Making the Mile Matter, Again

Remembering high schooler Alan Webb's record-setting race

The Prefontaine Classic—one of the last major track meets where the mile distance is still raced—was held this past weekend at Eugene, OR's Hayward Field. Twelve men ran sub-4-minute miles, including America's darling at that distance, Alan Webb (sadly, he came in 11th). It was only 11 years ago that a fresh-faced Webb made track history at the same meet. This piece, written back then by Walt Murphy for his "This Day in Track & Field" series, tells that story. —Ed

South Lakes, VA High School senior Alan Webb, with the able assistance of coach Scott Raczko, fulfilled the great promise he had shown since his sophomore year by running 3:53.43 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, OR, to break Jim Ryun's 36-year old National H.S. Record in the mile. (3:55.3).

Running against a world-class field that included world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj (who set a U.S. All-Comers Record of 3:49.92), Webb patiently ran his own race and didn't get caught up in the incredibly exciting atmosphere that permeated Hayward Field, a fitting setting for such a historic day.

Running well off the pace of the rabbits and the lead pack, Webb went through quarter-mile splits of 58.1, 1:57.9, and 2:58.4,  and then clicked into another gear. The crowd virtually ignored the great El Guerrouj, who was pulling away from Bernard Lagat and the rest of the field, and devoted all of its energy to Webb, who rewarded the faithful with a great 55-second last 1/4 to finish off his record run. And on the way, he also took down another Ryun record, clocking 3:38.26 at 1,500 meters.

El Guerrouj, a student of the sport who knew full well the impact of Webb’s run, grabbed his new friend by the arm and they went on a joint victory lap, much to the delight of the adoring Eugene fans. Soaking up his new-found fame, the fun-loving Webb gladly signed autographs for at least an hour after the meet had ended.

The ensuing media blitz hadn't been seen in the sport for a long time. Webb's run was reported on the front pages of newspapers all across the country (including The New York Times), and he eventually made appearances on the morning talk shows and met with President Bush at the White House. He also had a memorable guest shot on "Late Night With David Letterman," who couldn't stop gushing about Webb's accomplishment. And Webb handled all the attention with the poise and style of a seasoned veteran.

The speculation about Webb's potential started to build after he ran 4:06.94 in 1999 to break Ryun's National H.S. sophomore record. It continued the following year when he ran a 3:59.9 anchor 1,600-meters at the Penn Relays, but an injury kept him from any serious efforts to break 4-minutes the rest of the season (he had to turn down an invitation to the 2000 Pre meet). An early sign in his senior year that everything was going according to plan came at New York City’s Armory in February, when he set a H.S. indoor record of 3:59.86 and became the first prep 4-minute miler since Marty Liquori ran 3:59.8 in 1967.

(c) 2012 Walt Murphy; used with permission from Race Results Weekly