Fifty years to the day, Jim Ryun will be in San Diego to savor his place in history as the first high schooler to run a mile under 4 minutes.
He’s also inviting some friends.
On June 5, Balboa Stadium will host the Jim Ryun Festival of Miles — with evening races for age-group youngsters, preps, elites and masters athletes.
“I want to share my story,” Ryun said in a recent phone interview from his home in Washington, D.C. “A simple prayer by a guy who was cut from every team he was on” before discovering his mile talents.
Ryun is teaming with San Diego Track Club coach Paul Greer (himself a sub-4 miler), race coordinator Tracy Sundlun and his Competitor Group and others for what he calls a “celebration of running.” A website and Facebook page were being planned to promote the event, which hopes to see someone run a mile under 4 minutes.
Admission is free, he said, and efforts are under way to reunite all prep sub-4 milers (except Chula Vista’s Tim Danielson, on trial in a murder case). Possible guests are Marty Liquori, Luke Verzbicas and Alan Webb — the current high school record holder.
“We are honored to support this monumental anniversary, which has set the bar for high school athletics over the past 50 years,” Greer said. “There isn’t a greater runner in American history that has inspired more young athletes to achieve their greatness than Jim Ryun. You couldn’t ask to honor a better person or a better role model, and there is no better venue than the historic Balboa Stadium.”
The weeklong event kick offs Friday, May 30, with the 17th annual Suja Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Expo at the San Diego Convention Center, where Ryun will be presenting training tips and interacting with runners.
Ryun also will serve as grand marshal for the marathon Sunday, June 1. Events will take place throughout the following week, culminating with the Festival of Miles from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, June 5, at Balboa Stadium. Elite fields in open and masters age groups are being assembled.
Event sponsors include Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Reliant Beverage Company, San Diego County Chik-fil-A stores, The Westin, Vision Biotechnology Consulting, Competitor Group Inc. and the San Diego-Imperial association of USA Track & Field.
It was June 5, 1964, when Ryun — a gangly 6-foot-2, 145-pound junior from Wichita — took eighth at the Compton Invitational mile at Compton Junior College. And stunned the world.
Only 10 years after Roger Bannister became the first man to run four laps under 4 minutes, Ryun clocked 3:59.0 — the 13th American to reach that milestone. (Now some 420 have done so, among more than 1,300 worldwide.)
“It was one of the few times that I ever hit my goal every second of the way,” Ryun told Times of San Diego. “It was 59 [for the first lap], 1:59, 2:59 … and that’s exactly what happened.”
Dyrol Burleson, who won the Compton mile, said: “There was nothing unusual about my victory. The entire story was back in eighth place. There is simply no way to imagine how good Jim Ryun is or how far he will go after he becomes an adult.”
Ryun would go on to smash the mile world record (twice) and set records at 880 yards and 1500 meters as well. He made the 1964 Olympic team his junior year — the first of three Games appearances. He won a silver medal (Mexico City 1500) and retired from competition in 1976.
Ryun’s daughter, Catharine, lives in San Diego and works for the group that puts on the Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon — so he’s no stranger to these parts.
But before last year, Ryun hadn’t returned to Balboa Stadium on the campus of San Diego High School since 1965, when he set a high school record of 3:55.3 that lasted until Webb ran 3:53.43 in 2001.
Balboa Stadium was his choice for the Festival of Miles, he said, because “there was support out here” and “All of my [world] records were set in California” except for the half-mile in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Ryun recalls how Bob Timmons, his first coach at Wichita East, planted the notion of a sub-4 schoolboy mile while on a bus trip home from just his fourth mile race.
“At that point, I thought: What have I got for a coach here?” Ryun said. “How is that possible? I’m looking at my paradigm of pain and no running experience.”
He called it a “large reach,” but “God gave me a wonderful coach who was very visionary and didn’t take the status quo as something that couldn’t be changed.”
Just six weeks after his 17th birthday, Ryun lined up for a Compton race televised by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and featuring America’s top milers.
Afterward, he noted in his diary: “Ran mile at Compton in 3:59 flat. Did striding and sprints. My warmup was not good, and I was bumped off the track.”
Ryun wasn’t merely strong. He had remarkable footspeed for a middle-distance runner.
His sophomore year at Kansas, Ryun said: “I talked Coach into letting me run the open 100 at the Southwestern Relays in Louisiana.”
He didn’t know how to use blocks, but got some tips from teammates. “I ended up running 10.3 for 100 yards,” he said. “It was pretty good speed.” As a Jayhawk, he also notched 220- and 440-yard legs in relays of 21.5 and 46.9, respectively.
Besides serving in Congress five terms, ending in 2007, Ryun has run a series of summer running camps for 43 years. See ryunrunning.com.
Just days shy of his 67th birthday, Ryun is still 6-2, but ranges between 195 and 200 pounds, he says.
He still runs — but not four laps for time.
“By the grace of God, I still have my original joints,” Ryun says. “I want to keep them.”
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click here