Skip to main content
Original Issue


At 19 Kansas' young supermiler has run out of rivals—except for the clock. Last Sunday he won his second straight national title but failed to approach the world record as he lost his race with time

It is proved with increasing vehemence each time he runs the mile that 19-year-old Jim Ryun's race is only against the clock. In the U.S., at least, there is no man who can beat him. Even Ryun himself has finally accepted this often painful challenge, and now when he falls short of a world record, however intriguing the race, it is difficult to convince the paying customers that they have not been cheated. It is almost as hard to convince Jim Ryun. He likes to win, of course, but he desperately wants to win fast.

Last week's National AAU track and field championships in New York should certainly have been something more than a showcase for a mile run. Not only were national titles at stake, but also two spots in each of 18 events on the national team that will compete later this month in California in dual meets with teams from Poland and Russia. But Ryun was entered in the mile, and when Ryun is going to run the mile a track fan's heart beats a little faster, his stopwatch twitches expectantly, the world record seems only a click away, and other faces and other events, however fast or fiercely contested, are jostled into the background.

This is unfortunate, because very often the record-breaking race that everyone is so wild to see collapses as though shot down by the starter's pistol. That certainly describes what happened last Sunday on Randall's Island. The field of eight runners moved away from the starting line and through the first curve in the quarter-mile track like men tiptoeing across an icy pond. The boos and catcalls from the record-hungry crowd began at the end of the first quarter, which was run in a dawdling 63.3 seconds. The pattern continued through the second and third quarters, and the race did not really begin until only 200 yards were left. Ryun, leading the field into the last turn, suddenly shot forward as if prodded from behind by an electric cane. Jim Grelle, who plays his role of runner-up as if born to it, belatedly began his chase after Ryun's rapidly vanishing back, and Dyrol Burleson, his lips burbling like a pair of bellows, sprinted after Grelle. At the finish it was Ryun first in 3:58.6, 10 yards ahead of Burleson and 15 ahead of Grelle. He had covered the last quarter in the amazingly fast time of 52.6 seconds, the last 220 yards in 25.4.

Ryun had given the Northeast its first sub-four-minute mile outdoors and he declared himself "pleased with the result." But he said this with something that looked more like a scowl than a smile. The fact is that Ryun is ready to go for a world record practically every-time he climbs into his pink running shorts and his pale blue Kansas jersey. The only thing he is not ready to do is talk about it. A try at the record is something referred to obliquely in vague, hushed tones, as if it were an eccentric maiden aunt locked in the attic.

Last Sunday morning, before the race, Ryun left little doubt as to what he hoped to achieve that afternoon on the banks of the East River. He rose from his bed at the New York Hilton at 8 a.m., put on a dark suit, a white shirt and a dark tie and went downstairs to the coffee shop for a breakfast of V-8 juice, Cream of Wheat, two fried eggs over and a question or two from a reporter.

Would he compete in another mile before the Polish and Russian meets, in which he would run 1,500 meters?

"I don't really know," he said. "That depends on what happens today."

Winning that afternoon and making the national team would surely be an accomplishment to be proud of, but would he be proud if he did it on the strength of something like a 4:03 mile?

Ryun laughed gleefully, but his answer was cautious: "Maybe I'd better just say that...uh...a faster time would be preferred."

On his way back to the hotel lobby Ryun glanced at the Sunday sports section of The New York Times. He held the paper in both hands and gaped wordlessly at a banner headline across the top of the page: BUCKPASSER SETS WORLD RECORD IN ARLINGTON MILE. After a long minute he looked up and grinned sheepishly.

"It took me awhile to catch on," he said. "I thought, 'Who is this guy Buckpasser? Where is the Arlington Mile?' I guess I'm still sleepy."

That afternoon he seemed a bit sleepy still, as did the entire mile field, which was mildly surprising in view of the fact that Dyrol Burleson was running. Burleson, national mile champion in 1959, 1961 and 1963 and an Olympic 1,500-meter finalist in both 1960 and 1964, had been out of serious competition for a time and his return had the others just a bit edgy.

After the 1964 Olympics, Burleson went to Sweden to live for six months, later returned home to work on his master's degree in physical education at the University of Oregon and generally avoided topflight competition. On Saturday, a hot, muggy day, he won the first of the two qualifying heats in the mile by ripping off a fast 54.8 final quarter that carried him home in 4:06.2, a full second ahead of Jim Grelle. Moments later Ryun took his heat in an even more leisurely 4:06.4, but he and everyone else seemed very much impressed with Burleson's long, fast, sustained finish.

"These slow heats aren't going to wear anyone out," said Burleson. "As a matter of fact, I think mine did me a lot of good. Made me feel a little sharper. I've had a cold, and I haven't had much of a chance to work out hard."

What about the 3:53 mile that both Grelle and Ryun have referred to?

"I don't believe in running off at the mouth," said Burleson. "The running should be done on the track."

Grelle, the elder statesman of American mile running, said to the youthful Ryun, "Don't worry. He won't be able to sprint like that off a fast three-quarters in the final."

Everyone assumed that Grelle would put that theory to the test Sunday afternoon, but he seemed strangely reluctant to do so, and Ryun, who doesn't talk about it but who apparently has great confidence in his ability to sprint with anyone, saw no need to. The slow early pace eventually forced Ryun to take the lead, with Grelle tailing along like a shadow and Burleson somewhere farther back, but the race snailed along. The first quarter was passed in 63.3, the half mile in 2:05.8 and the three-quarters in an eminently booable 3:06.1. The pace seemed made to order for Burleson, who stumps along on his heels in a sort of awkward, duck-footed, elbows-akimbo shuffle, and who in the last stages of a slow race can lift up and fly off like a dash man.

"Sure, I was concerned about Burlie's fast finish," Grelle said later, "but I didn't think trying to get out in front and set a faster pace myself was the answer."

He never did find an answer. When Ryun took off in that last dash to the tape, Burleson swung out around Grelle, passed him with 70 yards to go and, though decisively beaten by Ryun, finished second and made the national team with surprising ease. Grelle finished a disappointing third, almost five full seconds off his best mile time of the year.

Under the best of circumstances a championship meet usually will exert a depressing effect on record attempts. Bob Seagren, who at 19 holds the pending world pole-vault record of 17 feet 5½ inches, won his event with a vault of 17 but missed in his tries at 17 feet 6. Ralph Boston, at 27 the broad-jump record holder with a leap of 27 feet 4¾, won his sixth straight national title in spite of getting out no farther than 26 feet 3¼. Randy Matson, 20, who holds the world shotput record of 70 feet 7¼, won with a modest toss of 64 feet 2¼ George Young, the ex-steeplechaser, won the three mile in 13:27.4.

A significant victory went to 22-year-old Willie Davenport, who, after three years in the Army, has just finished his freshman year at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. His close rival from the indoor season, Tennessee's Richmond Flowers (SI, June 6) is sitting out the track season with a leg injury suffered during spring football practice, and thus Willie has clear title to being the finest hurdler in the world. He does not just jump over a hurdle, he attacks it, slamming his leading foot down as he clears the top with the supple grace of a ballet dancer, already concentrating on the next assault directly ahead. Davenport broke the tape at the finish of the 120-yard high hurdles in 13.3, just .1 second off the seven-year-old world record held jointly by Martin Lauer of Germany and two-time Olympic Champion Lee Calhoun. Past the finish, Davenport floated on a dozen yards or so and pulled the tape off his head with the leisurely indolence of a woman removing her hat, while what remained of this country's best hurdlers floundered across the finish line well back of him.

Of significance also was the reappearance on the national scene of Billy Mills, the 1964 Olympic-10,000 meter champion. A year ago at this meet in San Diego, Mills and Gerry Lindgren finished in a near dead heat and set a world six-mile record of 27:11.6. Soon after, Mills came down with a virus, had his tonsils removed, went into retirement as a runner, started a career as a life insurance salesman, gained 20 pounds and, after a five-month layoff, felt the itch to run once again and resumed heavy training.

"I'm stronger than I ever was," says Mills, whose speed at whipping himself into shape borders on the mystic "On April 1 I weighed 168, but now I'm down to 152 and by August I think I'll be faster than I was a year ago." Last Sunday, Mills was not yet fast enough to beat Tracy Smith in the six-mile run, but he made the team that will compete against Eastern Europe.

All in all, there was a multitude of solid performers and solid performances in New York, and our national team should have little trouble in handling both Poland and Russia. But there were some disappointments. One was Lindgren, who had to scratch from both the three-mile and six-mile runs because of an acute case of trachial bronchitis. Another was Tommie Smith, the world record sprinter, who was absent from the meet because of the thigh injury he incurred a week earlier at the NCAA meet. Both Lindgren and Smith will be added to the U.S. team.

And then, of course, there was Jim Ryun, who has achieved the distinction of being a disappointment when he fails to break the world record.

"He'll have to learn," says Bob Timmons, his coach. "If someone sets a fast pace, fine. Jim can follow along. But if they don't, he'll just have to go out there and do it all himself."


Running briskly with a lap to go, Ryun leads ex-champions Burleson (2) and Grelle (3).


Youthful Bob Seagren won the pole vault at 17 feet, missed a record 17 feet 6.