One Saturday morning last September, an elevator door opened and half a dozen elite runners spilled into the lobby of the Warwick Hotel, in Midtown Manhattan. They wore tracksuits and clean white sneakers and had iPod buds stuck in their ears, and they were greeted by coaches, handlers, or parents who'd been milling around the lounge waiting to escort them to the start of the Fifth Avenue Mile.
Jammed in among them was 25-year-old Alan Webb, the best middle-distance American runner to come along in a generation. Two months earlier, Webb had run a mile in 3:46.91, setting a new U.S. record that made him the eighth-fastest miler in history. He'd clocked 2007's best times in both the mile and the 1,500 meters (the metric version of the mile, which is the standard at most international races) and the second-best time in the 800. The Fifth Avenue Mile would be his final race of the season, and Webb was favored to win. But if he'd learned anything as a professional runner, it was to not take winning for granted.
At five-nine and 145 pounds, Webb has a wiry, toned build, an eagle's beak, and ears so big you'd think they must flap when he runs. His face was still and blank, except for his eyes, which flicked back and forth like a cat's as he scanned the room for his coach, Scott Raczko. Once Webb spotted him, he parted the crowd with the practiced aloofness of a weary celebrity, ignoring race handlers and well-wishers. Together they walked through the doors and into the day.
It was a perfect morning for racing, sunny and still cool at 10 o'clock, with marshmallow clouds drifting into view in the gaps between apartment buildings. On the course, which stretched from 80th Street to 60th Street, runners had been streaming south all morning. This was mostly an amateur contest, drawing more than 3,200 recreational athletes, but Webb and ten other professionals were lured by the high-profile venue, sizable appearance fees, and a $32,000 purse. They would race last.
Webb's mother, Kathy, had staked out a front-row spot near the finish; behind her, his dad, Steve, paced the sidelines. (Webb's expanded posse, not all present today, also includes Raczko, a media-averse agent named Ray Flynn, and, of late, his girlfriend of six months, 25-year-old Julia Rudd, another elite runner.) His parents couldn't see Webb as the racers spread out along the start line, 20 blocks to the north, shaking out their limbs and double-knotting their shoelaces. Nor could they hear the gun go off or the slap of rubber soles as the runners jockeyed for position inside the pack. It didn't much matter: In three minutes and 45 seconds, the pros would be in sight, and about eight seconds after that it would all be over.
"This is it, New York!" the announcer yelled as the leaders appeared on the empty avenue, just wiggly dots at first but growing with each step into recognizable humans, arms and legs chugging efficiently. "With under 20 meters to go, Alan Webb goes into the lead! Alan Webb is going to win New York!"
"Go, Alan, go, go, go, go, go!" Kathy shrieked, louder and louder until she was howling unintelligibly. Webb was in front, arms outstretched, flimsy shorts fluttering in the breeze. The runners seemed to move forward in slow motion, their strides long and confident and exaggerated. There was no jostling or lurching, and no one was grimacing, contorting their skeletal bodies in regrettable ways, or, it seemed, even breaking a sweat. Moments later, Webb arched gracefully into the winner's tape. It was over almost before it began. He had just run a mile in 3:52.7, and he made it look easy.
If only things were always this simple. But in a sport where the difference between first and last place can come down to tenths of a second, Webb has been excruciatingly slow in living up to his potential. Ever since he broke Jim Ryun's long-standing high school mile record, in 2001, Webb's career has been clouded by inconsistency, from a troubled NCAA stint to a rough transition to the pro ranks and a disappointing finish at the 2004 Olympics, in Athens. While last season was undoubtedly his best, he's performed unremarkably at his first few races this year. And with the ten-day 2008 Olympic track-and-field trials starting June 27, and spots for only three middle-distance runners on the U.S. team, it's still an open question whether Webb will make the cut. His superstar statusnot to mention his $250,000-a-year sponsorship contract with Nike, which comes up for renewal this yearis hanging in the balance.
Granted, Webb has been saddled with some pretty high expectations since the day, seven years ago, he showed up at the annual Prefontaine Classic, in Eugene, Oregon, and ran a mile in 3:53.43, blasting Ryun's high school record, set in 1965, by nearly two seconds and his own personal best by six. Overnight, the 18-year-old from Reston, Virginia, became a media sensation, fawned over by David Letterman and crowned the fleet-footed prodigy who would bring American running a level of success not seen since the 1970s and early 1980s. Those were the sport's golden years, when homegrown idols such as Steve Prefontaine set the U.S. 5K record (1974) and Steve Scott ran a 3:47.69 mile (1982), a national record that stood until Webb came along. Thanks to Webb's rapid rise, the future of an entire, faltering sport was placed squarely on his bony shoulders. But then he shanked.
That fall, on a running scholarship at the University of Michigan, Webb overtrained, injured his Achilles, and flailed on the NCAA circuit. "The media attention was too much," says Webb. "As if I didn't have enough on my plate, just being a normal college freshman away from home for the first time." Though Webb was clearly the Wolverines' hotshot new recruit, Michigan coach Ron Warhurst, a revered figure in the NCAA who has helped 11 track stars win national titles, didn't play favorites. The lack of personalized attention from Warhurstwhom Webb describes as "a lot more hands-off" than his high school coach, Raczkotook its toll. "I wanted to do so well that I pushed every single dayhard, hard, hardand I just killed myself," Webb says. "I didn't know when to back off, because Ron wasn't telling me to back off."
In May 2002, Webb quit school and turned pro, trading his college eligibility for a reported six-year, seven-figure sponsorship deal with Nike. It was a controversial move that raised eyebrows in the professional running community and among his former teammates at Michigan. "I was definitely disappointed that he left," says Kevin Sullivan, 34, a four-time NCAA middle-distance champion for the Wolverines who was training as a pro and moonlighting as Warhurst's assistant coach that season. "But he was unhappy, and Ron was having to put more attention into making him happy and taking away from the rest of the guys on the team. It was just not good across the board."
Perhaps more surprising was Webb's plan to reunite with Raczko, who was still coaching boys' track at Reston's South Lakes High School. It was as if Derek Jeter had walked out on the Yankees to train with his Little League coachbut Webb didn't care. He just wanted to get his groove back, even if it meant putting his professional career in the hands of a guy who taught fourth-period gym.
"Everybody gave me so much crap for leaving [Michigan]. They'd say, 'Your high school coach is your coach?!' " Webb recalled. "They thought it was really weird. But Coach has this amazing ability to see the big picture, and plan far ahead, and I didn't want to give that up. Whatever it took to train with him again, I was going to do." Sullivan, for one, saw the logic in Webb's loyalty. "One of the most underrated things in sports is coaching, and there isn't any magic to it," he says. "An athlete and a coach that have chemistry will be successful. And Alan and Scott have real chemistry."
The South Lakes High track is your basic oval: a quarter-mile around with painted white lanes and concrete bleachers and clumps of disinterested teens in too-tight jeans, lorded over on a drizzly October Friday by a stern, buzz-cut gym teacher with a clipboard. A month has passed since Webb's win at Fifth Avenue, and he's on hiatus in Reston, recovering from the 2007 season before Olympic training starts in earnest in January.
"This is where it all began," he says, gesturing to the track as he climbs out of his Honda hybrid (vanity plate: "1-mile") in the school parking lot. Webb was born in Michigan but grew up in this woodsy planned suburb 20 miles west of Washington, D.C. The second of three brothers, he swam competitively for most of his childhood and started running as a freshman in high school. He stood out immediately. That year, he won the state championships in the two-mile; the next, he broke the national sophomore record in the mile.
The gym teacher blows his whistle and walks toward Webb. It's Scott Brown, his high school swim coach. "What's goin' on, man?" Brown asks in a smooth Virginia drawl, raising his hand for a high five.
Webb cracks a wiseguy grin and slaps Brown's palm. "Chillin', reminiscin' . . . Old times!"
In a lot of ways, Webb's life now isn't much different from a decade ago. He owns a house just a few miles from the nouveau colonial he grew up in, where Steve and Kathy Webba World Bank economist and speech pathologist, respectivelystill live. His roommate, Joe Zak, has been his best friend since kindergarten. He still runs at South Lakes occasionally, kicking out long strides on the track where he first learned to race, and he's still taking orders from Scott Raczko, the guy who bossed him around when he was a gangly adolescent with braces and zits.
"Coach Brown was pissed when I quit swimming," Webb says, pointing toward him.
"I tried. I tried so hard to do both!"
"I know you did," says Brown. "But you had another ear pushed on you at the same time. Who was that, I wonder?" He pauses and scowls in jest. "His coach."
Webb and Raczkowho's at nearby Westfield High today, where he works as the head track coachmake an odd couple. While Webb is all sharp angles and goofy enthusiasm, Raczko, 36, a former college runner, is barrel-chested and borders on chubby, with hooded eyes and an off-putting reticence. He left South Lakes in 2003 to coach Webb full time, but has since returned to coaching students again, too. At the Fifth Avenue Mile, in his black warm-up pants and matching windbreaker, Raczko looked more like a nightclub bouncer than the guy attempting to mastermind an elite athlete's comeback.
At first, that might have been part of the problem. When Webb moved home from Michigan, he and Raczko were both new to the professional scene. Desperate to get Webb's running back on track, they experimented with everything from counting calories and reducing Webb's mileage to decamping to Albuquerque so he could train at altitude. Nothing worked. "I did terrible in almost every race I entered in 2003, and all the media buzz basically fizzled," admits Webb. The low point came that summer, when he was sidelined with appendicitis.
That fall, they decided to go back to what they knew best: training hard. Webb's daily routine included running eight to ten miles a day and weight- and cross-training sessions at the local YMCAwith only one day off per month for recovery. The mileage was just as intense as it had been at Michigan, but his training was more varied, and he was back with Coachjust the way he liked it.
Webb won the mile at the 2004 Prefontaine Classic, punished the competition at the Olympic trials, and arrived at the Athens Olympics ranked among the top 25 in the world. But after getting jostled and kicked in the shins in the preliminary heat, he finished ninth and failed to advance to the finals.
It's a pattern that has continued for him. Webb excels at middle-distance racing on the pro circuit, where he's running to beat a time and chasing designated pacemakers, called rabbits. But he has a tendency to falter at high-stakes international meets, like the World Championships and the Olympicsraces in which strategy, in addition to speed and endurance, is required to win. At the 2005 World Championships, in Helsinki, Webb surged early in the 1,500-meter final; with 800 meters to go, he couldn't sustain the sprint and he finished ninth. At the 2007 World Championships, in Osaka, he overcorrected. He hung back too far in the semifinals, was out of position when the leaders made their move, and then had to run like hell just to advance to the finalswhere, depleted, he took eighth.
"If there's one glitch to Webb's racing, it's his tactics," says Steve Scott, who now coaches track at Cal State San Marcos. "He takes the lead very early on, instead of sitting back. He's got awesome speed and strength, but he doesn't have enough faith in his kick. Until it's proven that he can't beat someone down the homestretch, he should utilize that."
The decision to leave Michigan after only a year may have hurt Webb too, because runners learn a lot in the rough-and-tumble world of college racing. "When I came out of high school, I was probably physically prepared to go to the professional ranks, but mentally I wasn't," says Kevin Sullivan. "I think there's definitely value to be gained from learning how to race championship-style races, and there's more opportunity for that in the NCAA."
But as Webb and Raczko see it, Webb is right on schedule, running fast enough to put himself in range of an Olympic medal this summer. "You just have to be patient," Raczko says. "We've realized that you have to build the right way if you want to be the best. At the speeds Alan's running, those seconds don't come easy."
They shrug off any criticism about racing savvy. "If you're strong enough and have done the work, you have nothing to worry about," Webb argues. "You just have to go out and do it. If I had to sum up my mental strategy, that's it: When you've put in the training, you're more at ease mentally, and you can run better tactically."
Yet so far in 2008, his results have been disappointing. Webb finished 16th at the U.S. Men's 8K National Championship, in New York, in March, blaming his poor performance on food poisoning. In early April, at California's Carlsbad 5000, he staggered off the course after two and a half miles, unable to finish. Then, less than three weeks later, he withdrew from Iowa's prestigious Drake Relays, announcing that he wasn't well enough prepared to compete.
"I might have pushed too hard," he says, referring to a jacked-up spring training regimen that had him running about 80 miles each week, hard. "Obviously, I'll get all the benefit of that at some point, but in the short term it was a bit too much." He's reduced his training distance and intensity slightly, and insists that he's not worried; he's just staying focused on Beijing. "I'd rather not race now and be able to race in the U.S. Team Trials."
Meanwhile, as Webb chips slowly away at his times, American runners are gunning to catch up. At the front of the pack is Bernard Lagat, the 33-year-old Kenyan who moved to the States in 1996 and was sworn in as a naturalized citizen in 2004. Last September, just a few days after he became eligible to run for Team USA, Lagat won the 1,500 meters at the world championships. His was the first American gold medal at the worlds since 1908, and it was a brutal wake-up call for Webb, who'll vie with Lagat as well as standouts such as Chris Lukezic and Leonel Manzano for three Olympic berths on July 3.
To make it to China, Webb needs to outrun seven years of hype, put the letdowns of Athens and Osaka behind him, and run the smartest race of his careerwithout a doubt, the toughest challenge of all. "He needs to be able to relax and let his natural ability carry him, and not overthink it," says David Monti, editor and publisher of the online tracking service Race Results Weekly. "In the last 50 meters, Alan's almost impossible to beat. But the question is, Can he get there?"
"More so than his highs, Webb's lows seem to get magnified so much because he's the face of the American mile," says Sullivan. "He's had the transfer year, the injury year, illness years, and disappointment in the Olympics and world championships, but each time he's come back stronger, with more resolve."
Indeed, Webb is relaxed and good-humored, even after this year's shaky start. "I'm confident that if I take care of business and run hard, I shouldn't have a problem making the team," he says. He trails off for a moment, as though mentally scrolling through the ups and downs of the past few years. ". . . And hopefully get back to the finals, and get some hardware this time."
If he doesn't, there's always Plan B. At Webb's pace of improvementabout a second per seasonhe'll need another four years to challenge the world mile record of 3:43.13, set by Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999. "That puts me at 28 or 29some would say a peak age," he points out. "I hope I don't have to wait that long, but I'm willing to. I've just had the best year of my career, and I love what I do. Time is on my side."