Photos by Chris Stone

Chula Vista native Eric Avila pointed to the crowd on the homestretch and leaped as he crossed the finish line, sending dozens of fans into their own jumps for joy.

Avila, 24, did more than become the first miler to break the 4-minute barrier in San Diego since 1988, clocking 3:56.89 to upset former El Camino High star A.J. Acosta. He did more than redeem the Jim Ryun Festival of Miles, which printed up 2,500 programs but drew only several hundred spectators to a chilly Balboa Stadium.

The 2007 Bonita Vista graduate completed a track journey Thursday night that included a state 3,200-meter title but took detours that saw him gain 30 pounds, quit school and become a ditch-digger for a time.

“I didn’t approach things right,” he told U-T San Diego last month. “Let’s just say I was an idiot.”

With Jim Ryun holding the tape and American mile record-holder Alan Webb looking on, Avila upset former University of Oregon star Acosta in the final race of an event marking the 50th anniversary of Ryun becoming the first high schooler to break the 4-minute barrier.

Cheered by several dozen people wearing yellow “Go Eric” shirts, including his former coach, Jeff Phair, Avila savored his first sub-4 mile. In high school, his best was 4:17.8. He later attended Northern Arizona University but dropped out and gained weight.

Former Sports Illustrated photographer Rich Clarkson, a family friend who began covering Ryun as a sophomore, shows Jim Ryun, wife Anne and son Drew a shot. Photo by Ken Stone

His return to running at Southern Oregon University, an NAIA school in Ashland where he recently finished school, put him on the path to a triumphant San Diego return.

His previous mile best was 4:08, and he said: “I haven’t run a mile in like five years.” But he said he’s been training for the 1500-meter run (about 110 yards shorter than a mile), and he’s clocked a 3:42 — with a 52-second closing lap.

Avila vaulted into the top 30 in the world this season, becoming the No. 10 miler in America — after focusing on the 1,500-meter run. (See Ryun meet results.)

“That was special — when you do that on a night like this,” Ryun said of Avila’s race in a field of 11 elite runners assembled by Rock N Roll Marathon co-founder Tracy Sundlun. “You can see the crowd was really into it. It was fabulous.”

Said Phair, Avila’s former coach: “It’s been a long time coming. … He’s a wonderful young man. He got to college and didn’t do well because he made some poor choices. … Now he’s very successful and is going to do well as a professional runner.”

Phair, an attorney by training who was a volunteer coach, recalled a freshman Avila as 5-feet-9 and 90 pounds, an athlete who came from soccer.

“As he started to grow, he had some foot problems,” Phair said. “He broke his foot a couple of times. So the philosophy was 45 miles [a week] and under — all throughout high school. The top guys were doing 100 miles, and he would complain: ‘Coach! I gotta run what A.J. Acosta is running” for mileage.

“We made the decision to have him do quality miles, no garbage miles … a lot of high-intensity speed work. And he continued that through college — he does 60-70 miles a week.”

Masters milers sprint from the original Balboa Stadium starting line — near the 50-yard line of the field. Photo by Chris Stone

Asked how he felt seeing him run his debut sub-4, Phair said: “To be frank, over the years he’s become like a son to my wife and I.” Wife Julie Phair is a girls running coach at Bonita Vista.

Phair wasn’t surprised by the time — or the first San Diego sub-4 since Steve Scott’s a quarter-century ago.

“I told him this afternoon he’d run 3:55,” Phair said. “I felt he was ready.”

If he hadn’t “showboated” at the end, pointing to the crowd, Avila would have run 3:55, Phair said with a smile.

Avila leaped through a tape held by Jim Ryun himself.

“We had a bet. I bet him he could do (3:55), and he bet me he couldn’t.”

No records were set at Ryun’s Festival of Miles. But with free admission and hundreds of children and teens getting a chance to slap hands with the three-time Olympian and former world record holder, the event achieved its celebratory goal.

Ryun, now 67, said afterward: “My hope is this will be the genesis of things to come. We’ve started a little spark that could grow into a fire — and grow the sport back.”

Every race featured an awards ceremony in front of the west stands at Balboa Stadium. Photo by Chris Stone

He said the series of children’s races could be the source of the next generation of great milers. “They’ll get inspired like some of us did,” he said, calling some of their times “remarkable for their ages.”

With 15 races and close to 200 runners from third grade on up, the festival drew many youngsters just now learning about Ryun.

One was Joel Gomez of Encinitas, 10, who after his race sat cross-legged at the 10 yard-line, alone, watching a grainy black-and-white video on a screen near the goal post. The video showed an 18-year-old Ryun beating Olympic champion Peter Snell at Balboa Stadium in 1965.

“He’s just my hero. He’s awesome,” Joel said. “I want to be like him basically. I want to run like him.”

A member of Solana Beach-based Speed to Burn Track Club, led by Paul Wright, Joel said he does three-hour workouts on Sundays and also does yoga.

Joel Gomez, 10, talks about Jim Ryun after watching a video on the infield screen. Photo by Ken Stone

Ryun teamed with San Diego Track Club coach Paul Greer (himself a sub-4 miler), race coordinator Tracy Sundlun and his Competitor Group and others on a night that also saw Olympian Mary Decker Slaney win a race of ElliptiGO bikes, supplied by the Solana Beach maker.

Anne Ryun, Jim’s wife, also attended, along with San Diego daughter Catherine and son Ned. Quietly watching and taking a few pictures was 82-year-old Rich Clarkson, a former Sports Illustrated photographer and director of photography at National Geographic.

Clarkson, who traveled from Denver for the event, chronicled Ryun’s career since the runner’s sophomore year in high school.

Anne Ryun said Clarkson was as close to the family as Ryun’s coach at Wichita East and Kansas — Bob Timmons.

“[Clarkson] gave Jim his first camera, when he went to Russia,” she said.

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.) He’d ultimately set a world record of 3:51.1.

Avila soaked up cheers while standing on podium with Jim Ryun.

In other races Thursday, Sarah Brown won the women’s elite mile in 4:33.42, well ahead of 41-year-old Olympic marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor, who clocked 5:02.04 and had hoped to challenge Alisa Harvey’s American masters record of 4:46.29. Brown was the 2009 NCAA indoor mile champion for the University of Tennessee as Sarah Bowman.

Josh Bernd of Canyon Crest High School won the top boys mile in 4:20.21, and Chandler Johnson of Clairemont High School won the top girls race in 5:02.91. The men’s masters mile (for over-40 runners) went to Tim Gore, 45, in 4:26.75, and the women’s masters race went to Tania Fischer, 48, in 5:17.63.

Avila followed a pacesetter for the first 2 1/2 laps and then took control, sprinting his last lap in about 56 seconds. Then, after a pause, sprinted into the arms of his fans.

And young Joel? How did he do?

He ran 5:45.86 — his all-time best.

“I broke it,” he said.

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