Why I’m Not Surprised Alan Webb Split From Alberto Salazar

Alan Webb is a runner without a coach, and possibly a runner without a contract. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Mario Fraioli takes a deeper look at Alan Webb’s coaching commitment issues over the course of his competitive career.

Alan Webb has commitment issues.

I’m not knocking the American record holder in the mile — just pointing out an obvious fact. Yesterday’s news that Webb left Alberto Salazar’s Oregon Project shouldn’t come as such a big surprise.

Over the course of his now ten-year quasi-collegiate/mostly professional career, the 28-year old has been through three coaches, making an early exit from the University of Michigan in 2002 to return to his high school coach, Scott Raczko, in his native Virginia. Then, after another nearly seven years training under the man who helped him become the fastest high school miler–and eventually the fastest American miler–of all-time, Webb packed his bags and headed west to join Salazar’s Oregon Project in August of 2009.

“With any change there’s risk,” Webb’s agent, Ray Flynn, told USA Today at the time. “For whatever reason, things weren’t working.”

Not working? In the world’s most black and white sport, the numbers don’t lie. As a senior at South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia, Webb became the first high schooler to break the hallowed 4:00-barrier indoors, running 3:59.86 in New York City in 2001. That spring, Webb shattered Jim Ryun’s longstanding mark in the outdoor mile, running 3:53.43 to take nearly two seconds off Ryun’s 36-year old clocking. His coach? Scott Raczko. Things were definitely working.

Upon graduation from South Lakes High School, Webb left Raczko and rightfully accepted a full scholarship to the University of Michigan, joining a loaded class of  middle-distance runners led by longtime Wolverine headman Ron Warhurst. Initially, Webb thrived, winning the Big 10 cross country championship as a freshman and placing an impressive 11th at the NCAA meet. Everyone, including Webb himself, could agree that despite a new coach and a new training system that things were still working just fine.

“I felt so in control of my stride,” Webb told Chris Lear in the book Sub 4. “I’ve never felt that much in control of my body, ever, even last year at the end of outdoor [track season].”

After suffering an untimely injury to his Achilles tendon during the indoor track season, however, Webb was thrown off his game. Hurt for the first time in his career and frustrated to no end, Webb was forced to redshirt the indoor track season, a decision he was reluctant to accept. After finally putting the injury behind him, he resumed training and returned outdoors to win a Big 10 title in the 1,500 meters and finish fourth in the same event at NCAA’s, seemingly salvaging a successful season for himself given the circumstances. In Webb’s head, however, it was a sign that things weren’t working well anymore. So what did he do? He got out of dodge.

Upon Webb’s return to Virginia, Raczko made it his mission to rebuild the greatest high school miler ever to lace up a pair of spikes. He did one hell of a job.

From 2005 to 2007, Webb went on a three-year tear, winning the 1,500 meters at the 2005 U.S. Championships in a display of dominance not seen since the days of Steve Scott. That same year Webb set personal bests at every distance from 1,500 to 5,000 meters, breaking an American Record at 2 miles in the process. In 2006 he ran 10,000 meters for the first time, winning the Payton Jordan Invite in 27:34.72, the fastest debut ever by an American at the distance. One year later he finally made his mark as a potential world-beater, breaking Scott’s 25-year-old American Record in the mile with a 3:46.91 clocking. His coach? Scott Raczko. Things seemed to be working better than ever before, and then all of a sudden everything went to shit.

Webb failed to make the Olympic team in 2008, and spent the rest of the summer plagued by injuries. One year later, the story was still the same. Within two years Webb went from being one of the best runners in the world to a burned-out, broken down shadow of his former self who was looking for an answer as to why all of a sudden things weren’t working for him. Was Scott Raczko to blame? No, just as I don’t believe Warhurst was to blame at Michigan. Webb seemed to think otherwise, however, and left his longtime coach for greener-looking pastures in Swooshtown, USA.

“It gives me confidence to know that I have all the tools in place for me to push myself and we are just now starting that process,” Webb said shortly after joining Salazar’s Oregon Project, a group which included Galen Rupp, Dathan Ritznehein and Kara Goucher, amongst others.

The oft-injured but immensely talented Webb would have no excuses in Oregon: he had the talent, the coaching, the training partners, the facilities and the resources to return to his perch as the top middle-distance track runner in the U.S. Salazar, who was admittedly thrown for a loop when Webb approached him to be his coach, knew exactly what kind of athlete he had on his hands, even if he didn’t have another middle-distance runner in the group to call his own.

“I would have to say that even my athletes agree as a group — Galen Rupp and Dathan Ritzenhein — we all know he is the most talented in the whole group,” Salazar said last summer of Webb.

After recovering from Achilles surgery in early 2010, Salazar started Webb from scratch and helped him work his way back up the racing ranks. Last summer, after a less-than-impressive 1:52 800-meter opener in London in August, Webb got on a roll once again. Less than a month after that opening race, Webb ran 1:48:34 for 800 meters in Padova, Italy, and a few weeks later finished fifth amongst a loaded 1,500-meter field in Milan, running 3:36.21, his fastest time since 2008. Fast forward to Thanksgiving where Webb made a rare road racing appearance and won the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot in 13:36, beating Oregon Project teammate Galen Rupp by 3 seconds. Despite a small hiccup at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix earlier this year in Boston — where Webb ran 4:00.70 to finish a disappointing seventh in the mile, nearly six seconds back of the winner, Russell Brown — he most recently finished third in a loaded 1,500-meter race in Australia, clocking 3:37.82, a tremendous track time for early March. In short, after years of injury and under-performance, the arrangement with Salazar seemed to be working pretty well.

Today, however, Webb is a runner without a coach, and maybe even a runner without a contract. Letsrun.com is reporting that Webb’s contract with Nike has run out and he is no longer on a professional payroll. None of this is confirmed, but it wouldn’t be a big surprise, either.

So who will be Webb’s next coach? Speculation is rampant, but no one knows for sure. One thing is certain, however: who is coaching Alan Webb isn’t the issue.

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