A week and a half ago, a sophomore at South Lakes High School in Reston named Alan Webb ran the fastest mile ever by a sophomore -- 4 minutes 6.94 seconds -- breaking a record set 36 years ago by a sophomore from Wichita, Kan., named Jim Ryun, the greatest American miler of all time.
By coincidence, Ryun now lives in Washington; he's the congressman from the 2nd District in Kansas. Ryun has run tens of thousands of miles since that one as a sophomore in 1963 -- one as fast as 3:51.1, a world record at the time -- but he remembers it, and the events leading up to it.
"I had run a 4:16 in the state meet, and my coach, Bob Timmons, found a meet for me to run against older runners in Kansas City," Ryun recalled. "Unknown to me, Timmons got Cal Elmore, a good college miler, to collaborate on setting a pace for me, and then told me to run right on his shoulder. With 200 yards left I began to kick, and of course Cal just ran right by me. But I ran 4:08.2, which was a big breakthrough.
"The next week I ran in a championship meet in Houston against older runners. The heat and humidity made it a miserable experience. I ran 4:07.8, but I felt awful. It felt like I'd run into a wall."
The next year, as a junior, Ryun became the first American schoolboy to break four minutes in the mile, running 3:59 while finishing eighth at a major invitational in California. "I was numb," Ryun remembered. "The year before my coach had told me he thought I could run a four-minute mile. At the time I was running 4:21, and my head hurt and my lungs hurt. I thought 4:19 would be great."
As a senior Ryun ran a 3:55.3, which remains the fastest mile by any high school boy. The first timed mile Ryun ever ran was 5:38 -- and two years later he had broken four minutes! Ryun couldn't have been any more of a prodigy had he sat down at age 6 and started playing Mozart. But Ryun didn't think of himself as a phenom. "I had been cut from my junior high basketball team, and my church baseball team. I was a nerd. I began running because I was searching for acceptance. My first goal was to simply make a team. My next goal was to get a letter jacket. And I thought if I did that, I might get a girlfriend." Teenagers, you see, are all the same. No matter how good they are at something, they are insecure at everything else.
There were disappointments in the Olympics for Ryun: He took second place to Kip Keino in the thin air at Mexico City in 1968, when Ryun was fighting mononucleosis, and Keino, from Kenya, had lived and trained at high altitudes all his life; Ryun tripped and fell in the qualifying heat for the 1,500 meters at Munich in 1972 and didn't get to run in the final. But Ryun remains the great American name in the mile. So much so that here, 36 years later, young Alan Webb of Reston finds himself in the same paragraph with him. "It's wonderful this young man broke my record," Ryun said. "I'm not only surprised it lasted this long -- I'm disappointed. It should have been broken long ago, and I'm very excited for Alan Webb."
Webb knows all about Ryun. "He has the sophomore class record, the junior class record and the senior class record," Webb said, rattling off Ryun's stats. "He went to the Olympics when he was in high school, and he held the world's record twice." This is impressive knowledge on Webb's part, considering there are major league baseball players who don't know who Jackie Robinson was, and NBA players who've never heard of Oscar Robertson.
Webb wants to break four minutes in his junior year like Ryun did. And Ryun wishes him all the luck in the world in doing it. Only three American high schoolers have ever run a "sub-4" mile: Ryun, Tim Danielson of California, in 1966, and Marty Liquori. Liquori was the last to do it -- in 1967!
Once track had all the landmark numbers other than 61 homers: The 16-foot pole vault; the 10-second 100 meters; And the four-minute mile was foremost, of course. England's Roger Bannister breaking the barrier in 1954 may well be the greatest single athletic achievement of the 20th century. Track was a huge draw here in the 1960s when Ryun began running. Big meets routinely outdrew baseball games. But in the last 25 years, as leagues have expanded and team sports have prospered, track has fallen off the map in the U.S. It exists as a once-every-four-years sport in the Olympics. American kids are far more likely to play football and basketball than run track. Some kids still sprint. But few of them run distance. Maybe Alan Webb, who at 16 years old ran 4:06.9 on a cool night in Raleigh, N.C., can throw a sub-4 mile in high school and help rejuvenate a flagging sport.
Ryun, who still runs four to five miles per day in what he calls the "very slow time" of seven minutes a mile, said he'd love to meet Webb, and answer any of his questions -- if Webb wants his advice. "What he doesn't need is any additional pressure," Ryun said.
If Webb asked, Ryun would tell him about his own training years ago, and how important it is to "keep your focus, don't depart from your base." About the four-minute mile, Ryun would tell Webb: "Go do it. You can't hold back." Ryun said that when he was Webb's age people told him, "You're running too fast, too young. Take your time." They didn't think he should aim at four minutes so quickly. But Ryun looks back and says, "If I'd procrastinated, it might never have happened." There might never have been those framed covers from Sports Illustrated and Newsweek that celebrate Ryun's youthful accomplishments dotting his congressional office wall on Capitol Hill. So Ryun would never tell Alan Webb to slow down.
Ryun knows what will come next for Webb, though. He doesn't have to stand next to Webb's 5-foot-8, 140-pound body to feel how the pressure will make him sag. "Eventually, he'll have to face the pressure," Ryun said. "He'll have a name. But he'll be chasing a name, too."
For a second time stood still.
"I don't wish that on anyone," Jim Ryun said, knowing that the name Alan Webb would be chasing soon was his.
CAPTION: Alan Webb, left, of South Lakes High, recently broke 36-year-old record set by Jim Ryun, right, running the fastest mile ever by a sophomore.