Whoa, has it been eight years already?
On July 21, 2007, Alan Webb showed up at a small meet in Brasschaat, Belgium, and broke Steve Scott’s American record for the mile, running 3:46.91.
I remember that when I first heard about the record, I formed a mental image of Webb charging down the straightaway as tens of thousands of Belgians cheered him home. When I watched the video, it was a little off to see that the race took place on a modest six-lane track with perhaps a couple of hundred people in attendance — a random all-comers meet, albeit with some pretty fast pacemakers. I was struck particularly by the small-town feel — the people in lawn chairs, the little girl sitting with her dad in lane six on the final turn, the car parked on the infield.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. One could argue that, for setting records, small meets are best since Webb and his team were able to control all the aspects of his pre-race preparation and focus on the task at hand.
Other things that struck me: Webb crosses the line, jogs a few steps and then, upon seeing the time, does a little sprint into the infield. So Webb’s legs weren’t immobilized by vapor lock. Indeed, after the race he said he thought he could go faster, even talking about wanting to take a shot at the world record.
Little did he or we know that the race in Braschaat, and an 800 race a week later in a PR 1:43.84, would mark the pinnacle of his career. There would be no more records, no more PRs, and disappointing results in significant meets. In spite of his great fitness that summer of 2007, he finished only 8th in the 1500m final at the World Championships in Osaka.
In 2008, he failed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, finishing 5th. In 2009, he moved to Portland, Oregon to be coached by Alberto Salazar, running a 3:55 mile that summer. In 2010, he had Achilles tendon surgery. He split with Salazar, returned to Virginia, then moved back to Portland to join Jerry Schumacher’s group and focus on longer events, but with injuries and age, he never made it to the top level. In early 2014, he retired from running and shifted his focus to triathlon.
Enough has been written about Alan Webb’s career arc. Personally, I no longer think about what might have been, and find myself just enjoying these old videos that show Webb at his best. Not only is he fast, but when he’s on, he shows such an unrestrained enthusiasm and emotional involvement. He wore his heart on his singlet every time he ran. When he had a good race, he reacted with screams, smiles, fist pumps, and little sprints. When he had a bad race, his features and body language told the whole story.
Perhaps he never had the cool, calculating demeanor that wins tactical races in (and in front of) big crowds. But when he was feeling it, he was able to run fast… faster than any American ever. We were lucky we had the opportunity to see it.