Here's To The Webb-bashers

For all you Alan Webb bashers licking your collective chops in hopes of seeing him fail miserably, it's time to get a new hobby. This column's for you.

In case you've been stuck in the world of reality TV and American Idol, Alan Webb is no longer a boy. Once hyped as the next great thing in American running (don't ask what the current best thing was) when he ran 3:53.43 at the Prefontaine Classic for the mile in 2001, Alan Webb soon became the outlet for runners angst across the country. After setting the high school record (breaking Jim Ryun's record of 3:55.3), Webb went to Michigan to run collegiately. After a phenomenal cross season that saw him win almost every race and run top five at NCAA's until the last 2k of the race (finishing 11th), it looked like Webb was the real deal, and fans were packing on to the Webb bandwagon like steroids in Barry Bond's locker.

But then Webb got injured, and then people started talking. Webb came off of injury and tried to race the outdoor season, but never materialized like he should have, getting hammered down the straightaway at NCAA nationals in the 1500m. The Webb bandwagon looked about as crowded as a Clippers home game on a bad night.

Sure Alan, like any young college kid, made a few mistakes- most notably leaking the news that he would be leaving Michigan before talking to coach Warhurst about it, but what mistakes did you make when you were 19?

Webb never went to jail, never fathered illegitimate children, and never even cheated on his wife (although the last one is the acceptable standard today). Webb simply got injured, didn't communicate as well as we would've liked with his coach, and left college and its ludicrous racing schedule to chase his dreams. And America collectively laughed at him. We'll never hear from him again... He just can't push himself to the limit like he could if he were on a college team...

Webb left Michigan for an alleged 1.5 million dollar Nike contract that would allow him to train under his old coach (who got him to 3:53), and do what he pleased with his leisure time. In short, Nike was presenting Alan with the golden opportunity to truly become a professional. And he took it. As soon as things weren't as good as we expected, we made sure to talk about what a mistake he made, leaving Michigan to run after his goals.

Now is when I can say I told you so. I was the minority for years, saying Alan Webb would rise again, and that he did do the right thing by turning pro. Why? Well now instead of racing and peaking for what would be a ridiculous five times in one year from fall (cross country) to summer (indoor and outdoor track, the Olympic trials, and the Olympics), he was able to schedule his training to peak twice; at the Olympic trials and the Olympics. Not only that, but he didn't have to worry about class all the time and the other things like sleep and diet that seem to hinder the typical college runner. Oh yeah, and the other tiny detail is that he also took a chunk of change that happened to set him up for life, even if he were to end up as slow as your top high school junior varsity girl. He made the best decision financially, athletically, and personally, and America couldn't wait to see him fail.

Now, after a disappointing 2003 year (in which he missed some training due to a burst appendix), he is back and he is unbelievable. In five races, he has set five personal bests, which at that level is about as common as someone leaving college running to turn pro. He opened with a 3:35.71 1500m win at the Home Depot Invitational, and then followed it up nine days later with 3:33.7 in his European debut, only fractions of a second off the best in the world (4th). He then dropped down to run an 800m in 1:46.53, only to come back three days later and win in Ostrava in a world-leading time of 3:32.73. Oh yeah, and two guys that couldn't catch him that race were Noah Ngeny and Bernard Lagat, who have some Olympic medals between them.

Only a few days ago the Prefontaine classic was here again, only this time Webb could buy a victory beverage himself afterward, and this time, it was the Alan Webb show. Grimacing from an opening 54 second pace (yes, that's 3:36 mile pace), the string of Kenyan rabbits looked hard pressed to keep the pace. Alan looked poised and relaxed. The half mile came in a brilliant 1:52.8, a pace that had the rest of the field well back. One of the other runners looked back, he says to see who else was behind him, but it looked to me he wanted to make sure they weren't getting lapped. Mr. Webb finally showed some sign of fatigue, running solo through ¾ in 2:50.2, and gamely hanging on as the Oregonians banged the side of the bleachers and screamed fire from their throats to bring him home in 3:50.88, setting yet another world leading time and recording the fastest time ever by an American on American soil. He won by close to 3 seconds.

Now let's try and put this thing in perspective for everyone in the getting less popular Webb-should-be-in-college-camp:
1) The best college time of the year in the 1500m was 3:40.31, a full 7 ½ seconds slower than Webb.
2) The NCAA race was won in 3:44.72, a full 12 seconds slower than Webb ran in Ostrava.
3) When El Guerrouj won this race in 2001 in the fastest time ever on American soil, he ran 3:49 and change. Webb would have been neck and neck with the greatest.
4) Webb has beaten the man that beat El Guerrouj for the gold medal in Sydney (Ngeny) already. 5) The American record is 3:47.69.
6) The World record is 3:43.13.
7) Who was that Gabe Jennings guy we used to talk about? Was he the one who mentioned not losing to some 'high-schooler' one time?

As much as the few of us in the Webb-was-doing-the-right-thing-all-along camp would love to make you have to eat track spikes in your wheaties for trying to hold down America's most promising young runner in an age of criminal superstars, we're willing to let you squeeze back on the Webb bandwagon.

After all, can you imagine what I'll write to you after he wins a medal?

Note: Matt Goodwin is a freelance columnist for scrunners.com. A new column will be posted from Goodwin each week. Goodwin is a graduate of Wade Hampton (G) High School and Furman University.

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