Spokane’s first sub-4 minute miler

When I was a junior in high school, I qualified in the mile at the All-City Meet. The program, which I still have, listed the All-City record for the event. I’d heard of Rick Riley, but it was the first time I’d seen how fast he’d run.All-city meet program

The same year he set the All-City mile record, he won the state meet two-mile in 8:48.3. No one in the 50 years since has run that fast in a high school track meet in Washington. Still a high-schooler, he qualified for the United States Track and Field Championships that summer and did well enough to make the U.S. National Team.

Rick attended Ferris High School in Spokane and then Washington State University where he ran track and cross-country.

Rick dueling it out with Steve Prefontaine at a WSU-Oregon track meet.

Rick dueling it out with Steve Prefontaine at a WSU-Oregon track meet.

I recall seeing the below photo and reading a news article as a kid when Rick won the Pac-8 mile championship in 1970. His coach quipped, “I never thought I’d have a four minute miler.”

Rick out-leaning Roscoe Divine of Oregon at the Pac-8 track championships.

Rick out-leaning Roscoe Devine of Oregon.

The first sub-4 minute mile was done in 1954. In 1970 they were still fairly rare. In winning this race in 3:59.2, Rick became the 32nd American and first Spokane runner to go under four minutes.

In 1976, my second year of running at Spokane Falls Community College, a new distance coach was hired – Rick Riley.

Rick was no hardcore coach. He was knowledgeable yet easy-going and likable. Though an accomplished runner who’d been one of our country’s top performers, we didn’t think of him that way. However, huddling with our team at Seward Park in Seattle prior to the state junior college cross-country championship race, another team was next to us, and I overheard their coach point him out and say to his runners, “See that guy – he’s a sub-4 minute miler.”

I remember the look of awe on their faces as they looked Rick over. Such is the status of someone who can run a mile that fast.

We runners got along well with Coach Riley except for one incident which escalated so dramatically that it ended in a shooting that I witnessed.

Apparently there’d been a conflict between Coach and one runner on our team, Russ Roadruck. One day, myself and a few other runners were in the locker room getting ready for practice when Russ burst in and ran toward us, shouting, “No! No! Don’t!”

Right behind was Rick, chasing him, and as they reached us, we saw Rick had a gun. He fired several shots, and Russ fell to the floor at our feet, silent and unmoving.

Normally, in such a situation, you’d scramble away to avoid getting shot, or attempt to disarm the shooter. However, we just stood there, smiling, waiting for whatever came next.

Russ came back to life and got up. Rick had a starter’s pistol which can only shoot blanks. It was a neat little skit they’d concocted for our amusement. It wouldn’t be a good idea these days with all the real-life workplace shootings and mass murders, but back then, they were almost unheard of.

Last September, there was an event in Pullman, home of Washington State University, in which Rick was inducted into the WSU Hall of Fame.Rick at Hall of Fame (1)

The official reason for his induction was to honor his outstanding running career at WSU. However, I believe the real reason was to pay homage to the entertaining skit he performed in the SFCC locker room.