Two high school runners. One is a pure miler named Jim Ryun, a slender junior from Wichita, Kans. He's graceful and fast and can churn out killing 400-meter repeats until the sun drops past the flat, distant horizon. The other is a pale waif named Gerry Lindgren, a tiny senior from Spokane. He's frail and geeky, from his spindly legs to his nerdy eyeglasses, yet he has an uncanny capacity for running far in pain. It's 1964, and that year Ryun and Lindgren write the greatest chapter in the history of American high school distance running.
Ryun becomes the first high school runner to break four minutes for the mile and wins a spot on the U.S. Olympic team at age 17. A year later he runs four more sub-fours, including a 3:55.3 that beats New Zealand's Peter Snell at the AAU championships in San Diego, eight months after Snell wins the Olympic 1,500-meter gold medal. Lindgren is even more spectacular. He runs 4:01.5 for the mile and 13:44.0 for 5,000 meters, only nine seconds off the world record. Better the longer the race, Lindgren finishes first in the U.S. Olympic Trials at 10,000 meters and wins the same event at a politically charged U.S.- U.S.S.R. dual meet in front of more than 50,000 spectators at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The two runners, one fast, the other tireless, are just the beginning. Generations of young Americans will follow, training hard, running fast and beating the world. Won't they?
Two high school runners. One is a pure miler named Alan Webb, a muscular senior from Reston, Va. He's strong and fast, with an insatiable appetite for swift training and a gift for stretching his speed over the four laps of his chosen race. The other is a pale waif named Dathan Ritzenhein, a willowy senior from Rockford, Mich. He has an elfin build and a fearsome ability to run for miles at the edge of collapse. The year is 2001, and these two young runners are linked across generations to Ryun and Lindgren. "They are," says 30-year-old Bob Kennedy, the U.S.-record holder for 5,000 meters, "the best two high school runners to come along together in a long time."
Thirty-seven years have passed since the summer of '64, and it turns out that Ryun and Lindgren were not so much pioneers as comets. No high school miler has run faster than Ryun, no high school 5,000-meter runner has threatened Lindgren's record. No high school athlete has made a U.S. Olympic or world championship team in any distance event. There have been a few very good high school runners since '64, but none who could seriously challenge Ryun's and Lindgren's marks and, more significant, none whose career lasted long enough at a high level to offset the crash of American distance running that began in the late '70s. The failure of nearly four decades' worth of schoolboys to match Ryun and Lindgren has been repeatedly cited as symptomatic of the U.S. distance-running malaise, attributable to everything from video games (Kenyans don't play Nintendo!) to fast food (Ethiopians don't eat Big Macs!) to youth soccer.
Change is in the air. On Jan. 20 in New York City, Webb became the first high school miler to go under four minutes indoors—and the first in 34 years to break four minutes, indoors or out—when he ran 3:59.86. Ritzenhein finished an astonishing third in the 8-km junior race (under age 20) at the World Cross Country Championships on March 25 in Belgium, beating all but one Kenyan and one Ethiopian in an event that has long served as a springboard to international distance greatness. A month later, at the Penn Relays, Ritzenhein ran 13:51.69 for 5,000 meters against open and college runners, the second-fastest high school time at that distance in history, behind Lindgren's record and ahead of the high school PR of Steve Prefontaine.
They're not finished. On Sunday, at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., Webb, 18, will run the open mile and hopes to take a shot at Ryun's venerable 3:55.3. "I don't think it's impossible," said Webb in early May. "The competition [including world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco] is going to be so good, I'm just going to get in there and start clicking along and try to have the race of my life."
Ritzenhein, 18, is chasing two records. On June 15, at the national scholastic meet in Raleigh, N.C., he will run the two-mile, the race he won as a sophomore (in 9:01) and as a junior (in 8:48), and try to break Jeff Nelson's 22-year-old high school record of 8:36.3, which was set in an open race. A week later he expects to run in the 5,000 at the USA Track and Field national championships in Eugene, again racing adults in pursuit of Lindgren's high school mark. (The qualifying time for the Eugene race is 13:51.50; Ritzenhein missed by .19 at the Penn Relays, but he'll be allowed to run if he appeals, which he has said he will do.) "I think I'll be in awesome shape by the time the USAs come around," says Ritzenhein.
The two most recent U.S. distance records were set by two men who immigrated to America and became naturalized citizens: 10,000-meter specialist Meb Keflezighi from Eritrea and marathoner Khalid Khannouchi from Morocco. By contrast, Webb and Ritzenhein are typical American teenagers, only faster. Webb won't miss Tlie Simpsons; Ritzenhein is a Seinfeld rerun junkie. Neither eats more vegetables than absolutely necessary, Ritzenhein because he dislikes them and prefers ice cream, Webb because they're inconvenient. "Face it, you can't steam up some broccoli and bring it to school with you," he says. Webb gets pumped before races by listening to Everclear's One Hit Wonder on his headphones; Ritzenhein tunes out the pain by hearing rock music in his head as he runs. Both go to class; Ritzenhein carries a 3.5 average, Webb a 3.0.
Athletically, they're utterly different from each other. "Polar opposites," says Ritzenhein. Webb is 5'9", 140 pounds, with the taut body of a wrestler. "We have to watch him in the weight room because he can get overzealous with his lifting," says Scott Raczko, Webb's coach at South Lakes High in Reston. Webb, with his sprinter's back-kick, can run a sub-48-second 400. Ritzenhein is 5'8", 115 pounds after a big meal, with the body of a Kenyan runner. "Ideal for a distance runner," says three-time New York City Marathon winner Alberto Salazar. Ritzenhein can barely break 54 seconds for 400 meters, yet over longer distances he can maintain a grueling pace, even when he seems wasted. "Early in a race, you hear Dathan breathing like a stuck pig all the way across the track, but he can run at the point of exhaustion virtually for a full race," says Brad Prins, Ritzenhein's coach at Rockford High.