Sadly, U.S. track renaissance is leaving Alan Webb behind
EUGENE, Ore. -- It has been all the talk for nearly a decade now, that middle- and long-distance running in the United States has been resurrected from the depths of the 1990s (when Bob Kennedy did pretty much all the work himself, and work that cannot be discounted for influencing what has occurred since) to a point where American men and women are genuine medal threats (albeit nothing resembling medal certainties) in nearly every event from 800 meters to 10,000 meters.
This renaissance was in plain view again Monday night in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field, where fans again sat through a cold, intermittent Cascades rain. They watched as Nick Symmonds and Alysia Montano thoroughly dominated the men's and women's 800-meter finals and as Bernard Lagat and Galen Rupp cruised easily into the finals of the men's 5,000.
For Symmonds, his victory in 1:43.92, as he cruised into contention on the second lap and rolled down the homestretch, was his fifth consecutive national championship and represents further evolution that's evident in the numbers. His first national title came in winning the epic 2008 trials race here at Hayward; he was eliminated in the semifinals in Beijing. In 2009 he again won the national title and finished sixth in the world. Last year he was U.S. champion again and finished fifth in the world. With the incomparable David Rudisha of Kenya massively favored in the 800, the gold medal is not in play, but surely Symmonds is a threat for silver or bronze.
Montano has a similar hill to climb in one of the most closely-packed events on the Olympic track calendar, but she has been even closer to the medal stand in a global championship: Last year at the world championships in Daegu she missed a bronze medal by .01 seconds. "That was good practice for me,'' Montano said Monday night. After winning the trials from the front (four years ago she was carted off a gurney -- "Nice little ride,'' she said Monday night, laughing -- with a navicular stress fracture in her left foot), Montano stands No. 2 in the world behind Pamela Jelimo of Kenya.
The ageless Lagat, 37, who already has two Olympic 1,500-meter medals (in 2000 and 2004 as a Kenyan citizen) and four world championship medals, including two golds (all since 2007, and all as a U.S. citizen), seems to have lost little of his late-race acceleration and easily qualified for the 5,000 final. Rupp, who had already won the 10,000 meters here on Friday night, a laughably easy victory, jogged through the 5,000 semis in 13:46.82, finishing just behind Andrew Bumbalough. Both Lagat and Rupp will race in Thursday night's final.
It is easy -- and infinitely tempting -- to ooze red, white and blue optimism during the national championships. That vibe often gets a cold shower at the Games. With that in mind, consider:
• Rupp will contend for a medal in the 10,000, although getting one will depend on the potency of his closing kick, which coach Alberto Salazar has been patiently developing for several years.
• Lagat remains a threat in the 5,000, until he shows otherwise. He is inarguably one of the best 5-15 runners in history and reliable big-race performer.
• Whichever American men and women emerge from the 1,500 meters this weekend will be in position to build on Jenny Simpson's gold and Matthew Centrowitz's bronze at the Daegu worlds. (Although, to be fair, the emerging brilliance of Ethiopians Abeba Arigawe and Genzebe Dibaba makes the women's 15 tough sledding).
• Symmonds and Montano should be in medal contention with 50 meters left in their races. (And props to Khadevis Robinson for taking second behind Symmonds after getting nailed at the line for third four years ago, and to Duane Solomon for getting third place and the 'A' standard in the same race, running hard from the gun to ensure a fast time).
All of this brings us to Alan Webb. If the conversation is about middle-distance running in the last decade-plus in America, this often happens in one way or another, because he was there at the beginning and it sure looks like he's not going to be there at the near-term end.
You know the story. Webb ran sub-four as a high school kid (here in Eugene), won the 2004 Olympic trials and broke Steve Scott's mile record and otherwise has spent a lot of time failing to live up to expectations placed on him because of his great potential. On Monday night he tried to qualify for the final of the 5,000 and finished 11th, eliminated even before time qualifiers were selected. He will not try the 1,500 and instead will go home to Virginia, where his wife, Julia, is due any day with their first child.
Webb talked to a small group of media after his race. He did not break into tears and run away, like in 2008. He was, in fact, almost cheerful. "I'm starting to get used to this,'' he said. "That's not a good thing.'' It was like he was lying on a psychiatrist's couch.
"I haven't been the most consistent runner in the world,'' he said. "I'll admit that. But I've had some special moments. It's not that I took it for granted, but it didn't just happen. A lot goes into it. Sometimes I wonder how I did it all myself.''
There is another point that Webb grasped, and it was so spot-on true that it was painful to the point of embarrassing to hear him say it. "The American distance running scene is totally different from it was eight years ago when I won here [actually in Sacramento, at the '04 trials]. That's the way it should be. These guys are the real deal.'' He became famous for breaking four minutes, but now says, "You break four minutes, nobody even knows about it anymore. That was always a thing to do. Now it's whatever, get in line.''
There was a pause, and I knew exactly what Webb was hoping someone would say. Nobody said it. So he said it himself: "I'm looking for positives here, guys, so if I had anything to do with that ... maybe I inspired everybody too much, maybe I created a monster ...''
It was a funny moment. A little sad. Also maybe a little true. Webb crushed that weak trials field in '04 and this field crushed him. He is not the same runner, but the symmetry is fair. Much of what he said sounded like a retirement speech, but Webb said it is not. "I'm 29 years old,'' he said. "I still feel like I can run.''
But his sport has changed. Others run faster now. It is their time.