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“It’s a number you just know,” Mike Fanelli of Asti said. “It just rolls off your tongue.”

The number? 3:51.1 — the fastest time any human had run the mile.

Kansas native Jim Ryun set that record (breaking his own) in Bakersfield on June 23, 1967, meaning this Friday is the 50th anniversary of one of U.S. Track and Field’s greatest moments.

“He was the best in the world at a really key time in the sport,” said Fanelli, a San Francisco State hall of fame runner and three-time head coach of the U.S. national cross country team. “The 1960s were really the highlight in American track and field.”

And Ryun was the star.

“He was the most famous guy in the track world at any event,” said Danny Aldridge, the track and cross country coach at Sonoma Academy and a guy who owns the Redwood Empire 800-meter record some 32 years on.

Aldridge, who ran in college and beyond, broke the four-minute barrier four times.

“When you talked about track and field, you only talked about Jim Ryun,” he said. “He was it.”

Runners were raised on Ryun.

“That was our bible — the Jim Ryun story,” Fanelli said.

He was the “kid from Kansas,” the phenom with the long strides and penchant for legendary workouts.

“His workouts were amazing,” Fanelli said. “He had great talent, but a lot of people have talent. But most people don’t actually capture their talent. He was really able to do so.”

And Ryun was greatest at the mile.

The mile, for track fans and even laypeople, is nearly mythical. The word “magic” often precedes it.

“The mile is the perfect race,” Fanelli said. It’s the perfect combination of speed and endurance, he said.

When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier in 1954, a feat considered by many impossible for the human body to endure, his description of the race is poetic.

He calls his move for the lead “a moment of mixed joy and anguish.”

The finish?

“The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace after the struggle.”

A decade after Bannister’s feat, Ryun broke the four-minute barrier ... as a high school junior. He did it again as a senior, only he went three seconds faster.

That points to one of the facets of Jim Ryun lore — it wasn’t just that he broke records, it was the way he did it.

“His performances were off the charts,” Fanelli said. “He didn’t just take little bits and pieces off the record.”

When he set the world mile record for the second time, second-place finisher Jim Grelle was 40 meters behind, unable to handle Ryun’s 53-second final lap.

When he set the world record in the 1,500 meters, he smashed it by two and a half seconds. His longtime rival, Kip Keino of Kenya, was 30 meters behind when Ryun crossed the line.

When Ryun lined up on the dirt track in Bakersfield on June 23, 1967, he clipped just two-tenths of a second off of his own world record.

But it was enough of a buffer against what anyone else of his time was able to do that his record stood for an eye-popping eight years.

Apart from Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj’s current (and seemingly untouchable?) mile time of 3:43.13 record set in 1999, only two records have stood as long as Ryun’s. And Ryun is the last American to run it that fast.

“His record, once it stood for as long as it did? That was something,” Aldridge said. “It was a big deal.”

It remains a big deal. So it is for that, and for the special place that the mile holds in track circles, that Ryun will be honored this weekend at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Sacramento, where some of the nation’s greats, including Montgomery grad and two-time Olympian Kim Conley, are slated to compete. Conley will race in the 10,000 meters Thursday.

Still, when records are spoken of, there are inevitably the “what ifs.” What if Ryun had run on a synthetic track and not a dusty clay oval?

“On a dirt track or a cinder track, you spend time on the ground, you don’t get anything back, you don’t get any energy back,” Fanelli said. “On a synthetic track, boom, you plan and you get something back.”

And what if he had a pacer or had been pushed more by competitors?

“The science says that when you are following a pace setter, it’s seven percent less wind resistant,” Aldridge said. “Seven percent is a lot. That’s seven percent less effort you have to put out. He had to do it all by himself. He was in a different era. He didn’t have anybody to really push him until he got to the Olympics.

“He was so far ahead of everyone,” he said.

Or what if the 1968 Olympic Games were not held in Mexico City, 7,300 feet above sea level? Or if he hadn’t tripped in a preliminary heat in the 1972 Olympics in Munich? Or if he hadn’t trained so hard as a teen?

But what track fans will celebrate this weekend is not the what-ifs of Ryun’s career, but this: “Jim Ryun is the greatest American miler,” Fanelli said.

“The records that he set were remarkable,” he said.

And none perhaps more remarkable that the record he set 50 years ago Friday.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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