For a few months in 2007, American Alan Webb was the world’s best miler. Ten years later, we take a look back at Webb’s magical summer.
By Jonathan Gault
July 31, 2017
Matthew Centrowitz still remembers it clearly. It was June 2, 2007, and he was at the Reebok Grand Prix on Randall’s Island in New York City. He may have an Olympic gold medal now, but back then Centrowitz was an 18-year-old senior at Broadneck (Md.) High School running in his first mile against professionals, where he would face the greatest field of his young life: Nick Willis, Craig Mottram, Bernard Lagat, Kevin Sullivan and the headliner, Alan Webb.
Centrowitz arrived a couple of hours before his race on a warm, muggy night at Icahn Stadium. As he and his training partner, Dan Wilson, headed for the warmup area, Wilson spotted Webb seated on a hill nearby. Wilson, a 2002 UConn grad and three-time U.S. finalist at 1500 meters, knew Webb from his years on the circuit and made a beeline toward him. Centrowitz followed along and remained quiet as the two pros talked shop.
Wilson asked Webb if he was in shape. The answer to this was already fairly obvious — Webb had run 3:51.71 for the mile in his last race at the Drake Relays. But even if they’re in monster shape, pros generally don’t admit it to other pros. Better to downplay expectations and let your opponent underestimate you.
That wasn’t Webb’s style. Webb thrived on confidence, so when Wilson asked him if he was in shape, Webb responded truthfully.
“Yeah, I’m in really good shape,” Webb told him.
Like any running geek, Wilson wanted to know more. He asked Webb what kind of workouts he had run recently. So Webb proceeded to rattle off details of two recent sessions: a set of 20 x 400 in which Webb went 57-56-55-50 for his final four reps, and a set of 9 x 800 starting at 2:13 in which Webb dropped two seconds per rep before blasting the final one in 1:48.9.
Centrowitz sat there stunned.
“I was like, Oh my god, that’s almost 10 seconds faster than my PR,” Centrowitz recalled. “Those were just mind-boggling workouts…I just remember being in total awe…Even to this day, I can’t remember ever hearing someone talk about the type of fitness they’re in and be that confident about it.”
A few hours later, Webb stepped on the track, blasted by Lagat in the homestretch and won the mile in 3:52.94.*
The Legend of Alan Webb was growing.
Video: Last Lap of 2007 Reebok Grand Prix Mile Where Alan Webb Destroys Bernard Lagat in New York (Lagat would go on to win double gold at Worlds)
Ten years ago, American middle-distance running was in a prolonged medal drought. It had been 10 years since an American man had won a middle-distance medal at the World Championships. The Olympic drought was even longer, dating back to Brian Diemer‘s steeplechase bronze in 1984.
But in 2007, things were beginning to change, and one of the men leading the charge was a brawny 24-year-old from Reston, Va., named Alan Webb, who for a few glorious months that summer stamped himself as the world’s greatest miler. Webb’s accomplishments that year remain unmatched by an American: world leader in both the 1500 and the mile, the latter an American record of 3:46.91, a time that no one on Earth has bested since. Webb and Lagat, who would go on to claim double gold at that year’s World Championships in Osaka, ignited a spark in American distance running that has grown into a bonfire, peaking with six medals on the track at last year’s Olympics in Rio.
Webb’s success was built on confidence, which had its benefits and its drawbacks. At its best, Webb’s confidence was a snowball rolling downhill, building on itself and flattening everything in its path. But once its momentum had halted, it could be very hard for Webb to get the snowball moving again.
Part of the reason for that was the system in which Webb operated. Working with Scott Raczko, who coached Webb as a high schooler from 1998 to 2001 and again as a professional from 2002 to 2009 after Webb went to the University of Michigan for a year, Webb’s training program was an intricately structured combination of running, lifting and drills. Webb likened it to the story of Goldilocks. When the pieces fit together “just right,” the results were incredible, such as in 2001 when Webb ran 3:53.43 for the mile at the Prefontaine Classic to break Jim Ryun‘s legendary U.S. high school record.
But if something was off, it could take years for Webb to strike the correct balance again. During Webb’s only year Michigan, he struggled to adapt to new coach Ron Warhurst and spent much of the season trying to recreate what had made him successful under Raczko. Even once he went pro and returned to Raczko, it took until 2004 to find the Goldilocks zone again. That year, Webb ran a mile PR of 3:50.73 and won the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 1500 to make his only Olympic team. He followed it up the next year with personal bests of 3:32.52 and 3:48.92 and a ninth-place finish at the World Championships in 2005, in which he made his famous power move to the front 800m into the race.
All the while, Webb was working to improve his aerobic strength. In April 2006, he ran 27:34.72 for 10,000 meters, a ridiculous time for someone who would go on to break 1:44 for 800. That 2006 season eventually went off the rails due to a hamstring injury sustained during that 10,000 and a case of anemia stemming from changes Webb had made to his diet.
By the time Webb returned to training in Reston in the fall of 2006, he had some work to do to restore his confidence. The good news is that he wasn’t starting from rock bottom.
“Despite the anemia, we knew that he had an incredible base built up from years of consistent training that he was going to run fast [in 2007],” Raczko said recently when we chatted on the phone.
Things began clicking quickly. After losing weight stressing out about his hamstring injury over the summer, the 5’9″ Webb was back to his ideal weight of 143-145 pounds.
“We did all the things that we knew were right and we didn’t do too much and we didn’t do too little,” Webb said.
Goldilocks had returned to Reston, Virginia.
Indoors, Webb enjoyed a solid campaign, running an indoor PR of 3:55.18 and winning the mile at USAs. That was just a taste of what was to come. By the spring, his routine was set: 70-85 miles per week, with workouts on Tuesdays and Fridays and a long run of 12-15 miles on Sundays.
But for Webb to reach his peak, everything else had to be dialed in, and it was. He’d finish up workout days with an hour-long lifting session, and like everything else in his training regimen, that session was meticulously planned. Webb used a rotation of 11 lifts: power cleans, squats, dead lifts, lunges, calf raises, bench press, bent-over rows, military press, upright rows, biceps and triceps. He’d do three sets of each, the number of reps varying from six to 14 depending on the day (for every two additional reps, Webb would remove five pounds). Webb had precisely two minutes to complete each set, with the beep-beep-beep of his watch ushering him to the next station.
Webb could have trained in a local gym but did not want any outside distractions to interrupt his focus. Instead, he converted the dining room of his house into his own personal gym. His sweat would pool in the middle of the floor, leaving an unsightly stain in the middle of the room when Webb moved out a few years later.
The result of all those hours of weights? Webb was ripped. In fields full of rail-thin middle-distance runners, Webb’s bulging biceps and cut shoulders separated him from the crowd before a step had been run.
“[Lifting] gave me power off the line and I also felt like it helped my form, it helped me maintain my form,” Webb said. “I didn’t break down because I was strong.”
One new part of Webb’s routine in 2007 was the addition of what he called a “mini” workout of hard 200s, 150s and 120s followed by plyometrics on Mondays and the day before meets. Webb would start out around 29 seconds for the 200s, but by the end of the session, he was moving; he’d always try to run the final 100 of those 120s in under 13 seconds. These sessions had two benefits. First, they helped Webb drill his speed while remaining short enough for him to recover quickly.
“When we got that balance right, it was just enough, it really made a big difference to me,” Webb said. “Because I still feel that I wasn’t really that fast. I had to make myself fast. It was the speed that was my weakness and I had to work really hard on that and get it right.”
Second, they provided a confidence boost — always key in Webb’s world.
“It was like a little check-in before the race… I’d do that and I’d be like, I’m good.”
Webb opened up his outdoor season on April 7 with a 3:57.83 mile victory at the Blue Shoes Mile in Greenville, S.C., and followed it up with a 1:47.32 800 at the Mt. SAC Relays a week later (3rd place). By the time he headed to the Drake Relays for a mile at the end of April, Webb was ready to run fast. For much of the winter, Webb had hit the weights hard, but he backed off after the indoor season and was starting to feel the benefits. Webb likened it to coming down from altitude: he felt looser and faster, and it was easier for him to hit and sustain his top gear.
“I was like shot out of a rocket,” Webb said. “Suddenly, you couldn’t stop me. I just was like, Oh my gosh, I can just keep going.”
Those feelings were confirmed in his mini workout the day before the race. Webb ran a series of 150s and 120s at a high school track in Des Moines, splitting a ridiculous 11.0 for the final 100 of his last rep.
“Now I will say that it was wind-aided,” Webb said. “It was breezy that day, as it was the next day. But still! I remember thinking, Wow, I feel GREAT.”
Webb was light, confident and fast. Only one piece of the puzzle remained: Julia.
Julia Rudd met Alan Webb for the first time in February 2007. A Division III national champion in the steeplechase, Rudd was living in Indianapolis running for a club called the Indianapolis Invaders. One of Rudd’s friends ran for Raczko and mentioned that her teammate “Alan” would be in town and needed someone to show him around. Rudd called the number her friend had given her and after a few minutes, it dawned on her.
“Wait, are you Alan Webb, the runner?” she asked.
Rudd was dating another runner at the time, who, ironically, had a poster of Webb above his bed. The real thing was even more impressive. He helped her cook her dinner. That was new.
“It was stuff that I wanted my boyfriend to do and he just never would,” Rudd said. “Alan, when I met him during that relationship, I was like, This is clearly what I should look for in a guy.”
Rudd ended the other relationship and kept in touch with Webb. Both of them happened to be racing the Drake Relays. So, the night before his race and a few hours after Webb blasted through 100 meters in 11 seconds, he took Rudd out for their first date, which ended with an awkward first kiss in Webb’s hotel room.
Julia Rudd is now Julia Webb. The pair, now parents to two children, will celebrate their seventh anniversary in October.
“I think if you want to know where the extra magic sprinkle came [from] or some of the giddy up in my step came from that season, I think that explains a lot,” Webb said.
Conditions can be fickle in Iowa in April but everything else in 2007 was going Webb’s way, so why wouldn’t the weather Gods cooperate? On a sunny, 70-degree day, Webb followed around pacer Moise Joseph for 1000 meters before blasting the final lap and a half all alone, finishing in 3:51.71 in front of a packed house that went wild. And for good reason: nobody has ever run a faster mile in the month of April. Second place was a distant 4:03.15. Webb’s mark also broke Steve Scott‘s 28-year-old meet record of 3:55.26 and as soon as he crossed the line, he thought of Scott’s American record: 3:47.69. Though it was beautiful out, it had been windy during the race. Surely he could find a few more seconds on a still day…
Julia had run the steeple earlier that day and met up with Webb for his cooldown, but she didn’t last long; still riding the emotional high of the race, Webb dropped her. She still went out with him again that night.
Webb’s next race was the mile at the Reebok Grand Prix and his victory there against Lagat, the second-fastest 1500 man in history, was proof that everything he and Raczko had been working toward was coming to fruition. Webb ran fast — 3:52.94 — but he also flashed the strength to hang on to a hot pace set by Lagat and the combination of speed and power to blow by him in the home straight. With 80 meters to go, the two men were level, but by the time Webb crossed the finish line, biceps flexing, he had put a good six meters on Lagat.
Alan Webb’s 2007 season lives on because of the times he ran in races, but the times he ran in workouts were almost as impressive. Even 10 years later, Webb can recite every rep of his best sessions from memory.
There was the 4 x mile workout before Drake: 4:24 (2 mins rest), 4:20 (4 mins rest), 4:13 (3 mins rest), 4:03.
“I ran 4:03 and it was a surreal feeling. I went out in 59-high and I was like, Oh my gosh, I’m doing mile repeats and this is the fourth one? I ‘settled in’ and ran a 62 in the middle of this workout. I was like, This is insane…I don’t think I had ever cracked 4:10 in mile repeats.”
There was the 9 x 800 workout Webb had told Centrowitz about: 2:13, 2:11, 2:09, 2:07, 2:05, 2:03, 2:01, 2:00, 1:48.9, with rest increasing from 1 minute after the first rep to 3:30 after the eighth one.
“I was doing it with Kevin Sullivan and Rod Koborsi and Chris Lukezic. And those guys did eight and we thought we were going to get down to faster than 2:00. We thought the last one would be like 1:55. Those guys only got down to 2:00. Raczko was like, ‘I want you to do another one’… It was this magical time…It blew my own mind. I was like, How did I do that?”
There was the 20 x 400 starting at 61-62 for the first set of four (1 min rest) down to 57-56-55-50 for the final set (3 mins rest).
And then there was the workout U.S. distance fans would have killed to see: a four-mile tempo at 4:48 pace with Ryan Hall, America’s top miler and America’s top marathoner running side by side on a trail in Leuven, Belgium (Webb finished up with 8 x 200, 26’s down to 24’s, while Hall ran another four miles).
Webb was firing on all cylinders. He’d never run 4:03 in a workout. Or 1:48. Or 50.
“You take all those workouts, you put them together, you’re like dang, that’s everything. All the pieces. Strength, speed, the speed endurance, anaerobic, anaerobic threshold. It was all there.”
That confidence came at a price. In the short term, Webb rode the wave of those good workouts, but he had also set a near-impossible bar for future versions of himself.
“That was the problem,” Webb said. “For the rest of my career, I could never even come close to that.”
On June 24, Webb won his third U.S. 1500 title, destroying Lagat over the final 50 meters just as he had in New York. A year earlier, during the midst of his up-and-down 2006 season, Webb had not even made it to the start line at USAs. That disappointment fueled him to reclaim his crown, and as he neared the finish line, those emotions came pouring out. He threw his arms up in the air, flexed, opened his mouth wide, and unleashed a primal scream. Once he broke the tape, he fell to his knees and pounded the track in exultation.
Video: Last 100m of 2017 USA 1500 (It’s certainly worth 25 seconds of your time)
“What ended up ultimately being something that could have and should have been better, just controlling that emotional fluctuation, also was one of the reasons why he was so successful,” Raczko said. “Because he did put himself out there, he did run on emotion so much, he was willing to go out and just try to conquer the world and dominate things.”
While Webb’s domestic results were brilliant, they were just a prelude of what was to come once he headed overseas. He began his travels with an 800 PR of 1:45.80 in Malmö, Sweden, where he finished second to an 18-year-old rising star named David Rudisha. Then it was off to Paris for a 1500 at the Meeting Gaz de France, part of the prestigious Golden League.
The local favorite was Mehdi Baala, the reigning European champion who a week earlier had run a world-leading 3:31.05 in Strasbourg. Webb was ready for the challenge. After following rabbit Kamal Boulahfane for the first 1100 meters, Webb assumed the lead at the bell but was passed by Baala as they hit 1200 meters in a quick 2:49.30, Webb giving the Frenchman a slight push as Baala cut in front of him. Webb ran in Baala’s wake down the back straight as the two men kicked away from the rest of the field.
Baala grimaced as he rounded the final turn, and though Webb swung wide, as he had at USAs, he could not make up any ground. Halfway down the home straight, Baala still had a step on his rival and the crowd at the Stade de France began to roar in anticipation of a home victory. But as they approached the finish, Baala’s body began to fail him. Inside, Webb’s body was failing too, but the hours of sweating in the dining room masked it, his rapidly pumping arms betraying no hint of the fatigue that lay within. By the time Webb pulled level with 25 meters to go, the Frenchman began to flail forward hopelessly, knowing he was beaten. The partisan crowd fell silent. Webb had run 3:30.54, a world leader and the fastest 1500 ever by an American-born runner.
“The race came to me and I didn’t really force it,” Webb said. “And I think that was one of the few times I was patient enough to just let it happen.”
With the performance, Webb had announced himself as a gold-medal threat at Worlds, but he had one more item to check off before then.
“After that, because I had run fast in the 1500, I wanted to go for a mile,” Webb said. “And that’s when the talks about where we wanted to go next started.”
Those talks would last a while. In the United States, the mile is historic, the distance that connects the generations, from Wes Santee to Ryun to Scott to Webb. But in Europe, it does not hold the same standing. After Paris, Webb’s agent, Ray Flynn, called a number of high-profile European meets asking to add a mile to the program. A round of rejections followed, but Flynn eventually found a small meet in the town of Brasschaat, Belgium, (population 37,000) that was willing to host one. It was settled: 34 days before the World Championships, Alan Webb would attempt to break Steve Scott’s 3:47.69 American record at the Flanders Cup on July 21.
The venue was decidedly low-key. The red six-lane track sat in the middle of a small park, lined on all sides with trees. Most importantly, there was no wind. The small grandstand was mostly empty by the time of Webb’s race that night, but the small crowd of a few hundred was decidedly pro-Webb. David Krummenacker, Ian Dobson, Dathan Ritzenhein, Lauren Fleshman, Molly Huddle and Amy Cragg were among the American pros who had also raced that night. Several other pros, including Deena Kastor, had made the trip from their European training bases to witness the attempt in person. Like Webb, all of them were working to resuscitate U.S. distance running. An American record for Webb would be a victory not just for him, but for the sport.
Webb employed two pacers, Australian Youcef Abdi and Kenyan Samson Surum, and followed them through the quarter in 56.1 and the half in 1:53.5, dead-on record pace. Surum chauffeured Webb through three-quarters in 3:50.3; he needed to run a 57 to eclipse Scott. Webb ran 56.
3:46.91. American record.
Alan Webb Breaks American Record in Mile:
“One of the things that I do remember is that the second-place runner ran 3:56,” said Flynn, who cheered Webb on from the infield. “And I remember looking up the straightaway when Alan finished in 3:46 and thinking that the guy who would finish second was just coming around the bend and he was still running 3:56. And that image stuck in my mind of a guy running 3:56 and being 10 seconds behind the winner. I’ll never forget that.”
For Webb, 3:46 marked the realization of a dream he’d had ever since running 3:53 to break Ryun’s high school record. But even in the moments after the race, he and Raczko were already thinking bigger. They were always thinking bigger.
“I had a genuine confidence that I could compete with anybody in the world,” Webb said. “And that was a feeling that I’d never had before…I had tasted it before, but that solidified it.”
There was no epic celebration. Webb went back to Leuven, had some pizza, one beer and went to bed. He had another race in a week.
“The excitement was that this was really setting himself up for Worlds and beyond,” Raczko said. “We really felt at the time that that was only the tip of the iceberg, that there were much greater times to come. His training was never about just trying to set the American record. He wanted to be the best middle distance runner there ever was, and this was just a great stepping stone.”
Raczko could not have imagined that when they left the track that night in Brasschaat, Alan Webb, at the age of 24, had already peaked.
The penalty of talent — in any sport, but particularly track and field, where precocity is so easy to measure with minutes and seconds, feet and inches — is expectation. And the earlier that talent manifests itself, the greater those expectations become. Given the magnitude of what he accomplished as a high schooler and the fact that he grew up during the dawn of the internet, no U.S. middle-distance runner ever faced higher expectations than Alan Webb.
But battling hype is like squaring off against a hydra; meet one expectation and more rise up to take its place. Webb ran 3:53. Okay, so when will make the Olympics? Webb made the Olympics. Okay, so when will he run 3:50? Webb ran the American record. Okay, so when will he win gold?
Add in Webb’s emotional nature and you had someone that fans of American distance runners couldn’t get enough of.
“For me, his enduring popularity has to do with the fact that I don’t think there has ever been a star who has been as human as he is,” said Chris Lear, who chronicled Webb’s freshman year at Michigan in the book Sub-4:00. “And by that, I mean, like who else has climbed the highest highs and crashed and gotten up again and done well again and just had this rollercoaster in front of our eyes, under a microscope?”
“I think it was [because] he was the phenom that people were really intrigued by him,” Flynn said. “But it was also his distance from the crowd. The fact that he wasn’t, at his best, part of a high-profile group. He was a bit of a mystery, not in a bad way, but in his individualistic training routines. The talk of his workouts seemed to pass around and people were amazed by what they heard.”
As a result, any scrap of Webb news quickly made the rounds on the messageboards; between 2004 and 2007, there were 1,678 threads — more than one per day — started on this website that included Webb’s name in the subject line. He had nowhere to hide.
“It’s still tough when you’re actually living it and the eyes of the track world are on you all the time,” Raczko said. “And there’s such a great expectation all the time. There wasn’t any meet that he could go to just for a low-key meet. Because even if it was a low-key meet, it ended up being a high-profile meet just because he was there.”
By August 2007, the Webb hype was at its highest since his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman as a high schooler in 2001. Sports Illustrated even ran a feature on him, almost unheard of for a distance runner, and again, their expectations were hardly subtle. In an article by Tim Layden titled, “Just the Beginning,” the subhead read: “Former high school phenom Alan Webb could cap his best year yet with a gold medal in the 1,500 at the worlds. But the longer road leads to Beijing — and beyond.”
Behind his world-leading times of 3:30.54 and 3:46.91, Webb entered the 2007 World Championships in Osaka as the favorite in the men’s 1500. But by the time Webb stepped to the line for the first round on August 25, his air of invincibility had crumbled. It began with his final pre-Worlds race, an 800 in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, on July 28. During the first 100 meters of the race, Webb felt a twinge in his hamstring and knew immediately that something was wrong. He considered dropping out, but it didn’t get any worse, so Webb hung in the race, which he won in a nearly two-second PR of 1:43.84. In case you needed a reminder of how fit Webb was, the runner-up in that race was Canadian Gary Reed, who would come up .01 shy of 800 gold in Osaka.
But when Webb crossed the finish line, there was no emotion. Watching on a computer back in the States, Julia could sense something was up.
“He runs a huge PR and he should be emphatic but he finishes and looks confused,” Julia said.
Webb only missed a day or two of running, though he couldn’t run fast on his hamstring for a couple of weeks. The bigger effect was mental. Webb couldn’t blast a speed session or rip a mini workout on Monday, and without that constant reassurance of his fitness, his confidence began to waver.
Webb did recover enough to run a time trial at George Mason’s track before leaving for Japan. After a 800m “warmup” rep in 2:00 and three minutes’ rest, Chris Lukezic paced Webb to 2:17 for 1000 meters. Webb was happy with the time — so amped, in fact, that after the workout, he tried to rip off 100 pushups in a row, a longtime goal, right there by the track (he made it into the low 90s before calling it quits). Webb’s hamstring had held up, but he still felt a hint of residual soreness. Deep down, he couldn’t shake the feeling that his injury was still in the process of healing. To make matters worse, Webb came down with an illness while traveling to Japan.
“He was definitely like classic Alan Webb, kind of freaking out,” Julia said. “If Alan’s not in his state of [positivity], things kind of spiral out of control. So it was definitely not an ideal situation for him to run that race. And especially with the pressure of All right, this is your chance, this is where you’re going to get the medal. The U.S. drought, all that stuff.”
When Webb toed the line for the 1500m final at Worlds on August 29, he thought he had a chance to win, but the confidence that had flown through his veins immediately after running 3:46 was long gone.
“It was very disappointing to not be able to use what I had that day in Brasschaat at the World Championships,” Webb said. “I didn’t get to race as the full guy that was there.”
Webb was in perfect position on the shoulder of the leader with 200 to go. With 110 remaining, he was still in third, but a boxed-in Shadrack Korir bumped Webb as he bounced outside and Webb could never get his momentum going again. He finished eighth as Lagat, the man Webb had beaten convincingly on three separate occasions in 2007, became the first American to win a global 1500 title in 99 years.
At the time, Webb was devastated. Though the external pressure was great, no one had higher expectations than Webb himself, and after the race, he went off — on himself.
“He was just so vicious, so hard on himself, that even the most negative columnist could not have criticized him more than Alan criticized himself,” said Dick Patrick, who was in Osaka covering the meet for USA Today. “I thought it was unnecessarily harsh.”
Looking back, however, Webb recognizes the importance of that night in Osaka in the development of U.S. distance running.
“It was a turning point for me to set that [mile] record, but also for an American to get a gold medal in that event was important as well,” Webb said. “So between the two of us, we covered it all…I feel blessed to have been part of that race that [ended the] drought of trying to get a gold medal in the 1500 at a Worlds or Olympics. Bernard did that.”
Though Webb viewed eighth place — and his season as a whole — as a failure at the time, he would never approach those heights again. Osaka was the last U.S. team that he would make. The rest of his career, was quite simply, a struggle.
Webb entered the Olympic year of 2008 with renewed vigor and doubled down on what had worked in 2007 in an attempt to avoid wearing down late in the year. He upped his reps in the weight room and added another mini speed session late in the week. If some was good, Webb thought, more was better.
“I kind of saw it happening and I thought, Oh, I don’t think that’s right,” Julia said. “But then I was like, Well how would I know, he’s the American record holder. Him and his coach have it down, maybe they’re onto something.”
As a result of the extra lifting, Webb bulked up to 151 pounds, far above his usual racing weight of 143-145. He skipped racing indoors and backed out of several races outdoors in order to focus on training, but he was not the same guy as the year before. That 3:51 at Drake in April was replaced by a 3:55 in June at Pre. He ran a poor tactical race at the Olympic Trials, finished fifth and missed the team.
“When I did things right, I responded really well. But when I did things wrong, I responded negatively. I had to get it right or else it would really hurt me…When I tried to do a little bit more, the answer probably was to do a little bit less,” Webb said.
By the spring of 2009, the walls were closing in on Webb. Whenever he went out for a run, he didn’t feel like himself, the product of a nagging Achilles injury. He wasn’t racing well. He hadn’t been in the Goldilocks zone for almost two years. And everywhere he went, his past accomplishments loomed over him like a shadow. In order to return to top form, Webb needed to be healthy. By June, Webb, had convinced himself that in order to do that, he needed to leave Raczko. In Virginia, he felt as if he was running around in circles. When Alberto Salazar invited Webb to join the Oregon Project and take advantage of Nike’s unparalleled resources, it was as if he had been thrown a lifeline. Webb took it and moved to Portland that summer.
But leaving Raczko was not easy.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, to leave his guidance,” Webb said.
Webb and Raczko enjoyed a great relationship as coach-athlete, but it has been rocky between the two since then.
“We want him to have a relationship now but I don’t even know if he even talks to Raczko,” Julia said. “[Raczko] won’t even talk to him now. Alan, when he goes home, he tries to reach out and [Raczko] will send, like, a one-word text back. Alan’s mature enough where he’s like, Why can’t we just bury the hatchet and move on?“
When asked about Raczko, Webb replied: “I’d rather not talk about that. We had an up and down relationship because I left. But we’re good now.”
Raczko conducted two phone interviews for this article but did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him seeking clarity on his relationship with Webb.
Webb did get healthy in Portland and beat Galen Rupp in a 5k turkey trot in 2010, but he never quite fit in with the Oregon Project. He saw the tight, one-on-one relationship Salazar shared with Rupp and wanted the same connection but “when it came down to it, there really wasn’t enough room for me in there,” Webb said.
In 2011, Webb returned to Virginia, this time to Charlottesville to be coached by Jason Vigilante. But he could never stay healthy and Webb did not want to move to New Jersey when Vig got the Princeton job in 2012.
By the start of 2013, Webb was 30 years old and hadn’t broken 3:37 in two and a half years. He had changed coaches again, to Jerry Schumacher, in an attempt to become a 5,000/10,000-meter runner. That didn’t work either.
“I tried to run a ton of miles and I learned the hard way that Alan Webb really wasn’t a distance guy, he was a miler,” Webb said. “And as well as I’ve run in the 5 (13:10) and the 10 (27:34, outkicking Ritzenhein), I wasn’t a 5 and 10 guy, I was just a miler that, when I was in shape, I could run very, very well [for longer distances].”
Webb retired from running the following year and embarked on a brief triathlon career. By the end of 2015, at age 32, Webb was retired for good.
There were a few reasons for Webb’s downward spiral after 2007. He pushed hard in workouts, perhaps too hard. When everything clicked, the results were spectacular, but that type of intensity is hard to repeat year after year. Injuries certainly played a role. But more than anything, Webb was impatient. He knew how good he could be, and when he was anything less than his best, it was frustrating. Webb’s work ethic and intensity were second-to-none, so he sought out immediate solutions, believing that if he worked harder, all of his problems would be solved. But sports don’t work that way. What he really needed was something he did not gain until he retired: perspective.
“I think the pressure of what I did that summer [in 2007] and the pressure to get back to that was too much,” Webb said. “If I was to tell a younger [version] of myself or somebody else that’s struggling, I think that one of the most important things is to not panic and be patient with things. And I was not that.”
“Had he been able to roll into success a little bit more gradual maybe and not had so much at such a young age, it might have been easier,” Raczko said. “But because he was extremely successful very young, he came to expect that, and as much as you temper that or you try to temper that, you try to instill the virtue of being patient, it’s still tough.”
During its final years, Webb viewed his career in a negative light. Yes, he had the memories of those U.S. titles, the American record, but when you’re still in it, still struggling to get back to the top, it’s hard to look past anything but the here and now. I’m failing, he’d tell Julia.
But now, three years removed from his final race, Webb has matured. He has two daughters, five-year-old Joanie and one-year-old Paula. Julia was raised Catholic, and Webb has embraced that faith, joining the church this past Easter. Webb graduated from Portland State last year with a degree in economics, and he’s started a truck-repair business in Portland with Julia that requires as much energy and devotion as his running career once did. Webb is lucky if he can get in a 30-minute run three times a week. He doesn’t have time to dwell on what might have been anymore.
“I’m happy with my career,” Webb said. “I’m grateful. I’m not bitter. If someone had told me when I started running that I was going to be the American record holder in the mile, I would have been like, That sounds awesome.”
When Webb was recently asked to list the favorite races of his career, he listed the 3:46.91 American record as number one and his Olympic Trials victory in 2004 as #2. Two big, quantifiable goals that he accomplished.
For fans of the sport, it can still be hard to look back at Webb’s 2007 season and not wonder, What if? But even if he had run at a high level for five more years, there’s no guarantee he would have found greater success. Championship finals are a crapshoot and Webb’s best performances always came when the pace was hot; Webb now openly admits he was a far better time trialer than racer. And what he did accomplish was still mighty impressive.
“Going from 3:53 to 3:46, you can’t say that he didn’t pan out, you know what I mean?” Centrowitz said. “He broke the high school national record and then he broke the American record. It’s like, What more do you want?”
Even in retirement, Webb’s effect on the sport is still being felt through a generation of runners who, like Centrowitz, grew up rooting for him.
“We were in a low point when he came along, no disrespect to the other athletes,” Flynn said. “But he showed that American athletes could compete at the top of the world and he helped inspire this generation of great success stories.”
“Alan and Dathan and Ryan [Hall], those three, they put running back on the map,” Julia said. “I think that’s cool. Now you see so many kids breaking 4:00 because there’s more kids who love the sport. They’re not just thinking, Oh, Kenyans and Africans are the only ones who can run fast so I don’t even want to do this.”
Alan Webb’s career always operated in the past or future tense; one eye fixed on what he had already accomplished, the other on what he had yet to achieve. Perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at it. Sometimes, in a sport where the best are judged once a year (if that) at the major championships, it’s okay to stay in the present.
“He doesn’t have the World Championship medal but I look at that year in 2007, without question he had a period of time where he was the dominant runner in the world,” Lear said. “He didn’t peak at the right time, but how many people, ever, get to that spot in any discipline, however fleeting it might be?”
*If you are wondering how Centrowitz did in the 2007 Reebok Grand Prix against Webb, he finished 11th of 13 in 4:03.40.
Talk about this feature on our messageboard / fan forum:
*LRC Feature: 10 years ago, Alan Webb was the greatest miler on the planet. An inside look at Webb’s magical summer.
*how did Alan Webb inspire you? post your stories
*10 Years later and Centro is STILL SLOWER then Webb??????!!!!!!!
*I don’t think Webb Would Have Feared El G
*Alan Webb confirms sex is critical for running
*“Summer of Webb” 2007- What a Joke!
*Willis’ 3:29.66 = 3:46.22 mile. Sorry Alan.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that Mark Fountain was one of Webb’s pacers for his American mile record. It was actually Youcef Abdi.