Rising to the Challenge: Jim Ryun and the 4-Minute Mile




To invite or dare to take part in a contest

To be difficult enough to be interesting : to test skill or ability

For the majority of his life, Jim Ryun has dared to be part of something much larger than himself. In the summer of 1964, 17-year-old Ryun ran the Compton Invitational, finishing in 8th place. On any other day, this might have been disappointing, but in this particular race, Ryun’s only competition was himself. And he came out on top.

Ryun’s time? 3:59.

He had just become the first high schooler to run a sub-four-minute mile.

An achievement of this magnitude is usually cause for celebration, but Ryun had a slightly different reaction.

“I remember going to bed that night not able to sleep,” he said. “I tossed and turned a lot, because I realized that the goal we had set maybe 15 months before was now realized, and I thought as I went to sleep, ‘What would happen if I took ownership?’”

Fifteen months earlier, Ryun was sitting on a school bus with his teammates on the way back from what was only his fourth high school cross-country race. He had finished in 4:21.

“Coach Timmons always had the policy of saving a seat in front of the bus beside him so that he could call us up one by one and talk about our performance and offer some encouragement and some challenges,” Ryun explained.

He asked how much faster I could run and I said a couple seconds. Then, he proceeded to say he thought I could be the first high school boy to run under four minutes.
Jim Ryun

“My thought was, ‘How can that happen?’”, Ryun said. “I was limiting my thinking to my physical experience that day. When I finished, my legs, my lungs, everything hurt.”

So, how did it happen? After all, Ryun was new to distance running, and he was new to success. In fact, before joining cross country, Ryun had been cut from every other athletic team he tried out for, from baseball to basketball and even track & field. But once he found distance running, the tall, lanky teenager’s natural talent began to flourish under the leadership of Coach Timmons.

“He was always presenting challenges not only to me, but to all his athletes,” Ryun said. “They were really outside of our comfort zone, because he had great expectations, and he was going to provide the necessary training for those achievements to be possible. He was a very visionary, wonderful coach. He took a kid who was just tall and skinny and made him into a four-minute miler and a World Record holder.”

After meeting Coach Timmon’s challenge, Ryun realized that breaking four minutes wasn’t the end goal, it was just the beginning. But he would have to test his skill and ability. He would have to take ownership.

“Ownership means you know what you can do to excel a little bit more,” Ryun explained. “The coach can only take you so far, but there are things you, as the athlete, can do. For example, I could maybe do an extra wind sprint or I could do more stretching, or drills like that to enhance my performance.

“So, that night, I took ownership as Coach Timmons had trained not only me, but a lot of the other athletes, and it took off from there to World Records and other events that followed, including the James E. Sullivan Award.”

Accepting Coach Timmons’ challenge led Ryun to an exceptional career that included three Olympic Games, an Olympic silver medal, six World Records, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year (1966), ABC Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year (1966), and Track & Field News Athlete of the Year (1966 and 1967), as well as topping the list of ESPN.com’s Best High School Athletes Ever over LeBron James and Tiger Woods, among others.

In April, Ryun will attend the AAU James E. Sullivan Award Ceremony. Fifty years after receiving the honor himself, Ryun still feels a deep respect for the award and what it represents to amateur athletes in every sport across the country.

I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great honor to receive Amateur Athlete of the Year, and it will be great to celebrate with whoever receives this year's award.
Jim Ryun

While Jim Ryun’s racing career may be over, his love for distance running refuses to wane. Now, he focuses on giving back to the sport, dedicating his time to inspiring young athletes the way Coach Timmons inspired him back in 1964. Jim Ryun Running Camps challenge runners to not only improve their performance, but their lives outside of running, as well.

“It’s not just running goals,” Ryun explained. “It’s the character that’s required, the discipline. We ask our athletes, ‘When nobody’s watching, what are you doing? Are you going to do the work the coach can’t see?’”

That question represents the main challenge at the heart of all competition. Are you willing to do what it takes to be the best, even if it means sacrifice and struggle? Jim Ryun was. He invited conflict, dared to fail, tested what critics (himself included) thought possible, and realized the full potential of his skill and ability. He wants you to do the same.

Don’t be afraid to take the risk. Recognize that there will be some failures. But out of those two experiences — risk and failure — your life will be enriched as a result of making that effort and trying.
Jim Ryun

The 87th Annual AAU Sullivan Award will be presented in New York on April 11, 2017. Jim Ryun will be there, and so will Eastbay. Check back for more in-depth stories on this year’s candidates.


  • Barbara McKichan:

    Awesome article and awesome accomplishment.

  • Benjamin X "BJ" Kennedy,Sr:

    A most touching and inspirational story about Mr Ryan. I didn’t run on the same level as he did.But have a touching story about My H.S. coach who not just touched me.Coach Irwin C Goldberg inspiration drove me from a weak athlete of a 208.0 10th grader to a senior year as the 1979 NYS state champion with a time of 1:51.9 meet and school record which still holds to this day,15th in the country and received the NYC Public school Most outstanding Athlete in outdoor Track.The Iron Horse Award.I went on to Jr College indoor All American and outdoor State conference champion.Coach Goldberg is still coaching H.S. to this day at 90 years young.I know have my own youth organization.The Southeast Striders Youth Track and Field Club Covington Georgia for the past 10 years.Coach Goldberg is a inspiration for me to give back to our youth.I really understand how someone can give you a chance see something in you and give you hope to do great tthings.I am a fan of Mr Ryan.Thank you for sharing this inspirational story.I touched me to share my story also.Yours in athletics Ben ” BJ” Kennedy,President/Head Coach

  • Eastbay:

    Thank you for sharing Ben! We are so happy to hear you enjoyed Mr. Ryun’s story. And thank you for being inspired by your former coach to help shape the youth of today.

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