Widely considered one of the most purely talented American runners, Webb trained on his own much of his career because no one in the country could keep up with him. As a teenage phenom, he famously set the high school mile record of 3:53.43 in 2001. He spent only one season at the University of Michigan under legendary coach Ron Warhurst, much of which became fodder for the book, “Sub-4:00: Alan Webb and The Quest for the Fastest Mile,” before returning to his high school coach Scott Raczko and turning pro at age 20.
He went on to make the 2004 U.S Olympic team in the 1,500 meters (the mile’s metric counterpart) and continued his progression through 2007, when at the age of 24, he broke Steve Scott’s long-standing American mile record with a 3:46.91 effort in Belgium. That mark remains the eighth-fastest in history, ranking him slightly ahead of Bernard Lagat and Sebastian Coe on the all-time list.
Webb’s performances and continued progress during that six-year stretch were surreal, but instead of being untouchable, he remained a people’s champ. At 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds, he didn’t look unnaturally thin and admitted to a sweet tooth. He raced from the front, fueled by equal parts laser focus and cold-blooded anger. And he showed his emotion, often finishing a big race by flexing his muscles for the crowd.
“When I first saw him at meets, I was always impressed that he would be the last person to leave the track,” Ray Flynn, Webb’s longtime agent, recalls of Webb’s meticulous cool-downs. “I was secretly impressed that he was doing everything he possibly could to be better.”
But something happened on his way to the top. Webb never truly ascended the world order as many had expected. Although he was eliminated in the first round of the 2004 Olympics in Athens (his first global championship), he advanced to the world championship finals in 2005 and 2007, placing sixth and eighth, respectively.
Then his career took an improbable and unexpected turn. Webb raced poorly and inexplicably missed the 2008 Olympic team. Over the next three years, things got progressively worse. Amid nagging pains, more coaching changes and so-so results, he prematurely moved up to the 5,000-meter run and didn’t make it to the London Olympics last summer. How, at a time when Webb was theoretically entering his physical peak, did he fall from breaking 3:47 in the mile in 2007 to barely breaking 4 minutes in 2012?
“What has changed the most has been physiological,” Webb says. “I have to factor in that I have gotten older. My lack of success has been in me trying to adapt to that.” He describes the olden days — his late teens and early 20s — as ones where he could “do anything I wanted [physically in hard training] and it always worked out for me. Even when things went wrong I always bounced back.”
Specifically, Webb cites two other factors that have hindered his performances. In 2008, he says he hit the weight room too hard. Not crazy stuff like maxing out on the bench press, but routines where he put 150 pounds on the bar and did three sets of 15. It was what he did in high school — hell, it was what every miler in America learned in high school: the football players grunt and grind and lift big for huge muscles, while the long-distance runners do lots of lightweight reps. Except, notes Webb, he started to bulk up on that iron diet and developed the most talked about biceps in long-distance running.
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“Everyone says do more reps, so I did that, but I wanted it to be hard so I did it all hard,” Webb says. “But you blow up.” Instead of making running easier, lifting did the opposite. Although he was still doing the same kind of running, he’d put on five pounds and didn’t have the same fluidity in his form or snap in his legs.
Today, after adapting to a new vegetable-friendly nutrition plan and additional weekly mileage, Webb is back down to 140 pounds, the lightest he’s been in several years.
“I did some bench press in high school, but I’d win races anyways,” Webb says matter-of-factly. “At the professional level, you put on five pounds and you go from setting the American record to the back.”
To illustrate the change between then and now, he uses a thoughtful shooting analogy. As he explains, the first half of his career felt like he was aiming at a target 10 yards away with a shotgun. The few times he wasn’t perfectly on target, some of the pellets still easily hit the bull’s eye. Lately, though, he feels like he’s using a Civil War musket to try and hit a target 100 meters away while aiming blindfolded. “My margin of error is so much smaller,” assesses Webb, who turned 30 earlier this year.
Webb admits he now wonders if he should have focused on the 5K and 10K more seriously the year after he set the American mile record. When he ran his 5000m PR of 13:10.86 in 2005, he was the third-fastest U.S. runner of all-time, but Tegenkamp, Solinsky, Dathan Ritzenhein and Galen Rupp have all passed him by and joined American record-holder Lagat in the sub-13:00 club. Still, Webb realizes, he had unfinished business in the four-lap race. “I had the dream to be the best miler in the world and held onto it,” he says. “It was hard to give up.”
Instead of moving up in distance, he moved from one coach to the next every few years. They were some of the brightest minds in track and field: Alberto Salazar, Jason Vigilante and Scott Raczko, the man who guided Webb to both his prep and professional mile records. Webb never stayed long at each stop because he could never achieve the one thing he was seeking — perfection, the unattainable pedestal of beating the best in the world every time he faced them. Now, as he looks back, he realizes why he never found perfection. “I started to realize it’s not there,” he says. “It doesn’t exist.”