Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 4 Jul 2001 23:44:13 -0400

Webb Sighting


I never thought I'd see this happen. Never thought I'd read about it or watch it on TV, let alone witness it.

I thought Jim Ryun's national high school record in the mile was everlasting. Ryun was a prodigy of gigantic proportions. He first broke four minutes and made the Olympic team in his junior year.

The next summer he ran 3:55.3 -- while winning the national title AND beating Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder Peter Snell. That was 1965.

Great as Webb was becoming, he wasn't Ryun-great. It's a long, long way from 3:59 to 3:55 -- too far even for Webb to travel, I thought. I thought the talk of his breaking Ryun's record, which Webb didn't encourage, was setting him up to "fail" if he merely ran the first outdoor sub-four in 34 years.

I thought Webb would be overwhelmed in the fast company of the Prefontaine Classic mile, as other high schoolers have been here. I thought wrong.

Alan Webb looked totally at home on the Eugene track with his elders and supposed superiors. His waves to the crowd during introductions were those of a veteran.

His pace showed poise. He ignored the rabbits and the crowd behind them, dropping to the back of the field and out of trouble.

Webb passed the quarter-mile in 58-plus seconds. Implausible as it seemed at the time, this was almost exactly the pace he would average for the full distance.

Then he calmly picked off older, more experienced, supposedly faster runners one by one. Coming into the last half-lap, Webb looked like he might catch everyone but the world record-holder.

Hicham El Guerrouj was headed toward his least-watched victory. Most eyes were on Webb.

The crowd's tributes to him were so noisy after the finish they drowned out the announcer. I thought he might have said "3:55."

Webb's time was much better. Onto the scoreboard beside his name flashed "3:53.43." He had broken the seemingly impregnable Ryun record by almost two seconds.

One of the first well-wishers to greet The Kid was The King, El Guerrouj. They didn't share a common language but didn't need one.

"There were no words exchanged," Webb told reporters. "He just gave me that look, and I gave him that look back."

They ran off together, then The Kid broke away for a Fox TV interview. About 15 minutes later he completed one of history's longest and sweetest victory laps. Long after the meet ended, he signed autographs -- often giving his signature to newly star-struck fans twice his age.

Alan Webb has become the next great American miler, and maybe the best current one. Suddenly he's the country's fastest active miler of any age and a true contender for the World Championships 1500 team.

With the label "America's best" comes baggage. His life after the Pre mile won't be as it was before.

We'll wait to see whether this is one step on his climb upward or the highest point he ever reaches. I wish him the former. But if it turns out to be the latter, I hope the fans that he won on May 27th will treat him kindly.

Speaking as one new fan, I never thought I'd see anyone do what Alan Webb did. I'll always thank him for proving me wrong, and for the memory of this day.

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