10 minutes with Jim Ryun
At a press event for the adidas Grand Prix meet this weekend I pulled aside Jim Ryun, the man who’s namesake headlines the inaugural Dream Mile high school races, for 10 minutes to talk about how overtraining can be a good thing, how high school running has changed, Hoosiers and the Cold War.
Ryun first achieved fame as the first high school athlete to run a sub-4 mile. His time of 3:51.1 stood as an American record for for 14 years and as a World Record for 8 years. He won a silver medal in the 1968 Olympics. He achieved fame again as a five-term U.S. Congressman, serving from 1997-2007.
Running Shorts: Why is this race being organized and why are you involved in it?
Jim Ryun: I think this race gives us an opportunity to take high school miling to a new level. I appreciate the fact that adidas has been willing to come in and bring the best high school milers and put them on the same track at the same time. In my day you had an event called the Golden West Invitational, which was just for seniors, but now you’re having an event where it allows anybody at any age, based upon time more than anything else, to come in and run against the best there is in the United States.
RS: What are your thoughts in how this race will go out? How will the runners be helped to get as close to 4-flat as possible?
JR: They’re going to have some help. There will be somebody in there helping the pace for the first half mile. I think most of them are thinking 2:00-2:01. It’s a great setup from there because most of them can handle that. And that’s when the race really begins.
RS: Have you talked to any of the runners? What kinds of things have you talked about?
JR: We talked a little bit about what they should do when they go out there. I emphasized to them the great story from Hoosiers, when the coach goes out and measures how high the basketball goal is, and how far the free throw line is and it’s just like it was at home. And so I mentioned to them, the track’s still the same size. You’re going to have a lot more people there, but remember that you’ve run all these races. Keeping your focus going up to that starting line is very important. But I think most of them are ready.
RS: What’s the biggest difference between high school running when you broke 4 minutes and today?
JR: There wasn’t as large a gap between high school running and open running. Now, that gap has become larger so it’s a lot more difficult for the high school runner to attach himself to the open runners and hang on to them, so to speak. When I was running, for example, my first time under four minutes, I was the eight person in and I ran 3:59.00. The winning time was 3:57 or 3:56. In an open race today you wouldn’t be able to find that close a gap. You’d find the time is so much faster that it’s difficult for the high school runner to make that gap jump.
RS: Are high school runners today training smarter?
JR: One thing that’s changed is today there is more science behind running. In my day, back in the 60s and 70s, we were flying by the seat of our pants, trying to figure out what to do. My coach, Coach [Bob] Timmons, had taken some practical things he learned in swimming and applied them to running, but there wasn’t a lot of science to it.
So yes, we did over train, but I will say this about the over training: It gave you a great deal of – I don’t know how to describe it any other way – feel for running. Today a lot of times athletes will do something because science tells them that. It doesn’t necessarily have a feel for when they’re really rested or when they’re really tired. So there is a smarter runner in once sense and yet the same thing remains true: it still takes a lot of work to get there.
RS: What kind of training did you do in high school to ‘get there’?
JR: When I first started my sophomore year, I hadn’t done any running at all. I went from 0 to 60 and got shin splints along the way. Those first few months were pretty painful. A lot of my work was done on the track. On a five-day week we were on the track four of those days, which in a sense is overtraining, but we had good success with it.
For a workout, we usually did quarter mile repeats every Wednesday in cross country season, starting at 16 and going to an overly abundant number of 40, thenbacking down at the end of the season to maybe 20 or so.
JR: ..times a quarter, right. It took a long time do that. Those are some of the workouts that people look at and say ‘How’d you do that?’ Well, everybody did that. It wasn’t just me. By the time I graduated from high school it was not unusual to put 100+miles a week in.
RS: Do you think that kind of overtraining shortened your career in any way?
JR: I don’t think it affected it negatively in that sense at all. Bob Schul [1964 5000m Olympic gold medalist] made an observation about my training which I thought was true and is still true today. He said ‘As long as Jim continues to see improvements and has the rewards, it doesn’t matter how much work he does. And while it looks like he might be overtraining, as long as he has those rewards, that’s justification for it.” And I think that’s the one thing that helps along the way. Yes, we did overtrain but at the same time we had great rewards to go along with it.
RS: What else are you involved in with the running community?
JR: We’ve been doing our running camps for 38 years. You can go to our web site, which is RyunRunning.com. We have two camps – one in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, one in Fort Collins. Now we have some of the finest coaches coming in. Jack Daniels comes in to help us. Bill Lundberg, who’s the head coach at Hillsdale College. We’ve had young runners like Ryan Hall who came in high school. His wife has come too.
RS: Have you ever had any interest in ever doing any coaching for a big time high school or college running program?
JR: I never really had an interest in it. I said years ago there are two things I’d never be involved in: politics and coaching. And here I served in Congress for 10 years and all I do is coach during camp. I never thought I’d be serving in Congress, but an experience goes back to when I was in high school and running against the Soviet Union and the communist countries. And I’d come back and I’d see the great country we had, thinking maybe someday I could be involved in helping out, never thinking I’d serve in Congress. It was a great honor, a great privilege to be there for 10 years.