Who Is The Greatest American Distance Runner Ever: Jim Ryun or Deena Kastor?

By LetsRun.com
April 23, 2020

Editor’s note: LetsRun.com has created a 64-athlete bracket to determine who is the Greatest American Distance Runner of All Time. If you missed the intro to the tournament, catch up here. Bios by Jonathan Gault.

LetsRun nation has spoken and the verdict is in: you have named Jim Ryun and Deena Kastor as the greatest men’s and women’s American distance runners in history. But we at LetsRun.com aren’t settling for just crowning a men’s champ and a women’s champ. If you can compare runners across events and eras, why not across genders as well? So here it is: the matchup to determine the ultimate GOAT of American distance running.

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Overall Final: Jim Ryun vs. Deena Kastor

Matchup Overview: Ryun and Kastor are two of just a handful of Americans who were inarguably the best in the world in their event during their primes. Ryun ruled in the mid-60s, setting world records in the half mile, 1500, and mile (twice) and earning three World #1 rankings from Track & Field News. Kastor didn’t set any world records, but her 2:19:36 win at the 2006 London Marathon was her second straight major victory (she also claimed 2005 Chicago) and made her the fourth-fastest woman in history at the time (she also ended the year as TFN‘s World #1). Both athletes also earned Olympic medals — silver for Ryun (’68 1500) and bronze for Kastor (’04 marathon), with Kastor also claiming two silvers at World XC (an event that was out of Ryun’s range as a mid-d star).

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3) Jim Ryun

Notable PBs: 1:44.3 800, 3:33.1 1500, 3:51.1 mile
Global medals: 1 (2nd 1968 Olympic 1500)
USA outdoor track titles: 3 (all in outdoor mile)
Global champs finals: 2nd 1968 Olympic 1500
NCAA titles: 4 (1967 outdoor mile champion; indoor mile champion in 1967, 1968, and 1969)
More accolades: Former WR holder in the half mile & mile *First US high schooler to break 4:00 in mile; held US HS record for 37 years *3-time Olympian

Ryun was the greatest US distance phenom ever. He made his first Olympic team at age 17 in 1964. In 1965, as an 18-year-old high school senior, Ryun ran an American record of 3:55.3 in the mile and finished the year ranked #4 in the world by Track & Field News. The next year, he ran world records in the mile (3:51.3) and half mile (1:44.9), garnering T&F News #1 ranks in both events and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year honors, a magazine that featured Ryun on its cover 7 different times during his career. In 1967, at 20, Ryun retained his world #1 ranking at 1500/mile and lowered his mile WR to 3:51.1 — the last time an American held the mile WR.

The one thing missing from Ryun’s resume was Olympic gold. He finished second in 1968, and though he was over a second clear of bronze medalist Bodo Tummler, Ryun was soundly beaten by Kenya’s Kip Keino in the altitude of Mexico City, 3:34.91 to 3:37.89. Four years later, Ryun had another shot in Munich but fell during his qualifying heat and failed to advance to the semifinals.

For more on Ryun’s career, check out this messageboard thread that popped up last week.

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1) Deena Kastor

Notable PBs: 8:42.59 3,000, 14:51.62 5,000 (#7 US), 30:50.32 10,000 (#4 US), 67:34 half marathon (#3 US), 2:19:36 marathon (AR)
Global medals: 3 (2nd 2002 World XC, 2nd 2003 World XC, 3rd 2004 Olympic marathon)
Major marathon wins: 2 (2005 Chicago, 2006 London)
USA outdoor track titles:
5 (all in 10,000)
Global outdoor finals:
6 (11th 1999 World 10,000, 11th 2001 World 10,000, 12th 2003 World 10,000, 3rd 2004 Olympic marathon, 5th 2007 World 10,000, 9th 2013 World marathon)
NCAA titles: 0
Bio: Two-time World XC silver medalist *2005 Chicago Marathon champ *2006 London Marathon champ *Former AR holder in 10,000 and half marathon

Kastor is best known for her marathon exploits, but she excelled across multiple distances and surfaces. At the marathon distance, she won an Olympic bronze in 2004, won two majors, and twice broke the American record. Her 2:19:36 still makes her the only American woman under the 2:20 barrier and that record turns 14 today. But Kastor was far from a one-trick pony on the roads. She also set US road record at 8k, 12k, 10 miles, 20k and the half marathon (67:34, since broken). As good as she was on the roads, it can be argued she was equally as good if not better in cross country where she won 8 US titles (7 at 8k, 1 at 4k) and two world championship individual silver medals.  On the track, she won five US 10,000 titles and set an American record at 10,000 (and arguably one at 5,000 as well; when Kastor ran 14:51 in 2000, only doper Regina Jacobs had run faster among Americans) and finished as high as 5th at Worlds.

She’s also the only American woman in the last 30 years who can genuinely say she was the best marathoner in the world — she won Chicago and London back to back in 2005/2006, with her 2:19:36 in London holding up as a world leader (#4 on the all-time list at the time) and earning her the World #1 ranking from Track & Field News.

Talk about the matchup on our messageboard. MB: The Final Is Here: Deena Kastor or Jim Ryun – Who is the American GOAT? Vote below.

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