On June 5, 1964, Wichita High School East junior Jim Ryun ran one mile around the track in 3 minutes and 59 seconds at the Compton Relays in San Diego, the first time a high school boy in the United States slipped under the magical 4-minute barrier. What was once assumed humanly impossible—proven incorrect by Sir Roger Bannister’s 3:59.4 mile performance at Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England 10 years prior—was suddenly the new, attainable standard of excellence among high school milers. And 50 years later, only four other high school boys run alongside Ryun as part of the sub-4:00 high school mile club.
We caught up with Ryun recently to talk about his historic feat, which will be celebrated at a 50-year anniversary event at Balboa Stadium in San Diego on June 5.
50 years ago, was it part of your pre-race plan with your coach to break the four-minute mile barrier as a junior in high school?
It was a specific goal to run under four minutes. Coach [Bob] Timmons always had the policy of having some sort of established goal and writing down splits for every competition. On that particular night, I was probably within a second of every one of my splits, and the goal was to run 3:59.0, and on that night, it happened! What made it interesting was that I was eighth in the race, and as we passed the finish line, I was hoping to be eighth. Then they announced that that was the first time that eight people had run under four minutes at one meet, and that the first high school boy had run under four minutes—and that was me.
Ryun broke the U.S. outdoor mile record four times, once as a senior in high school.
When you broke that amazing barrier, did you realize in that moment how historic that feat was and would be for high school track? What impacted you the most about that night?
As time went on, I began to appreciate the historic value of it. I think the thing that impacted me the most was as we worked toward that goal, starting almost two years before, I had my doubts as to whether it could be accomplished. I had committed to following a program that Coach Timmons had given me, but on that night after running under four minutes, I really didn’t sleep that well because the phone started ringing. People had questions; this was monumental. And as I thought about it over the next few days, I started to take ownership of my future. Yes, Coach Timmons had given me a goal, which was also my goal, but if I took ownership [of those goals] even more, there were things I could do to get even faster. Someone can give you something to do, but when you take ownership and make it your own, you’re going to make sacrifices necessary to go to the next level. That was probably the most impactful part—if I were to give more energy and more effort, what would happen? What could be done in the future? And by the grace of God, I got faster and faster.
Ryun’s HS mile record (3:55.3) lasted for nearly 36 years before Alan Webb broke it in 2001.
When you were going toward that goal, how did Roger Bannister’s performance 10 years prior influence your strategy? Did he alleviate any of the doubts about this even being possible?
After my fourth high school race, I was on the bus from Kansas City back to Wichita; I had run a 4:21 in the race. Coach Timmons always saved a seat at the front of the bus next to him so we could all talk individually about our performances. He told me I had run a really good race—and it was—but he asked how fast I thought I could run. I initially maybe a couple seconds faster, but I was evaluating my performance on how I felt: I was tired, my legs hurt, my lungs hurt. Timmons said, “I think you can become the school record holder,” and I knew the school record was 4:08. How do you go from 4:21 to 4:08? He continued to say, “I think you can do something greater than that. I think you can do what Dr. Bannister did in 1954.” I had no idea who he was! He was, of course, the first man to break the four-minute mile barrier, and the coach was presenting that goal to me. He began laying out at plan, and he explained to me the things Dr. Bannister had done to achieve his goal. Again, I had no idea who he was when I first started running; the first running book I read was about Emil Zapotek, the great Czech runner who won the gold in the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon [in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics]. I slowly learned a lot about Dr. Bannister and gained a greater appreciation. The night I ran under four minutes for the first time, the historic significance began to sink in. Bannister as an adult went under four minutes, now a high school junior went under four minutes—where does that uncharted territory go for years to come? What will the future hold?
Ryun’s lost his first high-school mile race (4:32) but never lost another one after that.
The mile race in high school shifted to 1,600 meters in the early 1990s, but the mile remains “America’s Distance.” What does that mean to you?
When we went to metric distances—1,600 meters from the mile—we lost a lot of the public. The average person down the street has no idea what you’re talking about, but if you relate the distances to mph or miles they walk or drive, there’s a better ability for them to become more involved in the sport of mile-ing. I support Bring Back The Mile; I believe the mile is a great distance for people to participate in. I was very disappointed when we left that distance for metric distances—if you want to keep the public involved, you have to have something they can relate to. I think it was [the late University of California coach] Brutus Hamilton that said, “There are some things that will never be achieved; there will never be a 60-foot shot put, there will never be a 16-foot pole vault, and man will never run under four minutes.” The mile is something the public can identify with, and through the years, there’s always been that attention captured by the mile, starting with Roger Bannister.
Ryun ran five sub-4:00 miles in high school, the most of any high school runner.
Do you see the mile coming back to high school track and field?
I would like to see that happen. It’s an event that’s universal, it’s an event that [runners] can measure themselves against from previous generations. It’s a great standard there that will always be important.
In 2011, Lukas Verzbicas was the fifth high schooler to break the four-minute barrier. Do you believe his performance to be as symbolic as yours 50 years ago?
First of all, I think it’s a great achievement—when people expect you to do something, the pressure is even greater, and Lukas certainly had the credentials to do it. I was fortunate enough to be there when he did it [at the Dream Mile], and I was happy to be there to support him. But I know the pressures were real; he was expected to be the next one. It was a wonderful achievement, and I still applaud what he did.
In 2011, ESPN.com named you the “best high school athlete ever.” If you had to pick another high school track runner to receive this award today, who would you pick?
I would keep it with just the milers—you got Lukas, you got Alan Webb, and I would just keep it in that time frame. Once you move it to other events, there are so many amazing athletes, but in terms of milers, those guys are qualified. Alan was the first one to run under my record [after 36 years]. If you go back and look at Tim Danielson, the second one, and Marty Liquori, the third one, they were breaking ground at that time. I would leave it with milers and mention those names.
Ryun won this title over LeBron James and Tiger Woods.
What are some of the main objectives of the Jim Ryun Running Camps you host every year?
Ann [my wife] and I had become Christians in 1972, and we decided that there should be an opportunity for runners to not only have a great distance camp, but also bring what it is to be Christian and how it relates to sports. We’ve had wonderful athletes coming in—more than 5,000 over the years—from all different talents. We have some of the best coaches in the country; Dr. Jack Daniels is one of the best exercise physiologists in the world, and he comes to every camp to explain exercise science. Adding in what it is to be a Christian, it gives them the character to help them to run great races but also the character to help them in life after running.
Olympian Ryan Hall, the current U.S. half-marathon record holder, has attended Ryun’s camps.
Outside of your high school career, what’s one of your most proudest moments as a runner?
Probably when I broke the mile world record in 1966—3:51.3. It was such a breakthrough moment, and it was almost two and half seconds under the previous record. When you’re expected to run well, and you do, the pressure’s off. That happened that day, but the bonus on that one is I met my wife-to-be at that track meet. After about three hours of autographs and interviews, she came up to me and asked for an autograph, and we ended up going on a date.
Originally the U.S. versus Poland, the meet became the U.S. All-American competition when Poland pulled out due to war politics between the U.S. and the Soviet Union regarding Vietnam.
What are some of the celebrations runners can expect to see as we approach the 50th anniversary of your four-minute mile?
We will have the Festival of the Mile in San Diego [on June 5], starting with the Chelsea King mile championships, so we will have a lot of age-groupers coming in. We will have Masters races, an elite race (hopefully). I will speak and tell my story, but preceding that, I will be a grand marshall at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon, and I will be hosting a mile clinic both days at the expo.
For more info on the festivities on June 5, visit competitor.com/jimryun.