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He was afraid of himself and he was afraid of the opposition, but when last Saturday's Los Angeles Invitational indoor track meet was over 19-year-old Jim Ryun, the world record holder in the mile, breathed a sigh of relief and prepared once again to resume his astonishing running career. Ryun, now in his sophomore year at the University of Kansas, won the first really competitive mile race he has run since setting the world record of 3:51.3 last July. The time of 4:02.6 was ordinary, but for young Ryun this modest achievement glowed like an Olympic gold medal. "You're always so uncertain before the first race," he said, "especially at a time like this. This one is the big one. When you get the season started right it really helps."
Ryun had some excellent reasons for feeling that the season might start out very wrong. Training on uneven ground last September, he jarred his long, lanky body to such an extent that he suffered a severe muscle strain in his lower back. "It will go away," he thought, and continued to run each day. But despite daily taping and a special brace the pain persisted. On Oct. 1 he ran in a four-mile cross-country race and finished seventh. On Oct. 15 he again tried cross-country in a dual meet with Southern Illinois and finished second, but by that time the pain had become so intense he was forced to stop running and start taking whirlpool baths and sonic treatments.
After almost seven weeks of vexing idleness, he was finally able to begin workouts again. Then an attack of bronchitis sent him to the hospital for most of another week. It was getting close to Christmas before Ryun was finally able to resume full-scale workouts. A runner at his high competitive level could fall hopelessly behind after such a long absence from training, but to his surprise Jim found himself easing almost directly into the program that he would have been following had he missed not a stride in training. By Jan. 11 he was fit enough to run and win both the half mile and mile in the annual freshman-varsity meet. His times were on the slow side but were comparable to what he had been doing exactly a year ago. "I was in better shape than I thought I could possibly be," he said.
So here he was in Los Angeles, on the starting line against a field of five others, including Dyrol Burleson, a two-time Olympian, and Tim Danielson, the second high-school miler (Ryun, of course, was the first) to run a mile under four minutes. In its way the field was a formidable one, and Ryun was apprehensive. Despite his surprising progress in training, he hardly felt fit enough for what might be a hard race. He was at the meet only because of a commitment he had made several weeks earlier. And he was worried about Burleson.
"I was very scared," Ryun said later. "I was scared of the shape I was in and the shape Burlie was in. I know he doesn't like to run indoors, and I know he doesn't like to run period, unless he's ready. The only thing I could figure was that he was ready. The main thing you fear is not just the losing, but the way the race is lost. It can be terrifically frustrating. The man goes by you and you can't do anything about it. You say to yourself 'go,' but nothing happens, your legs are all tied up. You've really got the bear."
Had he known what was on Burleson's mind, Ryun would have felt considerably more at ease about getting the bear or anything else. "This is a kind of test race for me," Burleson said at supper five hours before the start of the race. "I've been training hard for six months, but I've been training completely alone. I've hardly had a clock on me at all. I have absolutely no idea where I stand, and I think this is a good time to find out."
The information was not long in coming. Ryun jumped into an immediate lead, which he just as quickly surrendered, first to an aggressive runner from New Zealand named Dave Sirl and then to Danielson. He retook the lead with four laps to go, lost it to Tom Von Ruden, a strong runner not quite a year out of Oklahoma State, regained it on the backstretch of the final lap and won by a clear margin of five yards over Von Ruden. Burleson finished a close third.
"I'm pleased with that time," Ryun said. "It's pretty good for this time of the season. In spite of everything I'm just about where I should be."
There were some other pleasing performances. The veteran broad jumper Ralph Boston pulled out one big leap to stand off a surprising challenge from a 17-year-old Pasadena high school boy named Jerry Proctor. Good-looking Bob Seagren set a world indoor record in the pole vault but lost it on a technicality. Thirty-year-old Jim Grelle, who hopes to become a winner at two miles after a decade of losing at one, did so with a strong finish in a tactical race with 20-year-old Gerry Lindgren. And 19-year-old Richmond Flowers Jr., only three weeks before a star wingback on the Tennessee football team, was once again a hurdler, and one who thinks he can break the world record this summer. But this group—and Ryun—will have to be at its best and very busy to make this indoor season much of a success. Where indoor track is concerned, success, it seems, has bred failure. There are so many meets now—sometimes four in a single weekend—and there simply is not enough star material ready or willing to provide the exciting match-ups and new records that used to be the indoor track fan's steady diet.
Even the fans are in thin supply. The first major meet of the season, in San Francisco, sold only 5,700 seats in the 13,000-seat Cow Palace. The next one—the Massachusetts K. of C. in the Boston Garden—filled only half of the 13,909 seats available. Even the AAU seems to be contributing to the effort to keep track fans home on winter weekends. Last Saturday night star competitors from West Germany and Australia were shuffled off to make cameo appearances at a relatively minor meet in Kansas City, while the top U.S. talent was trying to stir up some excitement in Los Angeles.