On a Sundayafternoon in the spring of 2001, Alan Webb ran a mile faster than any otherU.S. high school runner in history. More than 11,000 spectators rose in afrenzy to cheer the epic performance at Oregon's Hayward Field, and many moreembraced it from afar. Webb clocked 3:53.43 that day, nearly two seconds fasterthan Jim Ryun had run 36 years earlier. World-record holder and race winnerHicham El Guerrouj of Morocco invited Webb to share his victory lap. DavidLetterman invited him to share his stage. ¬∂ An impatient U.S. track communitybeseeched Webb to put the sport on his 18-year-old back.
This is an article from the Aug. 27, 2007 issue
"When you run3:53 and convincingly break a record that was held by an icon like JimRyun," says Bob Kennedy, a two-time Olympian and the U.S.-record holder inthe 5,000 meters, "people, especially outside the sport, are going toexpect nothing less than an Olympic gold medal. That's America."
Or, as Webb'sfather, Steve, an economist for the World Bank, puts it in the language of hisprofession, "Many people became distracted by linear extrapolations, basedon that race."
Six years havepassed. Webb has spent much of that time in a maelstrom of rushed expectationand blind criticism, fueled by the explosion of Internet message boards and thecountry's fascination with precocity. No other distance runner has been morescrutinized. Predictably, Webb has emerged wiser and tougher--and also, at 24,as one of the best middle-distance runners in the world.
At the worldtrack and field championships, which begin Saturday in Osaka, Japan, Webb isamong the favorites in the 1,500 meters. "Alan has had a lot of pressure onhim, but he has incredible talent," says Bernard Lagat, the Kenyan-born2004 Olympic silver medalist in the 1,500 meters, who is now a U.S. citizen."He has put things together at the right time."
Webb has alreadyhad a summer for the ages. He won his third U.S. 1,500-meter title on June 24in Indianapolis. Twelve days later, at a race in Paris, he ran a personal bestof 3:30.54 in the 1,500 (the world's fastest time this year) for his first-everGolden League victory. Two weeks after that, on a quiet, tree-shrouded track inBelgium, Webb ran a 3:46.91 mile, shattering Steve Scott's quarter-century-oldU.S. record of 3:47.69. And on July 28 Webb ripped off a personal best of1:43.84 in the 800 meters, the second-fastest time in the world this year, towin another race in Belgium.
On a swelteringnight early in August, during a two-week break from the track circuit, Webbsits in a restaurant near his Reston, Va., home, eating pizza with chicken andspinach. He has long since moved past his 3:53 and is chasing fresh goals."I'm proud of the way I ran in high school," he says. "I workedhard for that day. It was special, and I can never exactly reproduce that. ButI've done some pretty cool things since then. Winning championship medals is agoal. The Olympics are a big goal. But I don't want to get too caught up indoing that one thing on that one day, because the 1,500 is a really tough race.There are other things I can do. That's why this summer has been awesome. Andit's taken six years to get here."
Not by the usualroute, either. After his high school career Webb spent a year at Michigan. Heran well, winning the Big¬†Ten title in the 1,500 as a freshman. But in thesummer of 2002 he abruptly left Ann Arbor, reunited with his high school coach,Scott Raczko, and signed a seven-figure contract with Nike that runs throughthe 2008 Olympics.
"I wasn'twilling to settle," Webb explains. "I liked a lot of things aboutMichigan, but staying there would have been settling. People told me, 'You cando well there.' I knew that. But I wanted to do more than win the Big Ten orwin the NCAA. My goal was to be one of the best runners in the world."
He struggledthrough the 2003 season, adjusting to the pressures of running for a shoecompany's money and living on his own. ("Here I am, buying a sofa when Ishould be training," recalls Webb.) A midsummer bout of appendicitis alsohelped stunt the season. All of which led Raczko and Webb to make a long-termplan.
"We had bothbeen caught up in trying to run fast immediately," says Raczko, who begancoaching Webb in 1998. "The only way you can ever run as fast as the bestmilers in the world is to run a certain level of very hard workouts. The onlyway to do that is to build tremendous [aerobic] strength. So let's spend thenext three years--2004, '05, '06--doing that."
The plan hasworked spectacularly, though not without hiccups. In 2004 Webb dominated the1,500 at the U.S. Olympic Trials with a killing mid-race burst, but in Athenshe failed to advance out of the heats. A year later he won another U.S. titlein the 1,500 and reached the world championship final in Helsinki--but finishedninth. Before the summer ended, he ran 5,000 meters in 13:10.86, making him thefourth-fastest U.S. runner ever at that distance.
In April 2006Webb stunned the U.S. track world by winning a 10,000-meter race in 27:34.72,the best debut ever by an American at that distance. His impressive range, from800 to 10,000 meters, makes him one of the most versatile runners inhistory.
A hamstringinjury and an episode of anemia cut short Webb's 2006 summer season, but thatsimply postponed the inevitable. For the '07 season Raczko reduced Webb'sintense track sessions from a total of 10,000 meters per workout to fewer than8,000 meters. "Just that little bit of difference, and it's playtime,"says Webb. "You can really hammer."
Chris Lukezic, aworld-class miler who sometimes trains with Webb, recalls a June workout on thetrack at George Mason. "It was me and Alan and [Canadian Olympian] KevinSullivan. We were doing 800s. We started out pretty easy, like a two-minutepace, and it went down pretty impressively from there. I dropped out afterseven. Kevin dropped out after eight. Alan did nine. The last couple, man,fast." At the end Webb had dipped into the low 1:50s.
Still, Osakaoffers no guarantees. There will be plenty of talent in the field, includingLagat, Mehdi Baala of France and 2005 world champion Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain.The 1,500 is a strategic riddle, and races are often won by the luckiest, notthe swiftest. If a runner moves too soon or gets boxed in, often his race isover. "To win any medal at all," says Kennedy, "you have to betactically almost perfect."
In Webb's favor:Throughout 2007 he has been exceptionally fast at the end of races, a tributeto his strength and a hedge against surprises in each race. "One thing I'velearned," says Webb, "is to run all the way through the race. Ifsomething happens, don't get shook. Just keep running."
Osaka is a majorevent, of course, but ultimately it is only a small step for Webb. Beijingfollows in a year, and Webb and Raczko's planning takes them far beyond that,to 2012 and even '16. Even so, the runner's legacy already is firmlyentrenched.
"I was ajunior in high school when Alan ran 3:53," says Lukezic. "That oneperformance was a paradigm shift for young U.S. runners. Alan changedeveryone's mind-set about what was really fast. And over the next 10 yearsyou'll see the effect."
An hour afterwinning the national title two months ago, Webb pulled a dry shirt over hishead and stepped onto the puddled track for a warmdown run. First one highschool runner followed, then another. And then another, chasing Webb around theoval, catching a scent of the dream.
Daily reports from Tim Layden at the world track andfield championships in Japan.
Webb built up so much aerobic strength over the last three years that he hashad a breakthrough 2007 despite scaling back his workouts.
Webb blazed to the fastest time in the world this year in this 1,500-meter racein the French capital.