THE FOLLOWING IS A RELEASE FROM A 2028 LETSRUN.COM FEATURE THAT SOMEHOW FELL THROUGH AN INTERNET TIME-PORTAL AND FOUND IT'S WAY TO THE 2008 MESSAGE BOARD.
Alan Webb: The Best American Runner You've Never Heard Of
By Wejo's Grandson
Remember when the world-leading time in the 1500 and the mile belonged to a twenty-four year old American? Remember when, in an era of East-African dominance, a solitary American runner nearly won the World Championships 1500 from the front? Remember when a thirty-six year old American high-school record that was thought to be unbreakable fell? Remember when that same high-school runner appeared on the Today Show and Good Morning America?
Alan Webb does. Never heard of him? He's not surprised.
"There was a time when I couldn't escape attention," Webb recalls from his home in Washington, D.C. A photo of Webb breaking Jim Ryun's high-school record in the mile hangs above his desk in a simple, austere frame. The same photo was on the cover of Track And Field News, the second of Webb's six appearances on the cover of the legendary magazine.
"At this point, I'm used to people not knowing who I am," he says, wrily. "I'm at peace with it now."
Twenty-five years ago Webb was the focal point of a revolutionary resurgence in American distance running. He was one of the "Big Three," the 2001 class of high-school graduates that also included Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall, who were heralded as a new generation of American distance runners that would someday compete with the best runners from Kenya and Ethiopia. "Alan was a major part of that development," says the three-time olympian Ritzehnein. "He was probably the most succesful of the three of us at the time, and he broke down a lot of walls. And records."
Go to any high-school track in the nation, and the names "Ritzenhein" and "Hall" will be instantly recognized.
"They're household names," says Michael Eppert, a junior from Everton, Illinois. "Webb?" Eppert literally scratches his head. "Yeah, wasn't he a miler way back?"
Surprisingly, that's just about the best reception Webb can hope for these days.
"Who?" replies John Shackelton, Eppert's teammate.
"Never heard of him," says Jonas Carter, Virginia's state champion in the 800m this year. "I didn't even know he had the state record," replies Carter, after being informed of Webb's epic 147.7 at the state meet in '01.
But the blank stares don't end there. At the University of Michigan, where Webb ran for one year before turning pro, all but two members of the varsity Cross Country team were unaware of Webb's existence, let alone his 11th place finish for the wolverines as a freshman in the 2002 NCAA cross country championships. None of them knew he was a 1500 specialist.
"On one level it's surprising," says Webb, "but on another level it isn't." Webb's career was one of great expectations, and sometimes the expectations exceeded the results. After posting a world-leading time in the 1500 in 2007 and then breaking the nearly 30-year old American record in the mile that summer, Webb's stock was high for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And 2008 ended up being a season to remember for Webb, even though he wishes he could forget it.. "I had a horrible start to the season and I just couldn't get my racing legs under me. By the time I was focusing on the right workouts, it was too late." Webb made the finals in the Olympic trials that year, but was shockingly outkicked by many of the rising stars of the event, finishing a distant sixth. In an irony that would become familiar to Webb during the last half of his career, it was the younger runners who owed so much to him that took his place at the top of the US distance running scene.
"Alan Webb was an inspiration to me early in my career," says Leonel Manzano, one of the young guns who outkicked Webb in 2008, and the runner who would break Webb's American record in the mile four years later. "I was just in middle school when he ran 3:53 as a high-schooler, and it was his example of courage that I tried to follow in my career as a miler." Manzano was one of the many American atheletes who followed in Webb's footsteps, only to surpass him and outshadow his previous accomplishments.
2008 was something of a high-water mark for Webb, and he never regained his place at the top of the American scene. During the next four years, in what should have been the prime of his career, Webb was mired in injury, inconsistency, and self-doubt. In 2012 he briefly electrified the running community by unexpectedly making the finals of the Olympic Trials 1500, only to finish dead-last as the oldest athelete in the field. "I didn't run a step for a month after that," says Webb. "I knew I was cooked."
Though Webb never quite acheived the Olympic-sized expectations placed on him, his influence on American distance running was undeniable. So why has his legacy languished? "In many ways, distance running--especially in America--is still about records and medals," muses Webb. "If you don't have at least some of those, you aren't treated well by history." In the years between the 2008 and 2012 olympics Webb's career was winding down while America's distance running corps was heating up. Ryan Hall became the first American-born runner under 2:06 in the marathon, Galen Rupp became the first American under 27 in the 10k and the first American Olympic medalist in that event in fourty-eight years, and Josh Rohatinsky, Matt Tegenkamp, and Lopez Lamong also took hardware home in the 2012 Olympics. By 2013, the United States was well on its way to becoming the premier distance running country in the world, and Alan Webb wasn't a measurable part of it.
But the final blow came in the spring of 2013 when, twelve years to the day after Webb set the high-school record in the mile, Sydnee Scott of Gallup, New Mexico ran 3:53.39 to break it by the slimest of margins. "That really took the wind out of me," says Webb. "At that point, I didn't really have a mature perspective on my career, so that high-school record was the only part of my legacy that I was really proud of."
To make matters worse, Scott's performance effectively wiped Webb's name out of the record books. "I got a lot of calls in the week following Sydnee's performance," Webb recalls, "but after that, nothing. I very quickly went from a has-been to a never-was, and it was shocking."
Webb then endured years as a self-described recluse. While his peers paved the way for olympic medals and American records, and then graduated to positions as distance-running's ruling class of coaches and commentators, Webb sat on the couch sulking. "I was in shock for a number of years," he attests. A forgotten name along America's yellow-brick road to distance-running supremacy, lost amidst the lists of world champions and American records that were updated on a seemingly yearly basis, Webb's identity was drifting further and further into oblivion.
"I'm not sure why he's not well known," says Ritzenhein. "I think it's a combination of things, with him having some rough years and then really disappearing." Ritzenhein also recognizes the importance of records and medals in preserving the legacy of a distance runner. "The way things ended up, there were a lot of intangibles to his career that deserved more recognition," he attests. "The fact that Alan really established a new paradigm for going pro early, the fact that he was competing against the best in the world when no other Americans were, the fact that he broke down so many walls, that all deserves to be remembered."
Webb looks back at his career with disappointment, but not regret. "I couldn't have tried harder, that's for sure," he says. "I just wish I would've learned from my mistakes a bit earlier." Webb is currently making good on that wish the best way he can--by helping other runners avoid his mistakes. Working as a consultant for the Nike/NewBalance Company's Olympic Initiative allows Webb to pass on his lessons to the newest generation of American distance runners. "When I went pro after just a year of college, that was a novel thing," says Webb. "With so many talents turning pro straight out of high-school now, I feel that I have a lot to offer in terms of experience to them. Eighteen year-old kids are getting handed million-dollar contracts and altitude implants on a regular basis now, and they need somebody who's already learned those lessons."
For many of the runners who remember his accomplishments, his generosity as a coach comes as no surprise. "I'm glad he's back in the running community," says Ritzenhein. "He's a really important figure in our sport, and he has a lot to offer for the future." Ritzenhein smiles while thinking of Webb's coaching prowess. "If you can't learn anything from Alan Webb, you should just start racewalking," he says with a laugh.
And although the average runner may not have heard from him, many talented athletes still consider Webb to be a pioneer of the American distance running scene. Just ask US junior 1500 champ Marcus Johnson, who is training for this summer's Olympics in Dubai with Webb as his coach.
"He's the man," says Johnson. "A lot of people may not know who he is, but students of the sport will always remember his name."
Johnson points to Webb with an enourmous smile. "He may not be a legend like Rupp or Fernandez, but he's an important piece of the puzzle."
Webb laughs and points back at Johnson. "That's my legacy," he says. "Maybe if people can't remember me for what I ran, they can remember me for the lessons I passed on."
And if he could say one thing to all the young runners who don't recognize his name?
"Just be proud of who you are," he says. "Don't let other people tell you what your goals should be, and don't let other people define your past accomplishments."
For a runner who's name is forgotten, those are some memorable words.