Alan Webb’s Extreme Transformation from Miler to Marathoner
Webb talks with us as he takes aim at Grandma's Marathon, fresh off a 1:13 half marathon after using pandemic time to redefine his physique.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Alan Webb, the American record holder in the mile (3:46.91; 2007), has entered the June 19 Grandma’s Marathon. It will be his first marathon. Just a week ago, Webb, 38, finished his longest race to date when he completed the Great American River Run Half Marathon (Memphis TN), in 1:13:20. That placed him 4th overall and first in the 35–39 age group.
As a pro runner, in addition to his American-record mile, Webb recorded bests of 1:43.84 for 800 meters, 8:11.48 for 2 miles, and 27:34.72 for 10,000 meters. He proved he could go fast, and he could go long. He made an Olympic team and competed in several World Championships. At Grandma’s, he’ll test his endurance limitations.
Earlier in life, as a high-school standout, Webb was best known for the 3:53.41 mile he ran in 2001 to break Jim Ryun’s 36-year-old high-school mark of 3:55.3. He was also the first high schooler to break 4:00 indoors.
After the Memphis race, Webb posted a photo that startled longtime followers. In his prime, he was known for his muscular build, and was sometimes even second-guessed about spending too much time in the weight room. In the recent photo, he appears almost emaciated. Indeed, at his current 5’ 9” and 124 pounds, Webb is nearly 20 pounds lighter than during his pro racing career.
Webb is hesitant to discuss his recent weight loss, worried that it might send the wrong message to young runners. He briefly explains below that he simply wanted to shed some “bulk,” observing that “most good marathon runners like Eliud Kipchoge are little dudes.”
Much more has changed for Webb since his pro running days. He’s now a full-time cross country and track coach at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with four daughters aged 9 years to one month. Last week, while notching a 100-mile training week “for the first time in a long, long time,” he was on a recruiting trip to Michigan, home state of this year’s high-school mile sensation, Hobbs Kessler. Kessler recently slashed nearly four seconds off Webb’s high school record for 1500 meters.
“Hobbs is going to Northern Arizona University, so I wasn’t recruiting him,” Webb notes. “But I wanted an opportunity to congratulate him in person, and I got the chance to do that on Saturday. It was great.”
How and why did you get started training hard again?
I didn’t like the idea that Covid was going to keep us all indoors, exercising less, and eating more. I decided instead to bump up my own running, which had been at about 30 miles a week. I wanted to focus on enjoying the gift of running. There are so many people who can’t run for one reason or another. Despite having four young daughters and a full-time job, I can still run, and decently fast, I believe.
I am trying to use the gift that God has given me while keeping it in its proper perspective. I am healthier, and a better husband, father and coach when I am fit. Julia [Webb’s wife] also loves to run, so we support each other. We usually have to take turns with the kids. At races, I have been representing LifeRunners, an international Christian pro-life running group. I run now for a purpose greater than myself, and believe that is critical.
The new shoes with plates in them have been a big help. I’ve had a lot of Achilles and plantar problems. The shoes allowed me to get in more miles without tons of pain — they were like a fountain of youth. I began doing more during the early months of Covid, and that got me to the point where I could jump into some team workouts when we started meeting up again. I got fit and just rolled with it.
After the season, I picked a race where I thought I could have some fun, and that was the Great American River Run in Memphis. The half marathon went pretty well, so I thought maybe I should try a marathon while I was healthy and training strong.
Do you remember the first time you had some interest in marathon running?
I was in middle school when Runner’s World did an issue on the 100th Boston Marathon . I remember the medal on the bright blue cover. I had just set a record at my middle school in the mile. I ran 5:44. I read some of the historical articles about Boston in the magazine, and calculated how fast the best runners were going. They were doing 5-minute miles! Or even faster. I was blown away. I thought, What? How is that even possible? There I was at the time running 5:44 for an all-out one-mile.
Actually, I’m still thinking about 5:44s. If I were to run that pace at Grandma’s, I’d finish right around 2:30. I think that’s very close to the shape I’m in.
How would you rate your training for Grandma’s? Have you been doing long runs?
The week before the half-marathon, I did a 3-hour run that was a little over 27 miles. I lost a bit of time for bathroom breaks and fluids and stuff. Before that, I did two other recent runs of 2:20. This week, with my 100 miles for the first time in a long, long time, I wondered about the risk-benefit ratio. You’re always taking a risk when you’re building to a big race. But I listened to my body, and made sure I wasn’t straining too much. Not that I did all the runs super-slow. I didn’t. I had a balance. Now I’ll have a two-week taper cutback. I definitely worked on my fueling and hydration in the long runs. There’s a lot to organize.
Any marathon fears or doubts?
I just pray that I gave myself enough time to recover from the training. I don’t have crazy expectations. I’d like to run in the low 2:30s. I’ll be upset if I bonk badly and end up walking to the finish. I definitely don’t want that to happen.
Why and how did you lose so much weight?
I started feeling, just walking around, that I was too bulky. I didn’t like the feeling. I cut out most of the sugars in my diet — cookies and cakes, especially — and a lot of the bread. I didn’t do anything crazy. I know it’s dumb to cut calories and carbs when you’re training hard. We ate a lot of potatoes, oatmeal, fish, nuts, and fruits and veggies. I love oatmeal. I kind of started with potatoes and switched to more oatmeal, because I like it so much, and it has more protein.
You used to be known for really attacking it in the weight room. Was the muscle hard to give up?
Maybe I did too much strength work at one time in my career. Anyway, that’s what I mean about feeling too bulky. I don’t need to run 11 seconds for the 100 now, so I don’t need extra muscle. I used to think I had pretty good core strength from all the weight training. But now I think maybe I didn’t. I’m realizing my core isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be. That’s what I’m working on more these days.
There are some interesting parallels and contrasts between you and Ryan Hall. You raced each other in high school, you both have four daughters, he used to be skinny but is now all about strength, and you used to be strong but are now all about endurance. Any thoughts?
Yeah, haha. It’s funny how Ryan and I are both like roosters in the hen house outnumbered five to one by the females around us. I can only say that I admire Ryan for his faith in Jesus and his commitment to his family. He is also the best U.S. marathoner of our generation, so I gotta at least give the marathon a try, and find out what he went through even if I don’t go as fast as he did.
How have you found the transition to Little Rock and college coaching?
It’s been great. Coaching is a terrific learning experience. I’ve found that there’s a lot I don’t know, and I can’t be afraid to ask others for help. I’ve learned that you have to train the athlete, not the event. I want our athletes at Little Rock to succeed both on and off the track. I want to see them grow while I am growing myself. I think both are happening.
What do you think of Hobbs Kessler?
He’s a great kid who’s spectacularly talented. We might not have known much about him until this year, but you can see in the way he moves, with such a smooth stride and coordinated core, that he always had the tools. He just had to add the aerobic base he gained during Covid. I hope he gets a shot at breaking my high school record for the mile. He’s clearly capable of doing it.
Care to guesstimate what you could run for the mile now?
Maybe about 4:45.
I always thought your best performance was your appearance on the David Letterman show as a high schooler. You actually had him tongue tied a couple of times.
Thanks. I’ll tell you a secret. I’ve still got the suit that I wore that night, and one of my goals is to stay in the kind of shape where I can always fit into that suit.