Searching for Jimmy Ryun
by Greg Hitchcock 6.4.01

A week ago Alan Webb, 18 of Reston, Virginia broke a high school track record that many people thought might stand forever. Back in 1965, Jim Ryun of East High in Wichita, Kansas beat the world's best miler, Peter Snell of New Zealand, to set the American high school record of 3:55.3 in San Diego. Webb broke that imposing record at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, by running 3:53.43 in a race won by today's best miler, Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.

A lot has been said about that tremendous run and about Webb. He has great talent. He is physically developed for a high school senior. He combines speed (48 second 400 meter) with endurance (second at the national high school 5000 meter cross country to another high school phenom), much like Ryun. Webb has trained hard, but nowhere near the level of Ryun in terms of volume. Webb ran a very intelligent race, staying well within his ability until the last lap, when he blazed 55 seconds for the final 400 meters, passing many world class milers to finish 5th. Webb may be the best American miler right now.

Ryun was similarly a supreme talent -- many consider him to be the most talented of all the great milers, from Bannister, to Elliot, to Coe, to Aouita, to Morceli and El Guerrouj. He trained incredibly hard in high school, once doing 40 times 400 meters in 69 seconds. He made meaningless the term "prep" star since he was preparing for no future, but giving everything in his high school present. He made an Olympic team between his junior and senior year in high school. Combining that talent with that hard work, he put up a record that seemed unapproachable.

There is a gnawing belief among cognoscente of the mile, at least here in the U.S., that if Ryun had been well-coached he could have run 3:45 for the mile -- even without the "rabbits" and high tech shoes and tracks of today -- and dominated the sport for over a decade. Instead he had a career that mixed brilliance with major disappointments. He set the world record in 1966 with a 3:51.3 on a dirt track in Berkeley, breaking Michel Jazy's short-lived record by two and half seconds. He was 19 years old. The next year, he improved that record to 3:51.1. He also set records for the 1500 meters and the half-mile. In 1968, he won a silver medal in Mexico City's high altitude behind Kenyan, Kip Keino. After that "disappointment", Ryun had only occasional success mixed with heartbreaks. He stepped off the track at the 1969 nationals, took a year and half off, came back for the 1972 Olympics and looked good but tripped in the 1500 meter heats and did not make the final, and then spent a few years trying to help start the ITA professional track circuit until he finally retired from the sport at age 28. It is clear, though, that his career peaked at age 20 in 1967.

That meteoric type of career is common among high school standouts. In fact, one can peruse the list of great American high school runners (sub-4:10 milers and sub 9-minute two-milers) and see many lifetime bests. And for every one of those talented runners who became national collegiate contenders (let alone world-class), there are several who never came close to achieving the kind of success they had in high school.

Ryun was the last American to be the best miler in the world. That is 34 years in the wilderness. Steve Scott, in the early and mid-1980s challenged the best in the world and set the still standing American record of 3:47.69. The U.S. has not had a serious Olympic medal contender in the 1500 meter since.

So every time a high school senior goes under 4:10 for the mile, the American track community asks, is this the new Jim Ryun, the one who will lead American milers back to prominence? (And this is ironic since Ryun never took to the celebrity or pressure of being a running hero, and likely cringes at this annual rite of spring.)

Is Alan Webb, who chased a ghost and caught him, the answer to the question? There is the problem: I don’t like the question. And I would not want Jim Ryun's mostly unhappy career to be the model that top young runners follow.

I much prefer that Alan Webb be his own runner, pursue his dreams, and let us appreciate him for what he is, not what we hope him to be. And despite his auspicious introduction as an American distance force, and despite the fact that he has left plenty of room to add mileage to his training regime, it will be an upset, an accomplishment going against the odds, if Webb is the top American miler in three or five years (and let's not even guess at the likelihood of an American record or Olympic medal). But we can gaze upon a 3:53 high school mile --- and be amazed.