from his apartment in Lawrence.
By the end of the summer, when Ryun was about to begin his senior year at Kansas, he was so charged up about photography that he decided to switch his major from business to photojournalism. To do so and still graduate with his class, he had to take 19 hours. Since he had only one semester of cross-country eligibility left and didn't feel like running, Ryun decided not to go out for the team. Moreover, because of an academic letdown following the Olympics, he lost his athletic scholarship. To pay the bills, Anne taught second grade.