EUGENE, Ore. -- They were the lab rats. Test cases for the digital world that lay ahead and now greets every runner who shows a hint of promise, subjecting them to the scrutiny that comes with being fast young. It was the spring of 2001 and two runners born 14 days apart as December of 1982 turned into January of 1983 were bookmarked for life. Neither would take an unrecorded meaningful step for the rest of his career.
This I recall with some clarity because I participated wholly in the early days of the exercise (an act about which I feel some guilt at this point). These two high school kids had become well known in the running underground. It was possible that they would break longstanding records that had been set decades earlier by famous men, and so it was important that we not only capture their present, but also predict their future. So in a one-week stretch in the mid-spring of 2001, I went first to the small city of Rockford, Mich., to meet with Dathan Ritzenhein and then to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to talk with Alan Webb.
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The piece was heavy on not just what Webb and Ritzenhein had done -- and they had done a lot -- but also on what we would expect them to do, because the improvement that we have seen in U.S. distance running was several years away and those who cared about running were desperate for a savior. Bernard Lagat was still a Kenyan. Galen Rupp had just turned 15 and was still just an ex-soccer player with some talent. And that story in SI was just a tiny piece of the frenzy that surrounded Webb and Ritzenhein in the running world (and sometimes far beyond: Webb wound up on Letterman one night).
We were early in the Internet age then. People were still on dial-up AOL. Not all people, but plenty of people. A website called Dyestat.com had made the high school running community suddenly a very small town, and everybody in the town was gathered in the virtual barber shop to talk about Webb and Ritzenhein. In the decade since, this has become the accepted norm in all sports, and in all subsets of life. For every passion, there is a web location to match. But with high school running, and the breathless extrapolation that goes with it, Webb and Ritzenhein were really the first babies born to and nurtured -- or on some days, tortured by -- the web.
Eleven years have passed. Friday night at Hayward Field in Eugene, on the first full day of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, Ritzenhein, 29 (still with an "elfin build,'' so I stand by that), qualified for his third Olympic team, this time in the 10,000 meters (he ran in, but did not finish the 10,000 meters in 2004 in Athens, and four years later ran the marathon in Beijing). He becomes one of the youngest-ever three-time track and field Olympians (Allyson Felix is more than three years younger, but she is a distant outlier in this area), and for Ritzenhein, it was a significant moment in what has been a successful, but often frustrating career, beset by what he described as six different injuries "that stopped me in my tracks.'' A stress-fractured femur, Achilles surgery. Injuries like that, any one of which might have ended his career.
Ritzenhein faced distinctly challenging circumstances Friday night at Hayward. He had trained well since finishing a heartbreaking fourth in the Olympic Trials marathon in January (fourth is
With this in mind, Ritzenhein had told me on Wednesday afternoon, "I'm expecting I'll spend a lot of time in the front.'' He traded laps early with Rupp, his training partner, and at times was left on the lead, where he couldn't let the race become tactical. The heavy, pelting rain that fell at the start of the race tapered to light drizzle as first, Tegenkamp (an Olympian at 5,000 meters in 2008 who many thought was past his prime) and then Rupp, suddenly turned the race severe in the 17th of 25 laps. Rupp, the class of the field and U.S. record holder at 26:48 ran away alone with three laps left and finished in a Trials record of 27:25.33. Tegenkamp (who like Rupp and Ritzenhein trains in Portland, but with a different training group) used his speed to get second, pumping both fists in the home stretch in 27:33.94. Ritzenhein came home in 27:36.09, comfortably under the standard.
Just past the finish, he embraced Rupp and then bent at the waist with his face in his hands. Later he would remember how the pain of finishing the marathon trials eight seconds behind Abdi Abdirahman was erased Friday night in the homestretch of the 10,000, with Hayward's distance-crazy fans on their feet. "That fourth-place finish makes this so much better,'' said Ritzenhein. "I knew in the last 100 meters that I was going to make the team. And those last 15 seconds are what makes it so special.''
Webb, meanwhile, runs Monday night in the first round of the 5,000, a strange place to find the American record holder in the mile (from 2007). He has embarked this year on another comeback, with another new coach (Jason Vigilante), yet was unable to synch up his unquestioned talent with solid training and achieve the Olympic "A'' standard in the 1,500, without which he cannot go to London. So he petitioned his way into the 5,000, where he will run against men who are far more experienced at the distance and tactics. "I'm all in for 5,000,'' says Webb. "I've got to take a shot at it. I'm excited to be competing, but it's going to be interesting. I'm a lot less experienced than most of the guys in the race.''
The 5,000 final is scheduled for Thursday night. For non-tracknuts reading this, Webb was unlikely to reach the ''A'' standard in the 1,500 and finish in the top three because of the tactical nature of those races. The 5,000 is somewhat less tactical, and Webb might be able to simply push the pace and run a fast time, as well as make the team. But it's a giant gamble, and realistically, a longshot.
The two of them are linked by their shared beginnings more than a decade ago, when their performances were a nascent digital curiosity. Ritzenhein has been largely -- although not always -- embraced by the digital running underground. (Letsrun.com being the primary landing spot.) Webb has been a polarizing figure, regularly criticized and mocked by message board posters who hide behind the cloak of anonymity while Webb trains and races. (This happens in all other sports, as well.)
"Way back in the beginning, it was fun,'' says Webb. "Look, anybody who says, when they're 18 years old, that they don't like having all that attention, they're lying. And it drives you forward, because you know people are watching everything you do. Is it a little weird? Yeah, I guess it is. I mean, over the course of my career, it's just exploded to the point where every single thing I do is scrutinized by some blogger.''
Ritzenhein says: "I think probably what happened with me is that it was like getting thrown in the water without knowing how to swim. When I started in high school, it was a very small world on the Internet, but by the time I was a senior, it was pretty full on. It's a big load for an 18-year-old. And really, when you think about it, having immediate success at something is a hard thing to deal with.''
That, of course, is the root of the issue. Immediate success leads to lifelong -- or career-long -- expectations. As a high school senior, Webb ran 3:53.43 in the mile here at Hayward Field. In a vacuum, it remains one of most exhilarating track performances I've ever seen. Mile world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj raised Webb's hand at the finish line. A lot of down and not much up followed. Much like the a actor. Ritzenhein didn't reach those levels, but he won two Foot Locker cross country titles, finished third in the world junior cross country championships and ran 13:44.70 in the 5,000 in high school. He didn't have as far to fall as Webb and a little further to climb.
And their careers have fit the hypotheticals from a decade ago. Webb dominated the 1,500 at U.S. Olympic Trials in 2004, but did not make the Athens final. Three years later he ran 3:46.91 to break Steve Scott's U.S. record in the mile, but finished eighth in the world finals in Osaka, Japan (and then threw an unseemly tantrum in the media mixed zone afterward). He hasn't been as fast since. Yet now he is a grown man. His wife, Julia, is expecting their first child any day now.
"Nobody has a linear career,'' says Webb. "You're going to go up and down. That's just how it goes. I understand that. It's frustrating. I don't read message boards about myself. My wife does. The people who post about me and I have been on the same journey together for more than 10 years. That's a long time, and they have access to all the information. The reality is: When you're running well, you're running well and everything seems good. Right now, I'm just happy to be out there doing it.''
Ritzenhein has endured all those injuries, yet has done some outstanding things. His ninth-place finish in the 2008 Olympic marathon, under oppressive conditions, was the best by an American, better than Ryan Hall, of whom more was expected. A year later he ran 12:56.27 for 5,000 meters, a new American record. (Bernard Lagat broke the record a year later.) He finished a deflating fourth in the U.S. marathon trials in January, before turning his attention back to the 10,000.
"One thing that has been good for me,'' says Ritzenhein, "is that I've been fortunate to move around through different events in my career, from the 5,000 to the 10,000 to the marathon. That kind of keeps you away from the every-year scrutiny, comparing one year to the next.
"But I can also say that all those people who started following me on the Internet in 2001,'' says Ritzenhein, "they've give me a pretty good fan base over the years. And I appreciate that.''
Removed from the every day fervor of the message board world, the only rational conclusion is that both Webb and Ritzenhein have had very solid careers. And neither is finished. Ritzenhein thought briefly about retirement when he was out for seventh months with Achilles injuries in 2011, but now he is fit and training well with Rupp, Mo Farah and coach Alberto Salazar. Where some have suggested that Webb might be sundowning in Eugene, he says, "Oh my gosh, no. I've got two Olympics left.'' Yet both are measured against what was expected of them as teenagers, and that is a much more demanding metric.
It is both pointless and intriguing to wonder how either of them might have progressed had the spotlight (or bandwidth) been slightly less intense. The amateur psychologist in me guesses that Ritzenhein would have been much the same athlete that he is today and that Webb might have been better without the scrutiny. But that is an empty exercise, because the time when potential could pass undiscovered is long gone. Neither can request to have been born a decade earlier or a decade later.
And perhaps most of all, their roles will never change. Webb and Ritzenhein will always be the Class of 2001. The first of their kind.