By Jonathan Gault
February 24, 2016
On Wednesday morning, American mile record holder Alan Webb went to Loudoun Valley (Va.) High School to surprise Drew Hunter as Hunter was honored as the Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year. Hunter went undefeated during the 2015 season, capping his campaign off with a course record at Foot Locker South and a dominant 12-second victory at Foot Locker finals.
Since then, Hunter has launched an assault on the high school record books. On January 30, Hunter smashed Edward Cheserek‘s indoor 3000 record, running 7:59.33 at the Camel City Elite Races. Two weeks later, he broke Webb’s indoor mile record, clocking 3:58.25, a mark he lowered to 3:57.91 at last weekend’s Millrose Games.
On Wednesday morning, Gatorade made Webb available for a phone interview and I took the chance to ask Webb about whether he thinks his 3:53.43 outdoor mile record is in jeopardy, what he took away from Ryan Hall‘s retirement and the question all of LetsRun wants to know: who had the best career, Webb, Hall or Ritz?
Jonathan Gault: Did you get to see Drew’s race last weekend at Millrose? What were your thoughts on it?
Alan Webb: I wasn’t there but I was following closely. He ran amazing both times. He’s done a great job of just being smart, being mature and running his own race. And the results speak for themselves.
I know you’ve known the Hunter family for years. When did you first start following Drew’s career?
He started running in high school. As he progressed and improved, the interest grew as his talent started to show up. I’ve been following from afar for his whole high school career. Naturally, as his talent progressed to the national level, it became more and more interesting. He’s become a superstar.
It really is just poetic and fun to be a part of his journey. For me personally just to know him and then see him go on and eclipse my own performances, I couldn’t have asked for a better situation to see my own personal records be eclipsed.
When did you realize he had a chance to go sub-4:00 and break your record?
It’s hard to say exactly. Last spring when he really came around at the end of the season, I knew it was a foregone conclusion that he would break 4:00. Just because not only did I see his times were progressing, but I knew the way he was doing it was also important. He wasn’t going to be this flash-in-the-pan-type guy. He was going to continue to improve. I know his parents and I know how they do things and I think that that was what stuck out to me, the way he conducts himself. He’s mature and I think he understands how to get better, how to keep improving. And that’s an important quality for a runner.
What’s the most important piece of advice you feel you’ve been able to give to him?
For now, he’s doing a great job so I don’t want to really change a whole lot. I don’t have a lot of critique for him except to say just to enjoy his moments because he’s going to remember these for the rest of his life. That’s the biggest piece of advice that I have given to him, just to soak it all up. These are moments in his life, moments in his journey, that are sepical.
In what ways do you think Drew is similar to how you were as a high schooler and in what ways do you think he’s different?
He’s a different runner than me. We’re not the same. He’s stronger than I was, so he’s got a big advantage over what I had as an athlete. I think his discipline and his competitiveness — I see that in him [and] I think that was something that I thought that I did well. I think that he has that as well, which gives him an advantage over a lot of high school kids. We’re similar in some ways but he’s got some things that I didn’t, so that’s what makes it exciting to see. To see him not only succeed now, but know that he’s going to continue to improve.
Your 3:53 outdoors is one of the toughest records on the books. Do you think that he can break that this year?
I do. It won’t be easy. If you don’t believe that you can do it, then it won’t happen. And I think that he’s beginning to believe and beginning to see that it’s possible. And that’s important. There’s a lot of talented people out there and if you don’t see that path laid out for you ahead of time, then it won’t really happen. He’s embracing it and I think that’s the most important thing (Editor’s note: Hunter told us on Saturday he didn’t think he could break the record).
I think you can start to see it in the way he doesn’t back down. He’s embracing these challenges. He went into those three big professional-level races with no fear and that showed me that it’s possible.
During your career, when you broke the high school record, you were in the Prefontaine meet, running people down at the end. When you broke the American record as a pro, it was a very different race, it was basically just you out on your own. What do you think is the kind of race that Drew will need to break that record?
That’s a good question, and I don’t think it would be wise to speculate on exactly how the race is going to go because it’s so hard to predict how races will happen. That’s part of the exciting part of watching track. But he seems like a strength guy, a guy who closes well at the end. So it could be a similar race strategy for him to use the second half of the race to really chew up some time, to use the second half as a weapon.
When you broke 4:00, you were the first high schooler to do it in 34 years. When Drew did it, he was the third high schooler to do it in the last nine months. Do you feel the sub-4:00 mile has lost some of its prestige for high schoolers?
Maybe a little bit, but that’s not a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing. In fact, I think that that can be Drew’s legacy, breaking that mold. To finally, with authority, say that, “Hey this is a thing that’s gonna happen and it’s gonna be part of track and field.” Part of American track and field is to have our younger generation take responsibility and say “Hey, we’re going to compete, we can compete internationally.” And Drew’s already at that level. Because it should be that way, we should have kids breaking 4:00. With Matt [Maton] and Grant [Fisher] last year and now finally Drew this year really putting a mark on the ways things should be done, we should have guys coming through the ranks and being able to perform and Drew is proving that. And I think it will finally put it in people’s minds. Every high school kid will finally see that this is possible and Drew’s showing us that.
You spoke about your commitment to running earlier in the interview. Obviously, it takes a high-level commitment to run as fast as you did. Do you feel that that was the proper level or do you feel that you were maybe too driven in high school? And do you believe that that had an effect on your professional career if so?
No. It had an effect; it had a positive effect. It had more positive effect than it had negative effect, I’ll say that. As a lot of successful runners do, at certain points, you tend to overdo things. I definitely did. But I think that that’s also what drove me to succeed. I don’t regret having that passion because that is a big, huge piece of the pie is having the passion and the drive to do something special and I would encourage that.
Now there are some lessons that can be learned. And that’s also Drew’s strong suit. He sees the mistakes that others have made and he’s doing a great job at not making those and that’s one of his strong suits.
That passion you spoke of and the drive to really be the best, it reminded me of Ryan Hall and how he was committed to being at the very top tier internationally in the marathon. You came up with Ryan through high school and he retired just last month. Do you have any thoughts on his career and his retirement?
Obviously, him and I have a history as well, just coming through high school together. Our careers separated as he became more of a marathon/distance guy and I stayed on the track. I admire not only his accomplishments but the way he conducted himself as a person. Same thing with Drew; that’s what gives me pride to have a connection with Drew, to know that he’s not only a great runner but a great person as well.
I felt the same way about Ryan. He always gave back to the community and had a really strong connection to his faith and I think that’s admirable. Ryan had an amazing career and I loved his comments about being thankful for the time that he had as a runner. Those were powerful words and made me more appreciative of my own career. He gave me something when he retired as well, so I appreciate that from him.
It’s a common debate among the LetsRun.com staff: who had the best career — you, Ryan Hall or Dathan Ritzenhein?
[Laughs] Oh my gosh. [long pause] I’m gonna dodge this one. We ran different events, so it’s apples to oranges. My career was awesome and I’m appreciative of that. Gosh, you’re putting me on the spot. I can’t say; I can’t say for sure. We all, in our own way, made our mark. You could almost say it was a team effort. We covered all the bases. I was the middle-distance guy, Dathan was clearly the best at the 5 and 10, and Ryan had the marathon. Collectively as a group, we did it together.
Talk about this interview on our world famous fan forum / messageboard: MB: Awesome interview with Alan Webb. Does he think Hunter can break 3:53? Who had the better career – Ritz/Hall/Webb?
Editor’s note: As you might imagine, this topic has spawned several threads over the years. You can check them out below.
MB: The big three.. Kinda (Webb, Ritz, Hall)
MB: As of right now who has had a better career: Ritz, Hall, or Webb?
MB: Who’s Running Career would you rather have? Solinsky, Webb, Ritz, or Hall
MB: Best career: Ritz, Hall, or Webb?