My how time flies. It was 10 years ago now – a decade. The indoor season of 2001. Alan Webb was a senior in high school as he became the first high schooler to break the four minute barrier indoors in the mile with his 3:59.86 at the New Balance Indoor Games – a meet where just a few days ago he failed to break four minutes.
Webb was the toast of the track world. The heir apparent to Jim Ryun. The next great American miler. His exploits outdoors only fueled the growing legend as he ran 1:47.74, 3:38.56 and 3:53.43 outdoors – breaking Jim Ryun’s high school 1500 and mile records in the process.
Since that magic year of 2001 however, his career has been that of a rollercoaster – some very high highs and some equally low lows. After missing the ‘03 World Championships he gained a berth on the Olympic squad for Athens – but finished a disappointing 9th in his heat. The following year he made the World team for Helsinki, but finished 9th in the final. 2007 saw him at his absolute best on the track as he won US nationals in the 1500, then went to Europe and ran PR’s of 1:43.84, 3:30.54 and 3:46.91 during the month of July. But again on the big stage at Worlds he could only manage an 8th place finish in the 1500 final. The following year a 5th place finish at the Olympic Trials kept him off the Beijing team. And injury has hampered him since.
Not quite the story one would have written after that summer of 2001. The question now is whether or not that is the way the story will end, or can Webb still write a happy ending? This past weekend he started the 2011 chapter of the story with a mile at the New Balance Indoor Games. A race in which he finished 7th in 4:00.70 – ironically just ahead of new high school wonder kid Lukas Verzbicas’ 4:03.88.
Of course ones placing at this time of year in an indoor race is not completely indicative of what may happen come August on the other side of the world. Or more specifically what will happen at Nationals in June. After all three places back in 10th was Leo Manzano, one of last year’s break through athletes in the middle distances – who in my eyes is one of the favorites to make the team for Daegu.
What WILL impact Webb’s story, however, is the fact that there are a number of athletes breaking through at this time. Last year Manzano and Andrew Wheating made major moves in both the 800 and 1500/mile. Lopez Lamong dropped his PR down to 3:32.20 and Bernard Lagat clipped off a routine for him 3:32.51. In Boston we saw a new breakthrough as winner Russell Brown clocked 3:54.81. And athletes like A.J. Acosta and Mathew Centrowitz are training in the wings for their own breakthroughs.
So the road to Daegu will not be an easy one for Webb. And talented as he has been, his weakness has always been in racing. He’s always been able to run a fast time when setting his sites on one. It’s been another thing to race and put together the tactics needed to win a big race. That as much as fitness will be the challenge for Webb in 2011. Because Lagat, if he chooses the 1500, is as crafty as they come. Manzano and Wheating showed solid racing acumen in their races in Europe last summer, and Brown looked fairly savvy in Boston.
So one of the stories to watch this year will be that of Alan Webb. Will he make the team and finally get a medal in Daegu. Or will he be among the athletes that have put up great marks in their events, but withered when the bright lights got a bit too hot? Ten years after becoming the heir apparent, we will see if he finally arrives.