On a Sunday
afternoon in the spring of 2001, Alan Webb ran a mile faster than any other
U.S. high school runner in history. More than 11,000 spectators rose in a
frenzy to cheer the epic performance at Oregon's Hayward Field, and many more
embraced it from afar. Webb clocked 3:53.43 that day, nearly two seconds faster
than Jim Ryun had run 36 years earlier. World-record holder and race winner
Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco invited Webb to share his victory lap. David
Letterman invited him to share his stage. � An impatient U.S. track community
beseeched Webb to put the sport on his 18-year-old back.
"When you run
3:53 and convincingly break a record that was held by an icon like Jim
Ryun," says Bob Kennedy, a two-time Olympian and the U.S.-record holder in
the 5,000 meters, "people, especially outside the sport, are going to
expect nothing less than an Olympic gold medal. That's America."
Or, as Webb's
father, Steve, an economist for the World Bank, puts it in the language of his
profession, "Many people became distracted by linear extrapolations, based
on that race."
Six years have
passed. Webb has spent much of that time in a maelstrom of rushed expectation
and blind criticism, fueled by the explosion of Internet message boards and the
country's fascination with precocity. No other distance runner has been more
scrutinized. Predictably, Webb has emerged wiser and tougher--and also, at 24,
as one of the best middle-distance runners in the world.
At the world
track and field championships, which begin Saturday in Osaka, Japan, Webb is
among the favorites in the 1,500 meters. "Alan has had a lot of pressure on
him, but he has incredible talent," says Bernard Lagat, the Kenyan-born
2004 Olympic silver medalist in the 1,500 meters, who is now a U.S. citizen.
"He has put things together at the right time."
Webb has already
had a summer for the ages. He won his third U.S. 1,500-meter title on June 24
in Indianapolis. Twelve days later, at a race in Paris, he ran a personal best
of 3:30.54 in the 1,500 (the world's fastest time this year) for his first-ever
Golden League victory. Two weeks after that, on a quiet, tree-shrouded track in
Belgium, Webb ran a 3:46.91 mile, shattering Steve Scott's quarter-century-old
U.S. record of 3:47.69. And on July 28 Webb ripped off a personal best of
1:43.84 in the 800 meters, the second-fastest time in the world this year, to
win another race in Belgium.
On a sweltering
night early in August, during a two-week break from the track circuit, Webb
sits in a restaurant near his Reston, Va., home, eating pizza with chicken and
spinach. He has long since moved past his 3:53 and is chasing fresh goals.
"I'm proud of the way I ran in high school," he says. "I worked
hard for that day. It was special, and I can never exactly reproduce that. But
I've done some pretty cool things since then. Winning championship medals is a
goal. The Olympics are a big goal. But I don't want to get too caught up in
doing that one thing on that one day, because the 1,500 is a really tough race.
There are other things I can do. That's why this summer has been awesome. And
it's taken six years to get here."
Not by the usual
route, either. After his high school career Webb spent a year at Michigan. He
ran well, winning the Big�Ten title in the 1,500 as a freshman. But in the
summer of 2002 he abruptly left Ann Arbor, reunited with his high school coach,
Scott Raczko, and signed a seven-figure contract with Nike that runs through
the 2008 Olympics.
willing to settle," Webb explains. "I liked a lot of things about
Michigan, but staying there would have been settling. People told me, 'You can
do well there.' I knew that. But I wanted to do more than win the Big Ten or
win the NCAA. My goal was to be one of the best runners in the world."
through the 2003 season, adjusting to the pressures of running for a shoe
company's money and living on his own. ("Here I am, buying a sofa when I
should be training," recalls Webb.) A midsummer bout of appendicitis also
helped stunt the season. All of which led Raczko and Webb to make a long-term