On May 28, 2001, a slight, but powerfully built 18-year-old high school kid from South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia, stood on the starting line for the mile run at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. Alan Webb was a phenom, having run a sub-4:00 mile indoors earlier that year. Now he was gunning to be the first high school miler in over 30 years to go sub-4:00 outdoors.
But he was just a kid. You had to feel sorry for him, standing there on the line with Hicham El Guerrouj , Kevin Sullivan, Bernard Lagat…
Looking at him, NBC’s announcers worried out loud that he would be in over his head. How would he handle a professional race, with pacers hired to take the pack through the first lap in 56-57 seconds. It seemed more than likely that Webb would either go out way too fast and blow up, or be left trailing the pack, too far in arrears and with no help to make a run at four minutes. When he settled comfortably at the back of the back through a 59-second first 400, everyone was relieved. Webb was running smart. Hopes for a sub-4:00 were alive.
Now, more than twelve years later, it’s hard to summon up the sense of astonishment at what happened in the last lap of that mile. The high school kid passed runner after professional runner, kicked it in to run 3:53.43 the fastest high school mile by any American ever… Hell, the fastest mile by ANY American in three years.
Some have written that Webb’s race shook American middle distance running out of its long slumber. If that’s true, it was not an immediate effect. It would be several more years before Americans began showing up in the World Top Ten lists.
And Webb’s running career was frustrating to say the least. He was injured too often, switched training philosophies too many times, and squandered his opportunities in championship races. His message board detractors had a cruel field day mocking his comeback attempts. His admirers pointed to his remarkable range — 1:43.84 for 800; 3:46.91 mile; 13:10.86 for 5000; 27:34.72 for 10,000m in one of his only times running that distance.
But the numbers don’t really capture the fact that for a few years, he was the closest thing to a track rock star that we had. When he ran that 3:53 in high school, anything seemed possible. (Unfortunately, the video is no longer available for viewing online, as USA Track and Field has exercised their copyright to have YouTube and others take it down.)
Now, at 30, he’s moving on to the triathlon. His goal, he says, is to be good, to compete, to try to make the 2016 Olympics. I hope he achieves all those goals, and finds a new home in a new sport. But I am quite sure he will never do anything as exciting as that day in 2001, when he sprinted down the homestretch, closing on Lagat and El Guerrouj.