NEW YORK — As a freshman at South Lakes High School in Reston, Va., Alan Webb was a swimmer who thrived in running despite his skinny legs and strong upper body build. Webb grew into his body with time and became the first and only high school runner to break four minutes in the indoor mile when he ran 3:59.86 as a senior in 2001.
It was a proud moment for Marc and Joan Hunter, who coached him as a freshman before stepping away from coaching for family reasons.
When the record fell on Saturday afternoon at the Armory Track Invitational at the New Balance Track and Field Center in upper Manhattan, the Hunters felt the same joy along with another kind of excitement: parental pride.
Drew Hunter, the fourth of Marc and Joan’s nine kids, broke Webb’s record by running 3:58.25 for seventh place against professional and collegiate runners. Their son, who started walking as Webb started to succeed in his freshman year, became the one to erase it.
“Everyone knows Alan’s done some special things in his career and this is a record that has been around for a while,” Hunter says. “People haven’t come close too many times and so to run faster than it to go along with our connection is really special.”
When the Hunters decided to expand their family of five and Joan was pregnant in the spring of 1998, a decision was made to step away from coaching Webb and the rest of the South Lakes team.
“I remember a close friend our family telling us that we were doing the right thing for our family by stepping down because we couldn’t be the coaches we wanted to be and the parents we wanted to be at that season in our life,” Joan says. “They said God is going to bless this decision even though it is a hard one to make. I almost feel that this is that blessing. We walked away from something we truly loved. We loved coaching Alan and it is like we were given this second chance to work with another special athlete who happens to be our own kid.”
Hunter stepped on the track Saturday with his white singlet and black spikes, which his mother helped unknot right before the race. At 5'11" and 141 pounds, the Loudoun Valley, Va., senior star looks nothing like Webb, the fastest high school miler who later became the American record holder at the distance as a professional.
Hunter was battling a respiratory infection that had him coughing the entire week leading up to Saturday’s race. He told himself that the eight laps on the banked track would hurt. A cough kept him up all night and resulted in just two hours of sleep.
“The first 200 felt like a sprint,” Hunter said. “I thought that if this is what we’re supposed to be running then it’s going to hurt a lot.”
Even Marc Hunter, who was watching from the upper deck across the finish line, did not think history was in the cards for Saturday’s race.
“When he had three laps to go, he looked like toast,” Marc said. “With two laps to go, he had this spurt of energy and I thought, ‘Oh maybe this kid is not done.’”
Tom Schwartz, who has been writing Hunter’s workouts and taken over his training since May 2015, estimated that the high school cross country national champion would be in 3:58.6 shape. The previous week he estimated that Hunter would run 7:58 for the 3,000-meters and instead Hunter ran 7:59.33 for a new high school record at the distance.
With two laps remaining in Saturday’s race, Hunter regained form and was clocked at 57 seconds for his final 400 meters.
Hunter claims it was the announcer getting the crowd riled up. The roar of the crowd pushed him and the cry of one fan alongside the track that said “You’re close to the record.”
Webb knows that feeling. He did not call Drew Hunter in the days leading up to the race but called Marc to pass along his well wishes and let them know that he would be thinking of the family in New York.
“You’re the automatic underdog and everybody is cheering for you,” Webb said. “Psychologically that is very powerful knowing that everyone in attendance is behind you. I felt that when I went into those races. Everybody that goes to the Armory wants Drew Hunter to run under four minutes. They want to be a part of that special moment.”
With 100 meters remaining, he knew he could break four minutes. He watched as the video board ran through each finisher. His name was seventh with a record attached to it.
“I think it’s something that’s not ironic but unique and special. I think everything happens for a reason,” Hunter says. “ I think this is the beginning.”
Joan Hunter rejoined her son as he took a victory lap that consisted of autographs, high fives and of course selfies. It was much different from Webb’s run and rise to fame that was celebrated with high fives and published on the cover of Track and Field News and newspapers across the country. Hunter was an instant star with calls, texts and tweets blowing up his phone when he finally got around to cooling down.
“We’re again in this situation where we’re coaching a top kid and he’s setting records. Not that we knew Alan would be at that level but it seemed that way,” Joan Hunter says. “It’s sort of amazing to be in a situation that we thought we lost when we stopped coaching that first time and it’s our own kid.”
“This is the life we live now, where he’s instantly famous,” Marc added.
In the week before Hunter’s record run, Webb sent an email to SI.com that read, “All of my records are in jeopardy.”
The first has fallen.
“There’s definitely a bit of nostalgia in seeing this process happen all over again,” Webb said. “Because of my relationship with Drew and his family, it gives you a good feeling to know that Dathan Ritzenhein, Ryan Hall, Matt Tegenkamp and myself are all part of this cycle of the track and field world. I see Drew going through this and how incredible and exciting everything is. It will be the beginning of many special moments that we enjoy watching.”
3:58.25. Thank you everyone!— Drew Hunter (@drewhunter00) February 6, 2016
Alan Webb grew up idolizing Jim Ryun and had his picture in his room along with a poster of Adam Goucher. Similarly, Hunter is an avid enthusiast of track and field. He sleeps below a photo of Roger Bannister, the first man to break four minutes for the mile. A Life magazine cover of American legend Frank Shorter is by the obligatory Steve Prefontaine poster and picture of Ryun, the first American high school runner to break four minutes.
Hunter says there are no pictures of Webb in the room. Instead, he prefers to share emails with Webb.
That, and some history, too.