One of Jim Ryun’s strongest memories from the night he etched his name in global sports history (again) and especially Bakersfield sports history was how easy the race was. He felt like he could have run more. He felt like he could have run faster.
But up to that point, no one ever had.
“It was one of the easiest races, if not the easiest race of my life,” Ryun said.
It was about 51 years ago when Ryun, 71, a former University of Kansas athlete and U.S. congressman, set the world mile record for the second time, finishing in 3 minutes, 51.1 seconds at Bakersfield College’s Memorial Stadium. The mark stood for almost eight years and Ryun is the last American to hold the record.
Ryun returned to Bakersfield on Thursday for a meet and greet put on by BC in conjunction with the California Community College Athletic Association Track and Field Championships, which will take place Friday and Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Dozens of runners and Bakersfield natives that were at Memorial Stadium that night were in attendance on Thursday to get autographs and share their stories.
Ryun, who won a silver medal in the 1,500-meter run in the 1968 Summer Olympics, will present awards for some of the state meet races and BC will install a plaque in the stadium to commemorate the historic moment.
“You were watching something that was irreplaceable. You couldn't do it again. It was one take and there it was,” said Bonnie Vaughan, who was 8 when Ryun broke the record at BC and was inspired by that race to be a part of North High’s first class of girls track and field athletes. “He lit up the world that day in Bakersfield.”
Ryun has recounted that race so many times that it’s helped him realize its significance in track and field history and his own life. He remembers leading the entire race, which he believes is the only time a world record was broken by a distance runner leading the entire way.
He wandered around the inside and outside of the track to find good footing and almost stepped off the curb alongside the track a few times.
Ryun was speaking somewhere years ago when someone who was at the Bakersfield race approached him. The man pointed to his fake tooth and blamed it on Ryun. The man explained that as a child, he was jumping from bleacher to bleacher in the upper decks of Memorial Stadium during Ryun’s race. The public address announcer told the crowd that it didn’t want to miss what was happening. The man turned to watch the race, missed a bleacher and knocked out his tooth.
“When it happened that night, it was very special, but only as time passes does it gain some sense of credibility,” Ryun said of the run.
His travels only brought him back to Bakersfield once before, a year later in 1968 for an Olympic trials meet. When BC called Ryun about returning he was “thrilled” and “honored.”
“I’m 63 years old and I’ve got goosebumps,” said Edward Whitehouse, who came to get a signature for his brother, Peter (an All-American track star at Notre Dame in 1964).
Ryun spoke about his start in running and how he was cut for multiple sports teams during junior high. He spoke about forgiving the International Olympic Committee official that denied his petition for reinstatement after Ryun was tripped in the qualifying round at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
But the conversation always circled back to that storied night in Bakersfield.
“I’ll never forget it. I’ll never ever forget it,” said Flemming Hansen, who was 21 when he watched Ryun run at Memorial Stadium. “... We were really lucky to be able to have it happen in Bakersfield.”