In light of the previous night’s downpours and the ominous clouds that hung in the sky over Lawrence on the morning of April 23, 1966, the organizers of the Kansas Relays expected no more than 5,000 spectators to show up for the day’s track event. To their surprise, more than 15,000 people braved the weather to witness the Relays at Memorial Stadium. They saw the long jumpers use a grain elevator’s conveyor belt for a runway and even got a chuckle when an Oklahoma freshman lost his shorts at the end of his leg of the 880 relay.
But that is not why they came. Instead, they had turned out to watch the Glenn Cunningham Mile and in particular to witness the exploits of KU freshman Jim Ryun, who at the age of 18 had already established himself as the nation’s best miler. The crowd that day would not be disappointed.
In 1964, Jim Ryun had burst onto the national scene when he became the first high school student to break the four-minute barrier in the mile run. The 17-year-old junior from Wichita went on to qualify for the Olympics that year and represented the United States in the 1,500-meter run at Tokyo as the youngest member of the team. Although he did not qualify for the finals of the Olympic race, newspapers and magazines covered his accomplishments and he became a national celebrity.
In March 1965, when he was a senior, Ryun announced his intention to follow Bob Timmons, who had been his high school coach through his junior year, to Oregon State University. However, when KU asked its track coach, Bill Eastman, to step aside a short time later, the University offered the position to Timmons who reneged on his commitment to the school in Corvallis to accept the post at KU. Predictably, Ryun went with him. But before he arrived on Mt. Oread, he solidified his place as America’s finest middle-distance runner.
Six weeks after setting a new prep record of 3:58.3 at the state meet in Wichita on May 15, 1965, Ryun prepared to run in the Amateur Athletic Union Track and Field Championships that were to be held in late June in San Diego, California. One of his competitors, New Zealand’s Peter Snell (who had claimed the gold medal in the 800 and 1,500-meter runs at Tokyo) casually dismissed the young Kansan’s chances of winning the race. “He’s 18-years old,” the Olympic champion asserted. “Enough said?”
Snell considered Oregon’s Jim Grelle to be the only man in the field who might challenge him. Ryun’s training, however, had been organized specifically with this race in mind. He not only defeated both the Oregon track star and the New Zealander, but also set a new American record for the mile of 3:55.3. Indeed, Track and Field News later called Ryun’s performance the finest competitive mile ever run. At 18, having not yet competed in a single collegiate race, the reserved Wichita native had emerged as America’s fastest miler.
Freshmen were forbidden from competing for the varsity sports teams, so Ryun could not officially run for KU in the 1965-66 school year. Nonetheless, he could compete “unattached” and his presence on the team boosted attendance at the school’s track meets. Wearing his “Kansas Frosh” togs, the 6-foot 2-inch, 160 pound freshman shattered records as he compiled victory after victory and track fans simply could not get enough. More than 4,500 spectators, for instance, turned out at the indoor track of Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium to watch the lithe Jayhawk race in the Big Eight Indoor Track Championships in early 1966. The Lawrence Journal-World reported that the spectators “started cheering as the gun signaled the start of the race.” The “noise built steadily” from there, it continued, until Ryun crossed the finish line as the clock “struck 4:00 and the crowd almost blew the roof off the hall.” His time of 3:59.6 set a new meet record.
Although he had achieved considerable success in both cross-country and indoor track, Ryun began perhaps the greatest stretch of his career during the 1966 spring track season. On April 23 of that year, with his 19th birthday less than a week away and storm clouds gathered overhead, Ryun took to the rain-soaked track at Memorial Stadium and shattered the 12-year old Kansas Relays mile record by more than seven seconds. The KU prodigy admitted that the wild cheering of the unexpectedly large crowd “spurred him on” to the fifth fastest mile in American history. His time of 3:55.8 represented the best time anyone in the world had yet recorded that year.
Later that day he anchored the freshman mile relay team for KU and despite receiving the baton 20 yards behind the leaders reeled them in with a 46.9-second quarter-mile to give his team the victory. While newspapers speculated that Ryun might soon gather enough fans to fill Memorial Stadium for KU track meets, the freshman continued to train with the hope (or perhaps the expectation) of setting a new world record in the mile.
Less than a month later, in the two-mile race at the Compton-Coliseum Relays, the freshman from Mt. Oread established a new US record of 8:25.2. Then on June 4 in a race at the Compton Invitational, he ran a 3:53.7 mile, a time one-tenth of a second off of the world mark held by Michael Jazy of France. Since the track hosting that year’s AAU championships was slow (and the AAU race was expected it to be the last mile race of the season), Ryun figured that his chance to better Jazy’s record in 1966 had disappeared.
Nonetheless, there were other records to be set and the following week in only his fifth competitive 880-yard race, he bested Snell’s four-year old half-mile record with a time of 1:44.9. His world record in an event for which he was not known came as a surprise to many, but not to Timmons who had long claimed his protégé’s most promising race might well be the half-mile.
Ryun’s increasing prowess on the track coincided with America’s escalating involvement in the Vietnam War. To protest the latter, Soviet Bloc countries began boycotting international athletic contests with the US. When Poland withdrew from a dual meet against the US Track and Field team, event officials hastily substituted the All-America Invitational and decided to host a mile run rather than a 1,500-meter contest. This gave the Kansas sophomore-to-be an unexpected chance to run an additional mile race and provided him with one last opportunity to set a new world mark in 1966. On July 17, the heralded Jayhawk did just that, knocking more than two seconds off the previous record by turning in a time of 3:51.3. During a period of intense Cold War conflict, proud newspapers (especially those from Kansas) were quick to point out that Ryun had returned the mile record to his country (and his state) for the first time since KU’s Glenn Cunningham had held it 29 years earlier.
Ryun came back to KU for the fall semester of 1966 where the world-record holder in two separate events could finally compete for his University. That December, Sports Illustrated named him the 1966 “Sportsman of the Year.” The following month, he became the third Jayhawk track star to win the James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s best amateur athlete. In an indoor dual meet against Oklahoma State University held in Allen Field House early in 1967, the sophomore added the indoor world record for the half-mile to the one he had claimed in the outdoor 880. His dominance was so complete that his national title in the mile run at the close of the indoor track season seemed almost a footnote to his other triumphs.
Ryun met with equal success in the outdoor season. After breaking the Kansas Relays record he had set in April of the previous year, he went on to seize the NCAA crown in the outdoor mile. He finished his first season on the varsity track team for KU by helping its distance-medley relay team to a world record time of 3:15.2. On June 23, 1967 in Bakersfield, California at the AAU Championships, he bettered his own outdoor mile world record by two-tenths of a second. (Looking back on that race, Ryun remembered it being “one of the easiest races [he] ever ran” and wondered how much faster he might have run it if he had planned his race with a new world mark in mind.) A few weeks later, he set yet another world record when he ran 1,500-meters in 3:33.1.
His junior year at KU promised to be his finest yet, but the 1967-68 seasons proved somewhat disappointing. After claiming the NCAA Indoor Championships’ mile and two-mile titles, Ryun came down with mononucleosis. Following his recovery, he managed to pull his hamstring. He recuperated from his injury and sickness, but for the first time in his career Ryun found himself in a feud with Coach Timmons. A spat that grew out of a debate over the best way to train for that year’s Olympics distanced the star from his coach and the two were not reconciled for some years. In the high altitude of Mexico City, Ryun ran an excellent 1,500-meter race at the Olympics, but finished behind the great Kenyan distance runner, Kip Keino. Well aware that a silver medal disappointed his supporters in the United States, Ryun returned home to criticism in a nation that had long tended to view the second-place finisher as the “first loser.”
Ryun’s senior year at KU proved even more dissatisfying to the nation’s best miler as well as his fans. Frustrated by his lack of improvement and burdened by the weight of the enormous expectations he shouldered, the troubled Jayhawk pulled out of races at the Drake Relays, the NCAA Outdoor Championships, and the AAU Championships. When he decided not to run in the three-mile race at the NCAA’s that season, having already finished second that day in the mile run to Villanova University’s Marty Liquori, he cost his team the national title and the Jayhawks ended the season as the national runners-up.
In late June 1969, in his fifth track season as a “superstar,” he stepped off the track during the middle of the AAU Championships’ mile race with a troubled expression on his face and a short time later decided to give up running entirely. He had not lost confidence in his ability. Indeed after the race he told reporters that “physically, everything [was] fine” and that, in fact, he had been in good enough shape to set a new world record. Mentally, however, the pressure of such high expectations had finally caught up with him.
Older runners had worried that this might happen when Ryun had first burst into the national limelight. Cunningham, for instance, had alluded to the potential for such a collapse after the 1966 Kansas Relays. Answering a journalist’s question about Ryun, Cunningham admitted he had “learned that running is not a life or death matter, but that was not how [he had] felt when [he] was running.” Oregon’s Grelle revealed his concerns about the Kansas track star more bluntly later that year when he said, “Physically, Ryun is capable of almost anything. But I have doubts that he is going to be able to handle the mental pressure.”
At 22, the Wichita native had been one of the world’s premier competitors for almost five years in an event in which most athletes do not reach their peak until their mid-to-late 20s. He had traveled the world, participated in two Olympiads, and gotten married. But he had ceased to enjoy running, and despite the attempts of his fellow milers to rally to his defense, the press started labeling Ryun a quitter.
After retiring from racing for a while, Ryun set about to complete his undergraduate degree in photojournalism. Eventually, he returned to running, but found he was no longer as dominant (at least consistently so) as he had been. Nonetheless, Ryun re-established a rapport with sportswriters who came to admire him for his unwillingness to give up again despite times for the mile (such as a 4:19 disaster in 1972) that seemed agonizingly slow for the former Jayhawk. He qualified for his third consecutive Olympic team in 1972, but at the Munich games a fellow competitor inadvertently tripped him during a semifinal heat. Although Ryun finished the race after tumbling to the track, he did not qualify for the finals. Appeals to Olympic officials to allow him to compete in the event’s final anyway fell on deaf ears.
As Ryun and his wife had young mouths to feed, he abandoned his amateur status the following year and competed professionally for a little less than four years. In 1976, the man who was probably the most talented miler in the long and distinguished line of middle-distance runners KU has been able to claim hung up his cleats for good and started a sports-oriented public relations agency.
His next competitive race would not come for 20 years. And then he would run not as an athlete circling a track but as a conservative Republican bent on representing the people from Kansas’s Second District in the United States House of Representatives.
In his 1996 campaign, reminding voters of his athletic achievements with the campaign slogan “Run with Ryun,” he claimed a place in the nation’s House of Representatives by receiving 52 percent of the votes cast. He subsequently won re-election to Congress in 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2004. But in 2006, a year that saw the Democratic Party regain control of the US House and Senate, Ryun lost his re-election bid to Democratic challenger Nancy Boyda.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas