The talented track star is hoping to revitalize his career by moving up to longer distances.
During a five-week altitude stint at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., Alan Webb and his new training partners are playing volleyball according to their own rules. Instead of hitting one leather ball over the net, they are two-handedly tossing, and trying to catch, three 10-pound medicine balls at a time. The contest is a strength-training workout disguised as a game, one of a variety of cross-training schemes employed by coach Jerry Schumacher. The group’s accomplished elder statesmen — Matt Tegenkamp, Chris Solinsky, Lopez Lomong and Webb — have been pitted against its younger but very talented core, which includes Evan Jager, Chris Derrick and Elliot Heath. Neither side is particularly graceful — nor overpowering, given their skinny physiques — but these grown men in spandex are taking the game seriously enough to keep an official score.
Webb’s team is losing badly, and let it be said he hates to suffer defeat — in anything. Once, after being dominated by his pregnant wife, Julia, in a game of UNO last summer, Webb was so upset he threw the cards down, cursed and stormed out of the room. Nothing like that is happening here. In fact, Webb appears to be grinning. It’s one of those half-cocked smiles that display more amusement than genuine happiness. He seems to have already rationalized his team’s loss — lack of proper coordination and height — and appears to be asking himself if this made-up game of volleyball can possibly provide any sort of workout. Sure, he decides. It’s awesome, actually, and if it’s good enough for Olympians Tegenkamp, Lomong and Jager, and the hard-knuckled Solinsky, then it should work for him, too. At this point in his 16-year career, Webb is ready to try something new.
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.”
Webb finished 2012 as a man in transition. The turning point happened last summer. A gimpy Achilles tendon limited his speed training leading up to the U.S. Olympic Trials, so he decided to compete in the 5,000m rather than the 1500m. After he finished dead last in his heat and failed to make it to the final, he knew he needed to overhaul his training and racing plans moving forward.
The silver lining was that days after that disastrous Olympic Trials experience, Webb returned home to Virginia, where his wife, Julia, gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter they named Joanie. “As soon as Joanie was born, something clicked in my mind,” Webb says. “Here I had this — I don’t want to get all mushy on you — human being that I was responsible for. It was a sign that I’m moving on to a different part of my life and career.”
Other changes took place later in the summer. Since his coach at the time, Jason Vigilante, was leaving Charlottesville to head up the Princeton distance program, Webb found himself in no man’s land. He and Julia didn’t want to move to New Jersey, so they decided to return to Portland, Ore., where they lived for three years before moving east in 2011. While Julia and Joanie flew west, Alan packed the family’s Honda Element and drove by himself across the country. Covering all of those miles gave him plenty of time to put his career in perspective — his longest day, a new road trip personal record, took him 922 miles from Bismark, N.D., to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — and by the time he arrived in Portland, he’d made some big decisions.
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He was finally ready to move on from the mile and 1500m and invest in a different type of training and, for the near future, focus on the 5K and 10K. But the cross-country drive also gave him visions about making an attempt at the half-marathon and, if he continues to build his aerobic base, maybe even the marathon. “I had my moment as a middle-distance runner, and it was quite a moment,” Webb reflects. “There was a two-month period in 2007 when I honestly believe that there wasn’t a person in the world [at that time] I couldn’t have beaten. But that moment is gone.”
As he counts off the upcoming Olympic cycles and his corresponding age, he says he envisions himself running in at least two more U.S. Olympic Trials. He’ll be 33 in 2016 and 37 when the 2020 event rolls around. Although distance running is a generally a young man’s game, there have been plenty of outliers who have challenged Father Time, most notably 2012 U.S. Olympians Lagat and Meb Keflezighi. “I still want Joanie to experience what I’m trying to do,” Webb says. “My wife has experienced it, but Joanie hasn’t. It’s such a cool thing to have another family member to share it with. I can’t quit now. I’m just beginning.”
The New Normal
For this act of his career Webb has handed the reins to Schumacher, the former University of Wisconsin coach who has coached a group of the country’s best distance runners at Nike’s corporate headquarters near Portland, Ore., since 2008. “Alan has come in with an open mind to work really hard,” Schumacher says. “Where that takes us, I don’t know. And I don’t even know if I really care what the end result is … It is an opportunity to help Alan continue in the sport and chase down his dreams and goals. That is the only thing I am concerned about.”
Although he was hindered a bit by some nagging pain and soreness over the winter, Webb has so far been able to keep pace with Schumacher’s stacked group. “He brings a rare intensity to each session, so he is always ready to work hard,” says Solinsky. “We have had to remind him that we do not try to hit home runs everyday in workouts like the hard and fast workouts milers do regularly, rather we try to consistently put the ball in play and keep men on base. The baseball analogy aside, he has since gotten used to our medium hits for workouts rather then real hard sessions.”
A normal training day for Webb begins at 7 a.m. when he wakes up and eats a peanut butter sandwich and a banana. On hard workout days, he’ll drink a cup of coffee, otherwise he doesn’t seek a caffeine buzz. The group meets at 9 a.m. for morning runs, often followed by a core strength session. That block can stretch until noon, when Webb breaks for lunch, then takes a nap. “If I don’t get that rest time, it makes the second session really hard,” he says. The afternoon consists of a second run and any necessary physical therapy.
He’s also keeping a stricter diet, often bypassing steaks and chops in favor of lean and veggie-based meals, like tabouli salad and gnocchi with white beans and red peppers. He’s also frequently forgoing dessert.
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“I’m conscious of the fact that whenever I’ve restricted myself, it always ends up in disaster and that’s when injuries happen to me,” Webb says of his diet, which includes trying to eat less meat and more veggies. Ideally, he is in bed by 9 p.m. or at the latest 9:30 p.m. For now, Julia cares for Joanie during the night.
Webb’s goals at the longer distances are to qualify for U.S. championship teams and better his already solid PRs of 13:10 in the 5K and 27:34 for the 10K, times he set in 2005 and 2006, respectively. “If I want to be in the top three in those events, I am going to have to run faster than those times,” he acknowledges. “If I am going to be one of the top three marathoners, it depends on the course and weather, but I’ll have to run under 2:10.” Whether he can excel in the longer distances like his high school counterparts Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein remains to be seen. To get there, Webb has upped his weekly mileage from 75 to 100 — something he has never done on a consistent basis — while juggling workouts. He’s bolstered by the deepest training group in the U.S. and has access to everything he needs on Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., campus. He appears set up to succeed if he can retool his mind and body into someone who paces himself through a string of miles rather than hammering just one.
“I am not a slacker,” he says. “But the guys in this group work just as hard as I ever did. It didn’t surprise me at all. It’s what I expected.”
Not Done Yet
Despite the frustration of the past five summers, Webb says he’s never once considered giving it up. But he’s cognizant that the day will come, and that it’s more imminent than ever. He tells a story from a few years ago during his first go-round in Portland. For Christmas his father gave him the book, “When The Game Was Ours,” about the rivalry and friendship between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Webb flew through the pages until he got to the part where it talked about the ends of their careers.
“I closed the book,” Webb says. “I didn’t want to read it.” The story abruptly turned personal and Webb saw himself in it. “I was scared to even consider retirement,” he says. “I was afraid to let go. Now I’m to the point where I can’t fight it.”
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Still, he will press on. He likens this phase to the scene in The Matrix where Morpheus is single-handedly battling a couple of powerful brutes. The character knows he is up against the wall, but he continues to fight. As Webb describes it, “He’s like, ‘Maybe there is a chance I might miracle my way out of this. It’s probably not going to end well but I’m going for it anyways because I believe it is something special.’”
Webb can relate this scene to a world-class runner entering a new age, except for one critical differentiation.
“I’m not done yet,” he stresses. “I’m not done. My running story is not over yet. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”
This piece appears in the April 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.
About The Author:
New York City-based writer Matt McCue is the author of “An Honorable Run.”