The only American runner to complete a sub-four-minute mile indoors as a high schooler suspects he won’t have that distinction to himself much longer. Alan Webb has watched Drew Hunter, offered him advice and knows in a way no one else can what’s in store for him.
Last week in Winston-Salem, N.C., Hunter, a Loudoun Valley senior, became the first high schooler to run 3,000 meters in under eight minutes . On Saturday, he will run unattached for one mile alongside some of America’s top collegiate and professional runners in the Armory Track Invitational at the New Balance Track & Field Center in New York, the famed arena where Webb set the mark in 2001.
“That’s definitely the goal by the end of the indoor season,” said Hunter, 18, who committed in November to run at the University of Oregon. “I’m not necessarily going for it in this race, but it would be really exciting. It’s cool to know the one person that has done it but also having a special bond and friendship with him. He’s someone I look up to.”
Webb has known Hunter’s parents since before Drew was born. In 1997, Marc and Joan Hunter were in their final year coaching the South Lakes running teams, including a freshman swimmer with a physique more suited for the pool than the track.
“His little lower legs were like sticks,” Joan recalled recently of Webb. “But the thing that stuck out about Alan from very early on was what a ferocious competitor he was, just like Drew.”
As Webb’s career progressed from South Lakes to Michigan and through the professional ranks — he competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics and ran the fastest mile in American history (3 minutes 46.91 seconds) in 2007 — the Hunters remained in touch. And as Drew has progressed nearly two decades later, Webb has been there to offer advice.
“I’m trying my best to not put too much on his plate because I know what that’s like to have a lot of people pulling at you,” Webb said. “I’m trying to be there for him when he needs it, not to smother him.”
At minimum, Hunter has two chances to break the elusive mark. He will return to New York later this month for the 109th Millrose Games. He may add another mile run at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in March.
Still, it will take more than a few phone calls, no matter how many well wishes or nuggets of advice they contain, for Hunter to join Webb’s one-man club. There are reasons no one before Webb or since has been able to break the barrier indoors.
For starters, most high school athletes need to be at their peak performance to dream of touching four minutes, and winter seasons usually are spent building up for the spring.
“You really aren’t aiming your training toward running a fast mile indoors,” said Marc Hunter, who ran in the 1980 Olympic trials and has coached at Loudoun Valley with Joan since 2013. “If you run really, really fast indoors, you probably aren’t going to run really, really fast outdoors.”
Also, an indoor track is half the length of an outdoor track, forcing runners to make twice as many turns.
“Every time you turn, the body goes through some stress,” Marc Hunter said. “And then you have to right the ship to get back to balanced, which takes energy.”
The reasons Drew could become one more great high school runner to fall just short of the mark are many. Winter Storm Jonas limited his training to only a few track workouts since the cross-country season ended. Now he’s fighting a cold that nearly forced him to back out of Saturday’s event.
But there are far more reasons Hunter could succeed.
When he toes the starting line Saturday around 2:20 p.m., his work already will be complete.
He does his work on Friday nights, when he opts to stay home and relax rather than go out with friends. He does it when he is in bed by 10 every night and gets at least eight hours of sleep — though nine or 10 is better. He does it when he monitors everything he puts into his body and never skips one pre- or post-workout routine.
“You have this group of the top 30 high school kids nationally,” Marc Hunter said. “They all pretty much have the same physical makeup. They all pretty much train just as hard. But then Drew does the little things extra. When he does all that, he has the confidence to say, ‘I should run fast. I have done everything I’m supposed to do. And a lot these kids don’t do that, so everything else being equal, I stepped over the edge. He can’t beat me.’”
In October, Drew ran 14:20 for 5,000 meters at the Third Battle Invitational in Winchester, the fastest high school mark in Virginia cross-country history and the third fastest in U.S. history. He ran a 14:55.7 at the Foot Locker Nationals in December, 12.2 seconds faster than the next runner in a field composed of America’s best high school distance runners. The two-time All-Met Cross-Country Athlete of the Year has won 48 of 61 races since Jan. 1, 2014.
“There is a big discrepancy between someone like Drew — or even me when I was in school — and someone who is close to as talented but won’t even come close to him when it’s time to work,” Webb said. “Drew does the little things, and then it’s like taking candy from a baby.”
That commitment to greatness is why, whenever his final indoor season is finally over, the list of American high school runners to break four minutes likely will have grown by one.
“I don’t see it as a question of if Drew does it. It’s more a question of when and how fast it is,” Webb said. “It’s going to be a different story than mine. It’s going to be the Drew Hunter story, and it’s going to be really fun to follow.”