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’60s miler Jim Ryun reflects on Las Vegas marathon

Shortly before the start of Sunday’s Rock ’n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon, I was introduced to a lean man at the Luxor Festival Lot — which last week was known as the Global Rallycross track on the Strip — who looked familiar in a turn-back-the-clock sort of way.

It was Jim Ryun, the great American miler from Kansas, the first high school kid to break four minutes and the last American to hold the world record.

This is another reason why one should never leave the house without his old Sports Illustrated covers and a felt-tipped pen.

Ryun was sitting by himself in a hospitality area. He looked almost the same as when he was pictured on those five SI covers, except now he wears eyeglasses.

“In my day in the ’60s when they had a marathon, hardly anybody would run,” the great Jim Ryun said, marveling at the turnout of the tutu people.

Approximately one in every three runners in the staging area was wearing a tutu, an Elvis cape, or a Boston Strong T-shirt (Red Sox cap: optional), and judging from the lines to use the porta-potties, electrolytes were running amok.

Meeting Jim Ryun like that, and seeing all those tutu people and the running Elvi, I couldn’t help but think of my old colleague Barry, who also used to run 26.2 miles at one time.

The last time I saw Barry was at the 2009 Indianapolis 500, and the little hairs on the back of his neck were standing up — Barry was from Cincinnati, but he had never experienced the start of the 500-mile race.

He said the start also was the best part of a marathon, unless you were running in it, in which case you preferred the finish where they give you an aluminum blanket and low-fat chocolate milk.

(Barry also told me that sometimes during a marathon your nipples would bleed if you didn’t wear the right kind of shirt. I made a silent vow, right there in the Southwest Vista, that if my car ever broke down exactly 26.2 miles from home, I would walk or call a taxi.)

But Barry was right. The start of the marathon was pretty cool.

They weren’t allowing the runners in until 2 p.m., so I walked to the ampm at Las Vegas Boulevard and Reno Avenue for another carb load.

The convenience store was lousy with people wearing tutus, Elvis capes and Boston Strong shirts.

The man with the mustache working the counter said it was the busiest day of the year, busier than New Year’s Eve, even, except everybody was buying Gatorade and bottled water instead of fifths of booze you can carry in your pocket.

At 2 p.m. the gates opened as advertised. The ATF man asked to look in my bag — that Boston Strong thing.

Did I feel safer? Not really. Although the square foot I was standing on was declared safe, there are 724,838,400 square feet in 26 square miles, plus the .2, and you can’t police every one of them when lunatics are running loose.

After Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs ripped through their greatest hit(s) on the big stage in the Festival Lot/Rallycross track — actually it was one of those alternative bands called the All-American Rejects, which surely must have come as a disappointment to the great Jim Ryun — it was time to run.

The runners lined up in sections called corrals, with the Kenyans starting in the E corral (for Elite) followed by Corrals 1 through 36.

Fast runners in front, slow runners in back.

It was like a half-mile from Corral 35 — somebody must have swiped the sign for Corral 36, because nobody could find it — to the front of the starting line where the Kenyans were.

Woman in Corral 35, not exactly in tip-top shape, wearing a Crohn’s &Colitis Foundation T-shirt: “You mean we have to run farther than the fast runners?”

Running pal: “Yes.”

Woman in Corral 35: “!@#$%.”

Running pal: “But if it’s any consolation, the extra distance doesn’t count.”

The last three runners to begin moving were Arnie and Bev Eckert, from Jasper, Ind., and Dana Kanakaole, who moved here from Hawaii three years ago. Like a lot of the runners who had been strangers before convening at the Festival Lot/Rallycross track, they were talking and laughing and carrying on like lifelong friends.

This, I think, is the best part of the marathon. Better than the aluminum blanket and the chocolate milk. Beats the heck out of the bleeding nipples.

I assured the Eckerts and Dana Kanakaole it would all be over in 26.2 miles, plus the extra half-mile to the starting line where the Kenyans had been. They corrected me. For them, it would all be over in 13.1 miles; they were only running the half-marathon.

“We’re only half crazy,” Dana Kanakaole said.

Seconds later, a big black tour bus turned into the dirt parking lot flanking Corrals 34 and 35. A final phalanx of marathon runners scrambled onto Giles Road, wondering aloud where everybody was going, and surely silently thinking what was up with all those tutus?

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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