For Jim Ryun it has begun again. Nearly 19 months have passed since he stepped off the track in Miami and into a self-imposed exile—and then, suddenly, last week in San Francisco, it was as if he had never been away. For there he was, on the track at the Cow Palace, in the familiar pink and blue of the University of Kansas ghosting along in fourth place, and after only two laps of the mile run the old magic was gripping the crowd, and upstairs a man was gripping his son and shouting, "Freddie, don't you miss a minute of this. By God, that's the old Jim Ryun running."
No, Freddie, not the old Jim Ryun. That fellow out there, he buried the old Jim Ryun back in Miami in June of 1969. "The Jim Ryun of a few years ago is dead as of today," he said then. "There has to be a new Jim Ryun. I have to exemplify my new self, not the old one. I'm anxious to compete, but if I don't get over this pressure I put on myself, this fear of losing, I may never step on a track again. And right now I just don't know how to do that."
On the eve of the race Ryun sat in one of those delicate little San Francisco restaurants, alternately chewing on beef wrapped in thin crisp pancakes and on the reason for his return to competition. Half of the reason, his wife Anne, sat beside him. The other half, Heather DeKlyn Ryun, was celebrating her seven-month birthday in the nearby apartment of Anne's sister Susan.
Ryun began by speaking of that day in Miami when he quit in the middle of a race, picked up his sweats and went home to Kansas. "To have stopped running at that point may have been the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "No, not in quitting that way. That would never be right and I'll never quit again. But I had to stop something that had been wrong for a long time. I didn't enjoy running that year. My mental attitude was bad. I had to stop it."
February 1, 1971
But why? Why in the middle of a race? Why not before or after?
Ryun shook his head. "I don't know. I didn't even know I was doing it. All of a sudden I just found myself off the track. It was a nightmare."
At home the pressure was off, but he was uneasy. He had stopped running, but his competitive juices had not. He and Anne took long walks at night. They discussed a comeback. She said if that was what he wanted, then that was what she wanted. He began putting his running career into a new perspective.
"People had always put me up on some sort of pedestal," Ryun said. "Made me some sort of a, uh, super-something. And then they'd say, oh, how terrible, so young and so many pressures. Well, all the pressures were made by me. Inside pressures. The outside pressures didn't bother me as much as people thought. If people expected great times and I didn't feel I was prepared, well, they just didn't get great times. As for the rest, it was often rewarding. But it was always as an individual. Sure, I was on the team at Kansas and I was very loyal. But you're still an individual alone. Now I have a family. Well, how can a man with a family not change? I'm as serious about running as I ever was, and I'm training harder than ever, but my family comes first. And we'll share in everything."
One of the first things they'll share is a move to Eugene, Ore., where Ryun has a choice of several job offers and where he'll be able to work out with Bill Bowerman's Oregon Track Club. And, too, the fans are going to be cut in for a piece of the action. In the past Ryun felt he had let them down, especially the children who futilely waited in line for autographs.
"It seems I was always being hustled off to be interviewed," he said. "Well, the press has been nice to me and I don't want to be cruel, but sometimes it may have to be that way. I'm not seeking to sign autographs, but if kids want them, they're going to get them. I suppose they'll go on saying I'm aloof. Aloof. That kills me. I never liked their using that word. I'm not aloof. But there are so many demands and just so much time and...." Well, that was the old Jim Ryun's hang-up.
The morning of the race the Ryuns awoke early, as usual, and went from their hotel to the apartment Susan shares with two roommates. Ryun wasn't too sure whom he would be running against. "Rick Riley, I know," he said, "and this guy from Stanford—uh, MacDonald, I think. I don't know who else. But it doesn't matter. I've prepared for the race as best as I can. Worrying about the competition now won't help."
The rest of the competition consisted of three brave fellows named Willie Eashman, Arvid Kretz and Peter Duffy, who had an outdoor best of 4:07.8 among them. They had never run indoors.
"They were the best we could get," said one of the meet officials. "We invited every top miler in the country. Jim said he didn't care who he ran against. At least three had told us they'd be here—until they heard Jim was coming. Then they became unavailable. Others were injured or out of shape, and I know Marty Liquori was committed to running in Philadelphia. Then we went down to the 4:03 and 4:04 milers and they all said, no, thank you."
Ryun laughed when he heard that. "Sort of silly of them. I should think that this would be a good time for them to catch me."
No matter. Eashman, Kretz, Duffy or a one-legged fat lady from Schenectady, this was still the first race after Miami, and Ryun was nervous. It was like climbing behind the wheel for the first time after a serious accident. You know you can get past the telephone poles, it's just that you didn't get past the last one. He and Anne went grocery shopping and breakfasted on steak and eggs. Ryun read a few chapters of The Robe before napping for 3½ hours. Upon awakening, he decided to get a haircut. Then the trouble started. Ryun wears his hair a bit longer than a crew cut.
"What you want a haircut for?" the barber demanded. "A guy your age, you should let it grow long."
"Please," Ryun said, "just cut it."
Ryun went back to Susan's apartment and called a cab to go to the Cow Palace. He was told he'd have to wait at least half an hour. For insurance, he called a second cab company. The first cab showed up in 14 minutes. Anne was still dressing. "Be down in a minute," Ryun told the driver, who said O.K. and drove off. The insurance cab never showed. After a tense hour Susan's roommates got Ryun to take their car. As it turned out, the rush was for nothing.
At last year's meet the fans had been polled as to their favorite event. They voted for the shotput. And so this year the officials invited Randy Matson, the world-record holder, and, for frosting, stopped all other competition during the shotput. Then there would be the 440 and, at 10:20 p.m., the mile. Oh, yeah. Al Feuerbach threw the big marble 68'11", breaking the world indoor record, and all those shotput fans went nuts. By the time Ryun was told he could run, it was 10:45, and Anne, who had been honored earlier with a silver platter, was a bundle of nerves. Oddly, Ryun grew looser with the delay.
"What was Anne's award for?" someone asked him.
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe Mother of the Year."
Finally the race began, and after several laps Duncan MacDonald took the lead and set a crawling pace.
"I remember the start," said Ryun, "and then I remember it said nine laps to go and then six. That's when I woke up. Sometimes you go to sleep out there. You worry about doing that. But in practice it's great. If you didn't sleep in practice you'd blow your mind."
With 4½ laps to go, Ryun said to hell with it. Or, rather, to heck with it. He sped past MacDonald and soon was in front by 20 yards and widening the margin with every lovely, flowing stride. He ran the last three laps grinning; the fans spent the last two laps giving him a standing ovation. He won in 4:04.4 and by at least 50 yards.
"When I crossed that finish line," he said, "it was like a great big weight was removed from my shoulders."
"Yeah," someone said. "Like Miami."
Then Ryun went in search of Anne, who had run to a phone to call her parents. "He found me out in the hall while he was warming down," she said. "He even got to say a few words to my folks. And what else? Oh, yes, he kissed me. I remember that now."
Then the press got him. Next race? Munich? The Olympics? Kip Keino? Liquori? "We'll have to sit down and discuss it," Ryun said, putting an arm around his wife's shoulder. "Now, if you'll excuse me, please, I have something to do. Come on, Anne."
Together, they left the pressroom and went out into the hall. There seemed to be a million kids lined up, all armed with pencils and outstretched programs. Ryun didn't stop signing until the last program had been thrust at him and the last kid had gone home happy.
Then he sighed. "You know," he confessed, "there was one disappointment tonight. I sure wish I could have seen that shotput record throw. But they made us stand out in the hall."
That's all the Cow Palace needs, another shotput fan.