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Benson: Jim Ryun and the Mile

Decades ago, one lap around a high school or college track equaled a quarter of a mile. A race on the straight in front of the stands was the 100-yard dash and a half lap was 220 yards. Those two were the sprints. A single lap was the quarter-mile run and two laps was the half-mile run. Those were the middle distance races. Four laps was the mile run, and eight laps was the 2-mile run. Those were the long distance races. Along with the relays, that was "track" for generations of students.

At some time in the recent past, those distances were converted over to the metric system. Oval tracks are now 400 meters long, which converts to 437.445 yards, just short of the former 440 yards. Now runners run meters: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1,500, 3,000, 5,000, 10,000 or more. According to the International Association of Athletics Federation, records now are in meters, indoors and outdoors, men and women, with one exception: the mile run.

The mile run captivated people's imagination once a stop clock was brought to the track and people began dreaming about running a mile in less than 4 minutes. Quarter-milers routinely run their race in less than 60 seconds, but for a runner to run a sub-4-minute mile means that his average for each lap must be less than 60 seconds -- no small feat. Theorists believed it impossible, the limit of man's ability.

One hundred years ago, two Americans set the world record for the mile: 4:14.4 in 1913, and 4:12.6 in 1915. Glen Cunningham ran the mile for the Kansas University track team, and set the world record at 4:06.8 on June 6, 1934. At his prime, he could not break the 4-minute barrier.

Finally, on May 6, 1954, on the track at Oxford, an English medical student named Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile mark for the first time, and set a new world record at 3:59.4. Once he proved the feat achievable, others did the same. The Australian John Landy did it 46 days later.

Ten years later, a running phenomenon began to catch people's attention. His name was Jim Ryun, an East High School student in Wichita, Kan., who had the body build of a distance runner: tall, thin and long legs. Plus, he possessed an amazing kick on the final lap. Soon, he was breaking the nation's high school records in the half-mile, 1,500-meter, mile and two-mile runs.

Then, at Kansas University in Lawrence, he continued breaking records. On July 17, 1966, when he was 19, he raced at Berkeley, Calif., and set the world's record in the mile at 3:51.3. Eleven months later, on June 23, 1967, he broke his own record at Bakersfield, Calif., running the mile in 3:51.1, and that record stood for the next eight years.

He was the fourth and the last American to own the world record in the mile.

In October of 1968, Ryun ran the 1,500 meters at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Heavily favored to win, Ryun was not accustomed to Mexico City's altitude of 7,300 feet. Plus, he had suffered a bout with mononucleosis in June. Throughout most of the race, Ryun ran at the back of the pack while the Kenyan, Kip Keino, ran a blistering pace at the front of the pack. On the final lap, Ryun kicked and sprinted ahead of the pack but was still 20 meters behind Kip at the finish line.

Ryun ran a time of 3:37.8 and took the silver, and Kip Keino ran it in 3:34.9 and took the gold.

Years later, when reflecting on that race, Ryun said, "We had thought that 3:39 would win, and I ran under that. I considered it like winning a gold medal; I had done my very best, and I still believe I would have won at sea level." Also, if the race had been a mile, or 1,609.334 meters, instead of 1,500 meters, Ryun's kick may have carried him past the Kenyan. An additional 109 meters may have helped.

Ryun was tripped at the beginning of the 1,500-meter race at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, and was disqualified. Because he retired from competitive running after that, he never won an Olympic gold.

In 1996, Kansas's voters elected Ryun to the U.S. House of Representatives, and he served there until 2006. He is now 66 years old, and lives in Lawrence, Kan.

Kip Keino is 73, and lives in Eldoret, Kenya. Both men have established schools and programs in their respective countries to encourage students to run. Bannister became a neurologist at Pembroke College, Oxford, and is now 84.

The current recognized record holder for the mile is Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, who ran the race on July 7, 1999, at a time of 3:43.13, almost 8 seconds faster than Ryun's record, and over 16 seconds faster than Roger Bannister's personal best.

The mile is still there, but runners run it on 400-meter tracks. The stop watch is still there, and runners shave seconds and tenths of seconds off their times. Matching time to that distance is the competition. Someone will set a new world record in the mile run someday.

Benson is a historian residing in Sterling, Colo.,

and writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.