What it takes to run for Olympic gold
Lessons from a legendary American runner.
Lawrence, Kan. — Dear Fellow Olympians:
As I sit here watching the Beijing Olympics with my family, I do so with great excitement, anticipation, and pride for you as representatives of our USA Olympic track and field team. As athletes, you'll sprint, jump, or throw. As Americans, you'll always stand tall as ambassadors of our great nation.
It was my privilege to represent the United States in three Olympic Games. I ran the 1500 meter, known as the metric mile. The 100 meter dash may be flashier, but the 1500 meter is still the premier track event. A grueling test of grit and wit, it requires the speed of a sprinter and the endurance of a distance runner. Each of us identifies with this distance, whether we have run, walked, or driven it. That's why it captures the attention and imagination of a global audience.
Yet American runners have won this race only once in Olympic history: Mel Sheppard at the 1908 London Games. Three others, including me in 1968, have won silver medals. This year's squad includes Bernard Lagat, who came to Beijing with a good opportunity to win gold.
The single piece of round silver hanging today in my home represents one of my all-time best races. I left it all on the track that day in Mexico City.
I hope, dear Olympians, you will say the same of your races: that you did your best and left it all on the track. And, that you will do it in such a way that makes young boys and girls want to grow up to be just like you in the way you conduct your life on and off the track.
What does it take to race your best? Preparation is paramount.
There is no magic formula. It's equal parts blood, sweat, hard work, and prayers. My preparation began years before I arrived at the Olympic Village. It ended two meters past the finish line.
Regarding race strategy, I had two options. I could go out at world-record pace or sit and kick for the win – and I trained to be ready for both. In the end, my goal was always to leave it all on the track, which requires intense focus every day in training.
It also requires discipline at the Games themselves. After arriving, I would recover from jet lag by getting plenty of sleep and then resume my regular workouts. I made certain I was well rested physically and mentally. I also maintained my regular diet, which meant no authentic Mexican food for me in 1968!
I held no interviews prior to my event, because I knew from experience that was a sure way to zap my energy. While focus was imperative, it was just as important to relax. Being with family and friends on limited sightseeing tours helped to ease the seriousness and intensity of the moment.
At Mexico City, I had to compete against not only the world's best, but the high altitude (7,350 ft.). And I had to run my own race while being prepared for the jostling: an elbow in the side, a spike to my right foot, a kick to my Achilles (all of which actually took place during my qualifying race at the 1972 Munich Olympics).
In Mexico City, runners collapsed on the track after their races and were taken by emergency vehicle to a local hospital. So, my first piece of advice to you is to expect the unexpected and not to panic when Plan A doesn't come to pass.
The second is to stay mentally sharp during the race. Mental fatigue can determine victory or defeat. For me, racing in the rarefied air of Mexico City was the big challenge. Keeping myself mentally sharp and believing I could win was another. But that is what makes Olympic champions – coordinating the mind and body for the ultimate effort.
My last piece of advice is this: Make your life at the Olympics as normal as possible. That is very difficult, but remember this may be your only shot, so it's wise to set up your own parameters and keep autograph seekers and well-wishers at bay until after your competition.
There is one memory you will take home with you: how well you ran or didn't run. That memory will last a lifetime. So eat, sleep, and train normally. Capture your emotions and feelings and store up all the reserve energy you can muster for your races.
I have always considered it an honor to be an ambassador for America. And while a silver medal is a coveted award, the greater privilege is to represent the freedoms and liberties that our great nation embodies.
• Jim Ryun, a former Republican congressman, was the first high-schooler to break four minutes in the mile run and later set several world records in middle-distance events.