Oregon Mile Legend Jim Grelle Passes Away
We are deeply saddened that Olympian, James Edward (Jim) Grelle, the fourth American to run under 4 minutes for the mile and a true running pioneer, passed peacefully on 13 June at the age of 83. He had been under home hospice care and was surrounded by close family.
Jim Grelle was born in Portland, Oregon on September 30, 1936 attended his neighbourhood schools Ainsworth Elementary, Catlin Gabel and the Lincoln High School. He proudly attended University of Oregon.
Lifelong teammate and friend Phil Knight recalled when he and Jim took a trip to the U of O to determine where they would go to college. “Oregon was hosting the Pacific Coast Conference Meet the following weekend so we decided to drive down together. No Oregon runner had the best time in the three distance races. Dellinger had won the mile, Bailey the 880, and Ken Reiser the two mile. After the meet Bowerman stopped to talk for a minute. On the way back to Portland we both concluded there was no place, but Oregon. My running career ended after college, but our friendship lasted 68 years.”
Oregon's renowned coach, Bill Bowerman, recruited Grelle to run at the University of Oregon, where he was moved, unwillingly at first, to racing the mile. As an Oregon Duck, he quickly developed, having many well-known runners and track and field athletes around him. Grelle learnt through his own experience that Bill Bowerman, "really knew how to get people ready for May and June. All my best races, the whole four years of college, were at the national championships."
When Oregon mile/1,500 runners finished first or second or both in the NCAA Championships during nine straight seasons, Jim Grelle played a significant part in that heritage. He was called the most durable of the Ducks’ string of distance standouts. He was at his best in the big meets, placing second in the 1957 and 1958 NCAA Championships Mile, both times behind Ron Delany, the 1956 Olympic 1500m Champion. In 1959, he crowned his collegiate career by winning the NCAA Championships Mile in 4:03.9.
During his illustrious career, Jim Grelle set US Records in the mile with a time in 3:55.4 in 1965, the indoor mile with 4:03.6 in 1961 and in the 2-mile, a distance that he rarely ran, but in 1963 recorded a time of 8:25.2. He was one of the first track and field athletes to have a 'running career' after college and benefited from being coached by two world-renowned and innovative running coaches, Bill Bowerman and Mihály Iglói. When he retired from competition, Grelle had made twenty International appearances for the USA National Team, over a 10-year period from 1958 to 1967. He always performed with competitive distinction and in half of these International matches, placed first or second, with five victories and five second place finishes.
In Track and Field Athletics the 1950s and '60s was the time for the Mile, inspired by Roger Bannister's breaking the 4 minute barrier in the May of 1954. It was only eight years later, in 1962, that Grelle ran his first sub-4 minute mile. Such was Jim Grelle's performance abilities that he raced the mile often and by 1967 had broken the 4 minute barrier on a prodigious 21 occasions, the most "sub-4s" of any athlete in the world at that time. He was part of a golden era for American miling, when in 1962, six of the top ten milers in the world were Americans. This global success has never been matched since.
In 1960, Jim Grelle won the National Championships 1500m and qualified for the US Olympic Team to compete in the Rome Olympic Games. In this introduction to the Olympic cauldron, Jim made the 9-man final by running a 3:43.5 Heat. The final, however, was intense from the gun as Herb Elliott of Australia front ran to the title and a 3:35.6 World Record performance. Grelle finished in 8th place, with 3:45.0. and set his sights firmly on future seasons and the Olympic Games of 1964.
Following graduating from Oregon, Grelle had remained training in Eugene with Bill Bowerman but then in 1961 he decided to make a move to Los Angeles, the new epicenter for the mile. He joined the Los Angeles Track Club to be trained under the secretive and punishing regime of Mihály Iglói. According to author and fellow Oregon runner Kenny Moore, Iglói welcomed Grelle with 35 quarters in his first workout. It is difficult to imagine, in these days of sponsored professional track and field athletes, what it must have been like to train so intensely and at such a volume twice a day, each day and work. Jim absorbed the training and was still able to hold down a demanding, full-time job with Colgate Palmolive. And, it proved productive when, in 1962, Iglói took his Los Angeles Track Club for a fabled tour of European meets, with Grelle running a personal best 3:56.7 in the mile. "Everybody said the American runner is lazy, don't work," Iglói told Sports Illustrated. "Now the American distance runner is the best in the world."
Going into the 1964 US Olympic Team Trials, Grelle was confident in his abilities but perhaps overlooked the threat from a precocious 17 year-old high schooler, Jim Ryun. In the closest of finishes for the first four athletes, Ryun just edged out Grelle to take 3rd place, leaving Grelle in a non-qualifying 4th place. With typical good humor and acceptance, he re-focussed his season and made a move back to Portland.
He started competing for Portland's famed Multnomah Athletic Club and, now self-coached, continued to have competitive success up to and including the 1967 season, when he ran his 21st and final sub-4 minute mile. He had been coached by two of the wold's best coaches and when he returned to Portland in 1965, it was natural that he would begin coaching others as well as himself. He started coaching at the University of Portland, where he continued until 1972.
When people speak of Jim Grelle it is with a clear memory. His son, Jim, recalls, " It was always said and said by all, that he enjoyed his running, competing against and the company of his fellow competitors." He explains, "My father had a 'Laser focus'. He was humble, gracious, gregarious and he took what he had from running and used it in his life. There was this balance of instruction and a quiet voice."
A letter from a former competitor, Tom Sullivan, received by Jim and Jean Grelle in March of this year is perhaps illustrative of the stature and essential nature of Jim Grelle. Tom wrote, "On June 2, 1961 I was invited out from Chicago to run in the prestigious Compton Invitational Track and Field Meet in Compton, CA. I was an 18-year old high school student who had the top prep half mile and mile times in the country at that time..... I surprised my self when I shot into the lead of the eight other runners in the race at the gun lap and could not believe I was still leading coming off the final turn with 100 meters to go. That is when you passed me and I still remember your encouraging words as you passed me. You said something like: "Come on Tommy, you can do it, follow me." We both ran close together and you beat me by only 0.8 seconds."
"I couldn't figure out why all the reporters and officials hovered around me and not you at the finish line. One reporter said: "Do you know what your time was?" It was 4:03.5. I broke the National High School record by 5.4 seconds and also claimed the World Junior (under 19 years of age) mile record..... I will always remember that evening, your sportsmanship assistance and encouragement to me."
He was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 1981, the only Lincoln High School track athlete to achieve this honor. He was also inducted into the Mt. SAC Relays Hall of Fame in 1991 and to the University of Oregon Hall of Fame in 1994.
When Jim wasn’t running himself, he would pass along his competitive insights and tips mostly through coaching. He coached middle and distance runners at the University of Portland from 1968 through 1972. He was very proud of the group of runners and stayed in contact with them throughout the rest of his life. When he moved down to Gerhart, he loved to help out volunteering at Seaside High School.
“He was a strategist, a great tactician,” says Mike McCabe (one of Jim’s University of Portland’s trackster). “But looking back on it, I think his genius was for human psychology. He knew when to push. You’re not really focused, he’d say. You can do better. He was a fantastic coach and a great human being. We’ve had a lifelong friendship — my most cherished friendship, bar none.”
“Jim couldn’t care less about his own fame,” says Dave White (another UP runner). “After I ran in the 1971 nationals at Hayward Field, I sat with him at a table in the infield. This was the summer before the Berlin Olympics, and the place was packed. The guy on the loudspeaker said, TODAY WE HAVE IN ATTENDANCE THE MOST PROLIFIC SUB-FOUR-MINUTE MILER IN AMERICA, THE OLYMPIAN AND FORMER U OF O TRACK STAR, JIM GRELLE!!! “Fans went berserk. Jim nudged my elbow and said, Stand up, White…”
In retirement, one of Grelle’s favourite routines was meeting with a group of former runners and coaches “about my age and a little bit younger” for coffee, whom he dubbed the “old trackers”. The group meets on Saturday mornings and conversation generally revolves around track and running.
Jim Grelle is survived by his wife, Jean and their children, Jim and Leslie and two grandchildren.
In Lieu of flowers, the family ask you to please consider a tribute donation to one of the following:
U of O Duck Athletic Fund Duck Fund donate
American Indian youth running strong aka running strong Running Strong donate
OSHU foundation which can be marked for Neuroscience research. OSHU Foundation donate
Please note that Nike will double match for Nike employees during Covid-19 through Nike’s employee portal.
For the above Charities and Nike employees can note in “Memory of Jim Grelle” in the note section.
A Celebration of Life will be scheduled at a later date. A special thank you to the wonderful care from Signature Hospice and Senior Helpers.
This Obituary has been approved by the Grelle family with the greatly appreciated assistance from Peter Thompson.
For further information contact:
Jim Grelle - Fact File
400m 47.5(r) 1958
800m 1:48.4 1958
1500m 3:38.9 1964 New Brunswick NJ
Mile 3:55.4 1965 US Record Vancouver, Canada
2000m 5:07.4 1966 Sydney, Australia
2 Miles 8:25.2 1966 US Record Los Angeles, CA (tie with Jim Ryun)
5000m 14:10.8 1966
Mile 3:58.9 1964 Chicago, IL
US Sub-4 Minute Mile Progression
1. 3:58.7 Don Bowden Stockton, CA 01 June 1957
2. 3:58.6 Dyrol Burleson Eugene, OR 23 April 1960
3. 3:58.0 Jim Beatty Modesto, CA 28 May 1960
4. 3:59.9 Jim Grelle Walnut, CA 28 April 1962
5. 3:58.3 Keith Forman Modesto, CA 26 May 1962
By 1967 Jim Grelle had run the mile under 4 minutes on 21 occasions - the most by any athlete in the world at that time.
Mile 3:55.4 1965 Vancouver Canada
2 Miles 8:25.2 1966 Los Angeles, CA (tie with Jim Ryun)
Mile 4:03.6 1961 Milwaukee, WI
1967 USA National Championships Mile 2nd 3:56.1
1966 Australian National Championships 1500m 1st 3:43.3
1966 USA National Indoor Championships Mile 1st 4:09.5
1965 USA National Indoor Championships Mile 1st 4:07.4
1965 USA National Championships Mile 3rd 4:00.6
1964 USA National Championships 1500m 3rd 3:38.9
1962 USA National Championships Mile 2nd 3:58.1
1961 USA National Championships Mile 3rd 4:08.0
1960 USA National Championships 1500m 1st 3:42.7
1959 NCAA Championships Mile 1st 4:03.9
1958 NCAA Championships Mile 2nd 4:04.8
1957 NCAA Championships Mile 2nd 4:07.1
1963 Pan-American Games, Sao Paulo 1500m 1st 3:43.62
1962 Pan-American Games, Chicago 1500m 2nd 3:49.9
1960 Olympic Games, Rome 1500m 8th 3:45.0 (Heat 3:43.5)
Grelle 1 (In his own words, December 2016)
Jim Grelle discusses the highlights of his track career, including the 1960 Rome Olympics and American Records in
the mile and two-mile
In the 1960s there was no YouTube, FLOtrack, RunnerSpace or Vinco, nor computers even. The television had only
recently been invented and not all homes were in possession of one of these magical boxes. Most news was obtained
from newspapers, combined with the weekly trip to the local cinema to view the Pathé News.
The following YouTube and Pathé News archival video links capture the essence of the era providing an opportunity
to view Jim Grelle running at his best, on the cinder tracks and indoor boards.
Los Angeles Indoor Track Meet. (1966) - British Pathé
The invitation mile with its star attraction of Kipchoge Keino but due to it being his first outing on the boards he is
beaten to first place on the last lap by the U.S. miler Jim Grelle.
Jim Ryun (1st) versus Peter Snell (2nd) 1965 (AAU Mile Final with Jim Grelle (3rd))
Peter Snell (1st) - Jim Grelle (2nd) - Jim Ryun (3rd) - Balboa Stadium Athletics 1965
Compton Mile invitational
Britain vs US - 1965 Indoor Track - British Pathé
Various shots men's mile race: John Whetton (UK), Jim Grelle (USA), Alan Simpson (UK) and Vic Zowalaky (USA)
compete. M/S Willie White (USA) long jumping. John Whetton, the eventual winner
America Beats Russia In Athletics Match (1964) - British Pathé
Los Angeles Colisseum, Los Angeles, United States of America. 1500 metres race won by American Jim Grelle.
US Athletics In Los Angeles Indoor Meet (1963) - British Pathé
Various shots of start and finish of the mile race won by Jim Grelle
First Indoor Under 4 Minute Mile (1962) - British Pathé
Indoor athletic meeting at Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles - mile race in progress. The race is won by Jim
Beatty who clocks 3 minutes 58.9. The three other Los Angeles Track Club athletes, including Jim Grelle had agreed
to help him to break 4 minute mile barrier by setting tempo and encouraging him.
The Unbeatable Herb Elliot - Men's 1,500m in the Rome 1960 Olympics
8th Jim Grelle, USA
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