Dream Is Back on Track for Reston's Running Prodigy

Alan Webb
Alan Webb of Reston, shown here in June, is enjoying a career year and again carries the hopes of U.S. distance running. (Jason DeCrow - AP)
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

After breaking the 36-year-old high school mile record in a jam-packed stadium during his senior year at South Lakes High in Reston, Alan Webb shared a victory lap with track legend Hicham El Guerrouj, made guest appearances on several major network shows and sat next to President Bush at a baseball game.

No such fanfare accompanied an even more significant milestone at a minor meet in Brasschaat, Belgium, last month. Webb, six years and many rough strides removed from his heady days as a fleet-footed prodigy, sprinted through a magical final lap to take down another long-standing American record, Steve Scott's 25-year-old mark in the mile.

Several hundred spectators sprinkled among three rows of plastic seating -- too small to be called a stadium -- provided an enthusiastic but oddly understated response to Webb's stirring finish in 3 minutes 46.91 seconds. His performance punctuated a recent resurgence in U.S. middle distance and distance running with the Beijing Olympics less than a year away.

"It was weird . . . [but] it was almost perfect," said Webb, who resides in Reston and trains at George Mason University. "It was just about me trying to run my best time. . . . The American record is something I dreamed about since high school."

Though just 24, Webb has become something of a grizzled veteran in his sport, a boy wonder gradually transformed into a grown-up object of wonderment: Will he ever be as great as he was at 18? Hindered by setbacks, injuries and a climb to international stardom that took longer than many expected, Webb has been rejuvenated this year by a stream of fast times and record-breaking runs that have revived old expectations. Welcome ones.

Webb, who owns the fastest time in the world this year in both the mile and 1,500 meters (he ran a 3:30.54 July 6 in Paris), will try to become the first American in 20 years to win a world championship medal in the 1,500 at the 10-day championships that begin Saturday in Osaka, Japan.

"It's been a career year for me," he said by phone last week. "I'm soaking up the moments. . . . Ever since I've been in high school, nobody was going to be satisfied until I won six gold medals and set the world record 10 times. I relish that because I have high goals. I want to be the best runner in the world.

"Make sure you tell everybody: Don't worry, [my goals] are high. I'm going for it."

When he broke the record Scott had set in 1982, one year before he was born, Webb finally validated the hype and hysteria that enveloped his teen years. Though the result received little attention, the significance was not lost on track cognoscenti, who realized the U.S. revival in distance events had reached an important climax.

Improvement no longer would be measured by U.S. legends. Now, getting better would mean taking down the world's best. With the U.S. mile record finally lowered, Webb could set his sights on the previously unthinkable: the 1,500 and mile world records (3:26.00 and 3:43.13)0, both held by the now-retired El Guerrouj of Morocco.

"His goal all along was to be the best runner he could be, run as fast as he could, and be as successful as he could," said Scott Raczko, his longtime coach. "That doesn't change now, except being the best runner, running as fast he can and being as successful as he can means being one of the top runners in the world.

"He's been through a heck of a lot for someone who's only 24 in this sport. It's a great testament to him that he's one of the top guys right now."

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