Webb hit the homestretch in fourth, with only El Guerrouj, Olympic 1,500-meter bronze medalist Bernard Lagat of Kenya and 3:51 miler Kevin Sullivan of Canada ahead of him. It seemed for an instant that Webb could make it to second, and the force of the crowd was such that his ears would still be ringing that evening, but he was perfectly spent. Kaouch leaned past Webb to retake fourth. Webb crossed the line exactly as Pre tried to, barely able to stand. And he crossed it having ripped almost two seconds from Jim Ryun's 36-year-old high school mile record of 3:55.3. Webb had run 3:53.43. El Guerrouj, who'd won in 3:49.92, pinched Webb's ear to get his attention, and they took a victory lap together, and the crowd wept and sang out that it wouldn't be long before the kid came back and won.
And why was that exactly? Why did Pre's crowd scream most for a kid who finished fifth rather than for a champion? Because they wanted him back. They wanted another Pre. They wanted a young American runner to hang with the Africans, and they had just seen one who could do it. Ever since, they have been calling to Alan Webb to come back and fulfill the promise of his great run.
As it happens, Webb is about to oblige. Having left the University of Michigan after injuring his right Achilles tendon, he is now running well under his high school coach, Scott Raczko. He won the Home Depot Invitational 1,500 meters last month in 3:35.71, which is the equivalent of a 3:53 mile. On June 8 he blazed to a 3:32.73 to win a Grand Prix event in the Czech Republic, setting a personal record in the 1,500 for the fourth time this season.
Webb will be back on the Hayward Field track at 2:46 p.m. on June 19 for the Bowerman Mile, intent on becoming the first American in 15 years to crack 3:50. He'll get an ovation for just warming up. And if he falls short, it will not be for lack of trying. Pre has seen to that.