Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Mysterious Career of Alan Webb

At summer track last year, I nearly killed myself trying to break 60 seconds in the 400m.  It seems like a simple goal: one lap in under one minute.  Athletically, it is probably the equivalent to being able to touch the rim of the basketball goal from a running start, but nowhere close to being able to slam dunk -- at least for someone under 6'1.  Really athletic people can do it without training.  After a certain age, you just stop trying to do these types of things period.  I never made it, despite getting close in several gut wrenching attempts.  In my last try of the summer, I ran a 60.1.  And I'm about that age where you really should stop trying.

The thought of doing this at a faster pace for 4 straight laps is mind boggling.  Alan Webb did this in high school with nearly 7 seconds to spare.  No US high schooler had broken 4 minutes in the mile since the 60s and only one has done it since that infamous run in summer of 2001.

 

Webb has had an up and down career since then.  Much like any high school talent, he faced enormous expectations that were practically impossible to live up to, but it's hard to come up with exactly the right analogy from another sport.  Freddy Adu has done practically nothing on a world stage, Alan Webb at least had some notable performances, but he has also lost races recently to walk-on and DIII college runners.  He was on Letterman in 2001, and still attracts more attention than any US runner on websites like letsrun.com but hardly anyone (even most runners) would recognize him on the street if they passed him.

He had a decent start at University of Michigan in cross country, but took a step backward that track season and decided to go pro after just one year.  This is normal in basketball, but not so much in mid-distance running in the US, a sport that has been dominated by Africans over the last 20 years.

In 2004, as a 21 year old, Webb made it to the Athens Olympics but showed inexperience racing on the world stage and failed to advance past the first round of the 1500m.  The next year, he made to the World Championships final, but deployed a bizarre racing strategy by sprinting out to a large lead about halfway through the 1500m race.  This was suicidal, as runners often try to conserve energy until the final stretch.  Mid-distance racing and single track trail running share a similarity in that the leader has to do a majority of the work.  Throwing in a mid-race surge can work in trail running sometimes, at least in a shorter race; on the track it usually just means you'll have nothing left at the end while your competition comes roaring past you.

For every setback, however, Webb always seemed to bounce back.  In 2007, he broke the US records in the 1500m and the mile.  The mile was set in a low key race in Belgium against inferior competition. While this wouldn't appear to be the best setting to break a record, it worked for Webb.  He ran a 3:46.91, which was a world lead that year.  But then coming off that year, he couldn't even make the US Olympic team.  Since then, he hasn't done much despite being in his late 20s, which for most mid-distance runners, is the prime of their career.

A few days ago, I found out Webb was running an 800m race at Wallace Wade Stadium here at Duke against last year's NCAA 800m champion Robby Andrews.  It was 15 minutes away from my house and the weather had cleared up, so seemingly there was no reason not to go.  I made the drive up 15-501, parked without dealing with any traffic, and walked into the meet without paying a cent for admission.  Despite the fact that thousands of people in the Triangle run, there were probably only a few hundred at this meet in total, including the contestants.  Here was the American record holder in the mile running against a recent NCAA champion and no one was there to watch.  Sure, track is immensely boring, but the 800m takes about as long to run as the ever so popular Kentucky Derby.  Maybe our sport just needs more gambling or drinking associated with it.

Webb never led the race, and ended up running a 1:51.  He may have been able to run that time as a sophomore in high school.  The winner of the 3rd heat ran a 1:50.80.

Once a runner hits a certain point, where improvement is not necessarily a given, we can try and try and try... but we will have more mediocre runs and races than we have success.  I can relate to Webb because his running career parallels mine.  We started running around the same time, in the late 90s, just as following other runners on the internet became possible.  He ran at McAlpine Park and Hagan Stone just like I did, only his times were 3 minutes faster for a 5K.  But foremost, every now and then he'd have a really good year and a really hot streak before hitting a wall and not doing much for a few more years.  He seems more real to me as a result.

Maybe it was just a pre-season tune up for him.  Maybe he is just racing his way back into shape.  It's hard to think of why he would randomly show up in Durham NC in early May in an Olympic year, when he could be in Oregon at the fancy Nike camp in some sort of altitude chamber.  Maybe he just loves to race, wherever he can find a race to be in, perhaps more so than he loves to run.

I don't have any races planned, and I'd like to say I'm ok with that, but the reality is that as a runner it's hard to say that.  The first thing another runner often asks another one is what they have planned or what they are training for.  I don't really know what that is right now, and I guess that's ok.

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