Shortly after leaping a World outdoor best of 4.83m in Ostrava’s Vitkovice Stadium early last June, pole vaulter Stacy Dragila politely, if abruptly, interrupted an interview as the men’s 1500 metres concluded. Her eyes popped wide open as she looked at the finish line just a few metres behind her.
Stunned, she asked, “Did Alan just win?”
Originally published in IAAF Magazine, No 1 – 2005
She was referring to American miler Alan Webb, who had just dispensed with the finest international 1500 metre field yet assembled in the 2004 season. Among the vanquished were perennial top miler Bernard Lagat, Olympic champion Noah Ngeny, and Ukraine’s swift-kicking Ivan Heshko.
When he powered across the finish line with a personal best and World leading 3:32.73, Webb punched his fist into the eastern Czech sky. As collective jaws dropped in the sold-out stadium, a vivacious ear-to-ear smile emerged.
“I feel great!” Webb said after the race, clutching his winner’s trophy, a dazzling crystal running shoe laced with gold trim. “I just raced away. I figured, I’ll either die and run fast, or I’ll win and run fast.”
It was the international breakthrough that so many longed for and expected from the then 21-year-old since he entered the American athletics conscience as a teenager at the 2001 Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, when he broke Jim Ryun’s 36-year-old national high school record in the Mile. Moreover, his 3:53.43 performance at that race was the fastest mile by an American since 1998, signaling the start of his role as “the Next Great American Miler.” His exploits brought the sport not only back to prominent placement in the sports pages; he, along with his picture, was on newspaper front pages across the country. Simply put, no other athlete in recent memory has so profoundly captured the imagination of the sport in the United States.
His position in the sport in 21st Century America cannot be overstated. Since eclipsing Ryun’s legendary mark late that Spring four years ago, his every race announcement is featured prominently in press releases and promotional material; virtually each detail of every performance is replayed, analyzed, glamorized and sometimes even chastised by media and fans. While his career has since taken its share of dips along with some notable highs, Webb said the attention, hopes and attendant pressure his performances produced were not too heavy or unfair a burden.
“No, I don’t think the expectations were too high,” Webb said of the interest he generated while a fresh-faced high schooler. “I mean, 3:53 was a big deal. Not just for a high school runner, but for the Mile in general then.”
With his place in US athletics history firmly etched, he ended his 2001 season on the track with a no-pressure appearance at the national championships. While he missed the qualifying standard for that year’s World Championships in Edmonton, the future of the next “Great American Miler” seemed brighter than ever.
But his road that lead to that breakout victory in Ostrava, and eventually to the Olympic Stadium in Athens last summer and perhaps onward to the world championships in Helsinki next summer, has been anything but smooth. But for the affable Webb, a rocky road suits him just fine. After all, he said, summing up his competitive philosophy, “If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be fun.”
Shortly after a successful freshman cross country season at the University of Michigan, his storybook tale ended and his troubles began. He finished a well-beaten fourth in the 1500 at the 2002 NCAA Championships, and, failing to meet his own high expectations in collegiate competition, he chose to leave Ann Arbor that Spring to pursue the sport professionally. It was a much-talked about and oft-criticized move at the time, but one that has been duplicated by many top young American collegians since. He returned to the familiar surroundings of his native Reston, Virginia and to coach Scott Raczko, who guided him through all but the first year of his stellar high school career. But his struggles didn’t disappear; both injury and illness would follow. He ran bests of just 3:47.35 and 3:58.84 in the 1500 and Mile in 2003, before undergoing surgery for a burst appendix in July. He didn’t race again until the following autumn, contesting a few low-key road race and cross country events.
Gradually he returned to form that winter, highlighted by a fourth place finish in the 12km race at the national cross country championships. He clocked a 13:46.31 personal best in the 5000 at the Penn Relays in April, but doubts nonetheless trailed Webb until his 17-day competitive stretch late last Spring. On 22 May, he lowered his personal best to 3:35.71 at the Home Depot Invitational in Carson, California, his first improvement in the 1500/Mile since high school, and perhaps just as significantly, his first major win and an Olympic ‘A’ qualifier. The momentum continued nine days later when he finished fourth at the FBK-Games in Hengelo, improving again to 3:33.70 in his first major international race. He then did a round of speed work, winning the 800 metre ‘B’ race in Seville in 1:46.53, another personal best, before his stunner in Ostrava.
“That was the biggest win of my career,” Webb said, reflecting back on his season. “It was my PR so it was a double bonus – running fast and winning. That’s what it’s all about.”
Choosing to end his mini-European tour on a high note, he passed on making his Golden League debut in Bergen, and headed back to the US where he followed up with wins at the Prefontaine Classic in 3:34.42 and the Olympic Trials in Sacramento in 3:36.13 to claim his first national title.
He returned to Europe to contest the Mile at London’s Crystal Palace where he finished fourth in 3:50.73, yet another personal best.
“Yeah, it’s still a personal best,” he said after the race, seemingly content while somewhat unimpressed. “Times are nice, but competition’s always the No. One goal. That’s half the battle. You just put yourself out there all the time, and you win some, lose some. I just didn’t quite have it today. But it’s a good tune up for the Olympic Games.”
Apparently though, it wasn’t good enough.
Running a self-described “stupid race,” Webb was a distant ninth in the second of three opening round heats in Athens, clocking 3:41.25, missing the cut off by just 11/100s of a second.
“That was definitely really hard to swallow,” Webb admitted. “To end that way was such a let down emotionally.”
Unable to remove himself from the tightly-knit pack, Webb found himself boxed in or running very wide on several occasions, while at the same time experiencing the physical brutality of international racing for the first time in his still-young career.
“It was worse than a football game out there,” he said. “I just got banged around. I was trying to stay to the outside and stay out of trouble and it just got me in trouble more.”
Once again, his image appeared in newspapers and website around the world. Only this time, dejected, his hands were covering his face.
“First of all, it was a really, really dumb race. I ran every race the same last year, running at the front or near the front. Except for the one in Athens.”
“Some of it was just plain bad luck,” he continued. “Everywhere I went in that race something bad happened. It was a matter of being at the wrong spot at the wrong time. Sport can be that way sometime. It’s just one of those things that you have to move on from.”
He ended his season after his Athens disappointment, but looking back some months later, Webb now realizes that there were plenty of positives from his first international campaign.
“I did a great job on the first three-quarters of the summer,” he said, before breaking into laugher. “But the last quarter didn’t do so hot. But over the whole year, I felt that I put myself on the next level, jumping forward to the next level again. It was a lot to take in in the first year.”
Part of his first summer abroad was running with who he called “the big boys” for the first time.
“It’s a lot different running in Europe than it is in the US,” he said. “It’s so competitive, and I feel like I can’t have any expectations. You just have to go in. It sounds as if you don’t believe in yourself, but it’s so competitive. There are no guarantees in anything. It’s almost easier. You know you’re not expected to win every time. So you’re just like, ‘I’ll go, if I get fourth, that’s fine, if I get first, that’s cool too.”
Webb doesn’t foresee any major changes in his attitude and approach. After all, he doesn’t see any reasons to make any changes.
“Basically, I’m just running more workouts, better workouts, and experimenting with workouts. I just have to continue the same and more.”
When he’s not busy pounding 70 miles per week in training, he’s pursuing his economics degree at nearby George Mason University. To get his mind off of both, he plays his guitar. But athletics fans needn’t worry that he’ll trade in the world’s major athletics venues for a concert stage. “I only play alone, at home, when no one’s around.”
Webb knows that the expectations from fans and observers at home won’t go away, and again, doesn’t mind in the least.
“Some of the pressure’s gone away,” he said, “but the great thing about last year is that now it’s a different kind of pressure. There are new expectations. I finally moved on and it’s closer. It’s happening.” As opposed to the ‘Next Great Miler’ tag he’s been carrying, he said, “It’s right now. My accomplishments are more dynamic. And I don’t mind that kind of pressure. It’s easier when the pressure and expectations change.”
Thinking ahead to Helsinki, he’s partly basing his own expectations on his Athens experience.
“Well, hopefully to make it out of the first round,” he said of his most immediate goal next August, again laughing. “I have to take that one pretty seriously. I need to act like you’re supposed to win that race.”
On a more serious note, Webb added that all his training efforts now are firmly pointed to his three races in Helsinki.
“I feel good, everything’s gone pretty well,” Webb said, explaining his light fall and winter racing load. “I didn’t do any racing in the fall. I sort of just recharged and took my time coming back. I was pretty happy with the way training went and I’m really happy with my fitness.”
In the back of his mind though, expectations are far higher than advancing from the first round.
“I feel great about it, especially after going through what I went through last summer. It was an eye-opener. Now I know what to expect going into those races, and everything that goes with it.”