Fifty years ago, a skinny high school student from Kansas became a national sports hero. In 1964, on a track in Compton, California, Jim Ryun broke the four minute mark in the mile. He was the first high school boy to break the mythical barrier. Track and field fans are commemorating Ryun's feat this week, and some are using the anniversary to highlight a growing effort to restore the prominence of the mile. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It was about four or five years ago. Ryan Lamppa remembers when he was digging around for articles on track and field, part of his job as media director for Running USA. That's a national nonprofit for the running industry. Lamppa says stories kept popping up about two distances, the marathon and, to his surprise, the mile.

RYAN LAMPPA: I kept on thinking, wow, why is the mile still kind of there? But yet, it still wasn't a distance that was being run as often as 15 to 20 years ago.

GOLDMAN: Lamppa's search proved the mile still is part of our sporting culture, and it sparked an idea - let's bring it back. And so he founded Bring Back the Mile. A seed for this effort, actually, was planted long before, in the fourth grade, when Lamppa read the "The Jim Ryun Story."

LAMPPA: And that book blew me away in the sense that, here was this teenage boy from Kansas who was training like a madman, that was setting U.S. and world records in the mile. And it was hard to fathom, but it was also very inspiring.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And here's Jim Ryun. And Ryun is going to take the lead from. Jim Ryun, the boy from Wichita.

GOLDMAN: Today, Ryan Lamppa's hero has joined up as a fellow pitchman for Bring Back the Mile. Jim Ryun was in San Diego this week, at events commemorating his high school sub-four minute mile - events attended by Lamppa's smile rescue group. Ryun says the mile began to fade in the 1970's, during this country's efforts at metric conversion.

JIM RYUN: When they went to meters, I think you lost a good portion of the public because the public has a difficult time understanding just how far 1,600 meters.

GOLDMAN: And this is an issue Bring Back the Mile wants to address. Most high schools in America run the 1,600, or four laps around a 400 meter track. That's the size of most U.S. high school tracks that have been built or retrofitted since the metric movement. Four laps, the classic mile distance, makes everyone think a 1,600 is a mile, but Jim Gerweck, a high school track coach in Wilton, Connecticut, says everyone is wrong.

JIM GERWECK: It's almost like false advertising right, how they're running an event that everybody is calling the mile but it's not.

GOLDMAN: 1,600 meters actually is 9.344 three meters less than a mile - seems silly to quibble over 9.344 meters, but Gerweck says the disparity devalues high school track records.

GERWECK: Four minutes for high school boys or five minutes for high school girls - those are, you know, significant barriers. And if a kid breaks one of those for 1,600, they'll talk and brag about having broken five minutes for the mile, but they really haven't.

GOLDMAN: Gerweck's collecting petition signatures in an effort to get the high school 1,600 changed to the mile in Connecticut. Right now, neighboring Massachusetts is the only state that runs a true high school mile. Meantime, Ryan Lamppa says Bring Back the Mile's efforts in the last three years have led to the creation of nearly 80 new mile races in cities and towns around the country. The first sub-four minute mile was run by Englishman, Roger Bannister, in 1954. Still, Lamppa calls the mile America's distance. A country that understands miles and miles per hour, he says, understands this event. And Lamppa hopes its rebirth can get more people running the distance, can help promote track and field and keep the heroics of athletes like Jim Ryun alive in our culture. Tom Goldman, NPR News.


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