It is almost unfair, pushing Alan Webb to be the next Great Mile Hope, making one young middle-distance runner pay for a nation's past futilities and flame-outs near the tape.

But we did it three years ago when he shattered Jim Ryun's 36-year-old record, propping him up as the most viable threat to Moroccan world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj and the Kenyans, plastering Webb's everyman mug on magazines and television talk shows until he felt he had to be perfect every time he stepped on the track. We wanted him to be this generation's Ryun or Roger Bannister. Our Kip Keino. We wanted it so much, he almost rebelled against it.

Now, three years after achieving athletic immortality, how can we keep from doing it again?

Did you see him pull away in this race -- this American flyer from Reston, obliterating the 1,500-meter field at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials late Sunday afternoon?

In searing 96-degree heat on a surface that was about 10 degrees hotter, Webb began sprinting midway through the race. Sprinting! He lost the field with between 700 and 800 meters left on the straightaway, blowing the competition away with a move that was as brilliant as it was bold. So definitive, so fast, he ran the third lap in a blistering 55 seconds, leaving the field behind like the winner of the 1,500 usually does on his last lap.

"I was a little surprised," Charlie Gruber, the silver medalist, said after he finished almost three seconds behind Webb's time of 3 minutes 36.13 seconds. "I've never really had anyone put a move on me like that."

"If someone was to come with me, they were going to hurt with me," Webb said.

He let out a primal scream as he crossed the finish line, completing a three-year career resurrection now on its way to Athens. Veins bulged from both sides of his forehead, leading up to that receding hairline that gives him the look of a Kinko's clerk about to help you with your resume.

TrackWorld knew he was back for a while, when he had the world's fastest 1,500 time this year until three weeks ago. But NBC was there this afternoon, along with 24,323 more at Hornet Stadium, to watch Webb toy with his talent, the field and, soon, Olympic history.

The last U.S. runner to medal in the 1,500 was Ryun in 1968, and he is more remembered for being caught at the tape by Keino, the legendary Kenyan. Not since 1908 has the United States won a gold medal in the event.

This makes no sense, because we are a nation of people that basically jogs for 10 minutes and says, "How far you think we've gone, a mile? Let's eat."

Based on the reasoning that a mile is really all most us ever run, we should dominate anything around 1,500 meters, no?

Anyhow, running enthralls much of the masses. It is why people own DVDs of "Chariots of Fire" and "Prefontaine," a movie based on the great Oregon middle-distance star who died in a car accident at 24.

Webb is keenly aware of the fascination we have with the 1,500 and the mile, having run his fastest times in those events at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. He knew it the day in 2001 that he broke Ryun's 36-year-old national high school record in the mile, finishing in 3 minutes 53.43 seconds as a senior -- two seconds faster than Ryun.

Forty years and a month ago, Bannister became the first man to break the four-minute mile. One of the great middle-distance rivalries of all time was played out in the 1980s between Sebastian Coe, the 1,500 gold medalist in 1984, and his British countrymen Steve Ovett and Steve Cram.

Something about four times around the track or close to it just grabs the casual fan's attention, and here comes Webb, running around the oval and into our living rooms this summer, poised after his comeback from real adversity.

Of the day he broke Ryun's record, his coach, Scott Razcko, said, "In retrospect, it was a great thing. But it was also a tough thing to deal with."

Indeed, Webb left the University of Michigan after a less-than-stellar season and an Achilles' tendon injury that curtailed his training. He left the program and returned home to his old high school coach, Razcko. He signed a deal with Nike and gave up his amateur status last year, but last July his appendix burst, and again his training was put on hold and his times went in the gutter.

Gradually, by training hard and giving himself leeway when it came to performing spectacularly every time he ran, Webb began to lower his times and move toward the world-leader pack.

In June he won a meet in the Czech Republic in 3:32.73, beating two great Kenyans -- Olympic gold medalist Noah Ngeny and bronze medalist Bernard Legat.

The idea of him medaling in Athens is still not a given, especially since Webb does not have the international experience of many of his competitors.

But there he was rounding the track this afternoon, leaving the field in the dust.

He had been a fan favorite all week, taking short runs on the American River trail that so many of the casual Sacramentans use for jogging. Subway and Quiznos were his cuisine of choice. He signed autographs until 10 minutes before race time Sunday.

He says the hyperbole machine that put him through the wash three years ago was more of a help than a hindrance, and promised not to get carried away with great expectations as he heads to Athens.

You wanted to tell Alan Webb not to worry, just do your best and see what happens.

But he proved that he is our next great middle-distance hope. Our Kip Keino. Our Roger Bannister. This generation's Ryun. Fair or not, nothing can change that.

Reston's Alan Webb will try to become first American to medal in 1,500 meters since 1968. After a rough couple of years, Alan Webb returns to front ranks by winning the 1,500 at U.S. Olympic trials.