With Time, Ryun's Record Recedes

Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.), left, chats with Reston's Alan Webb, who in 2001 became the fourth American high schooler to break the four-minute-mile barrier. Ryun was the first, in 1964.
Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.), left, chats with Reston's Alan Webb, who in 2001 became the fourth American high schooler to break the four-minute-mile barrier. Ryun was the first, in 1964. (By Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 16, 2005

Jim Ryun stood on a sidewalk outside the Capitol on a recent warm evening, checking his BlackBerry e-mails for nearly 10 minutes before quietly driving away. No tourists took note of him, no police officers turned their heads.

No one sought an autograph, photo or word from the man who, between 1964 and 1972, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated seven times, and Newsweek once. Those were days when schoolboys taped pictures of Ryun to their bedroom walls, and thousands of Americans could recite his vital statistic, "three fifty one-one": the world record for running the mile in 3 minutes 51.1 seconds.

But that was a long time ago. So long, in fact, that tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of Tanzanian Filbert Bayi breaking Ryun's mark. Since that day, no American has held the record in what many consider track's most revered event, a distance that seems all the more American because nearly every other nation has gone metric.

Bayi held the record less than three months, whereas Ryun had it for nine years, longer than anyone else in the 20th century. But as the first African to claim it, Bayi stood at the vanguard of an emerging group of dominant runners. While a New Zealander and three Britons would hold the mile record for another 18 years, two North Africans have owned it since 1993. Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj set the current mark, 3:43.13, in July 1999.

Ryun, 58, a soft-spoken five-term Republican congressman from Kansas, says he made peace long ago with his fading place in the record books and in the memories of many sports fans. "I knew it was coming up soon," he said when reminded in a recent interview that May 17 is the 30th anniversary of Bayi's run. "How is Filbert? I haven't heard from him in quite awhile."

Ryun moves quietly among his House colleagues, rarely making waves or headlines. He finished third in a bid for a GOP leadership post a couple of years ago, but he has largely shied away from the national stage and focused on local issues.

In his low profile, some see a lost glory of American running that may never be regained. "Jim Ryun has been a hero of mine since I was 9 or 10 years old," said two-term Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), 46, a recreational runner. "Obviously, some of the younger staff [in Congress] have no idea who Jim Ryun is."

There was a time when U.S. milers' horizons seemed almost limitless, and Wichita's Jim Ryun led the pack. In 1964 -- two years after his best mile time was 5:38 -- he became the first high schooler to run a sub-four-minute mile. It electrified track fans and landed Ryun on Sports Illustrated's cover.

Competitors seemed close behind. California high schooler Tim Danielson ran a sub-four-minute mile in 1966, and Marty Liquori of New Jersey did it a year later.

Then something happened to the nation's budding middle-distance runners. Or rather, very little happened, because 34 years passed before Reston's Alan Webb became the fourth American high schooler to crack the four-minute barrier, in 2001.

The reason for the long hiatus has baffled track's top coaches and runners. Ryun, Liquori and Webb struggle to explain it.

"I really don't have an answer for it," Webb said during a celebrity appearance at last week's Capital Challenge 5K run in Anacostia. Webb, 22, said he has worked hard to become the best runner he can, but he can't explain why other teenage boys couldn't stay on the heels of Ryun, Danielson and Liquori. "It wasn't like I said, 'I'm going to save American track and field' " after three decades, Webb said.

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