“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 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.