The fastest miler in American history is starting multisport at age 30.
Alan Webb might be the most talented runner in American history. He first gained notoriety when he ran a sub-4:00 mile in high school, making him just the fourth American to do so. Three months later, Webb broke the 36-year-old national record for high school boys with a 3:53 mile. He reached the top of the sport in the summer of 2007, setting the American record in the mile (3:46) and winning a race at track and field’s highest level of competition. The success was short-lived. He fell off the following summer at the age of 25 and never regained the level he hit in 2007. Having just lost his Nike endorsement deal after six years of mediocre results, Webb announced his retirement from professional running in January at the age of 30.
“One disappointment after another and failure to fulfill his potential with his talent has not been for lack of effort,” writes his wife Julia in an enlightening blog post. “It is unsustainable to continue fighting, especially from a psychological standpoint. At this point it makes no sense to keep driving the nail into the ground to leave him bitter. It has been a great run, and Alan is very grateful for the success he has had.” Running is now in Webb’s past, and he hopes triathlon is his athletic future. Triathlete.com chatted with Webb about his choice to racing triathlon, his training status and his goals for multisport.
How did you decide to start training for triathlon?
I had an interest in it since I was a kid. I started out as a swimmer before I became a runner, and that’s sort of the genesis of this desire. And I came to running not until high school. I was an age-group swimmer and did well in that, although not quite as well as I did as a runner, hence the switch. During that switch early on tri was, as I discovered I was good at running, a natural thing to think about. I didn’t do a ton of biking, but I was relatively comfortable on a bike. One of my oldest and best friends got me into swimming and was also into triathlon himself. So [triathlon] was always around. We have a local triathlon in my hometown.
Have you done a triathlon?
If you count the Reston (Webb’s home town) youth triathlon when I was 10. I rode my single-gear Huffy when I was 10, but that doesn’t really count.
What is your swimming background?
I was in competitive swimming and racing as early as I could. The earliest I could do it was age 6. I remember because when I was 5 they changed the age limit to 6 and I had to wait another year. I was already doing lessons prior to that. I started doing a year-round program a year or two later, and age 11 was when I started doing club age-group swimming year-round and training more seriously compared to summer league team. That’s really when I started to ramp up my interest in it. Then got really, really into in in middle school, doing doubles and stuff, that was 7th and 8th grade. Those were my prime swimming years. And 9th grade as well. My freshman year, grade 9, was when all my swim PR’s are from. I quit swimming halfway through my sophomore-year cross-country season. Plus my club team folded and I switched to a different team, and it just wasn’t the same.
How fast of a swimmer were you back then?
My wife has a blog and wanted to do a post on it, so she did a bunch of research on my swimming recently. All my PR’s are from 1998 and are in short-course yards (25-yard pool).
1:00.79 100 breaststroke
2:12.09 200 breaststroke
2:00.1 200 IM
4:11.99 400 IM
447 500 freestyle
16:44.4 1650 freestyle
All those times were within 72 hours from one meet and all came after a prelim round except the 1650.
Where are you training currently and are you training with anyone?
I’ve been doing a lot on my own in Portland [Ore.]. I’m flying back from Arizona right now. I was doing some work with USA Triathlon and Jono Hall (USAT’s performance leader) and his group in Scottsdale. I’ve been doing work here with them. I also jumped in Masters group swims in Portland. Most of the biking is on my own, and the running has been mostly on my own too. I’m doing some different training, trying to figure out what I’m doing. I still run with the guys in Jerry’s group [Webb’s former running coach, Jerry Schumacher] every once in a while, mostly for easy runs. I don’t do workouts with those guys anymore.
What are your goals in the sport of triathlon?
I want to be good. I want to compete at the highest level. I want to do ITU stuff—I’m going that path. I think it suits me a little better than the non-drafting stuff at this point.
What about ITU racing do you think suits your skillset, and how did you decide to focus on that discipline?
First of all, it’s shorter, relatively speaking. Just going from what other people have told me, this is based on advice from my buddy Mike [Orton] and others, ITU favors swimmers and runners a little bit more. I’m learning that that’s a little over-exaggerated I think, since the bike is obviously a third of it and technically the longest part. But that was sort of the genesis. Plus that has the advantage of going to the Olympics, and that’s a goal of mine too—to be on the Olympic team, which is easier said than done, but that would be a dream goal.
Are you planning to do any bike races to work on that weakness?
I’m not planning on doing any bike-only races because I want to do a triathlon! I might from a training standpoint, but I’ve been waiting long enough. If I could have done one in the fall I would have. I’ve been toying with this idea since the fall, and really even the summer, [but] I didn’t have time—the tri season was ending.
What is going to be your first race?
It depends on the timing. I am still going to run the Millrose Games [track meet] as my last pro track race. Obviously saying I’m never going to run again would be misleading. I need to get through that first and I still want to run well, so we’re going to wait until after that to figure out what would be appropriate. I’m still doing tri training until then but still hovering a little bit. I don’t want to commit to a race before I’m sure. [In her blog post, Webb’s wife Julia says an Olympic-distance race in March will be his first triathlon.]
Are you working with a coach for triathlon?
My running coach is John Marcus, and has been since the summer. I’ve been communicating with him with what to do since the summer and haven’t gotten into super-specific terms about workouts until very, very recently. He’s going to help me, basically coach, advise me on what to do for now.
What bike are you riding?
Cervélo right now, the S2. I had some injury stuff last winter, running wise. That was sort of another reason why the idea came up, and I was really considering it at that point. I got connected with a local tri shop called the Athlete’s Lounge in Portland, and they helped me get a bike and I like it. That was another sort of step toward starting to [switch to triathlon] and I did cross-training on that. It was great because I already had it when I was like, “This is something I really want to consider” late last summer.
Have you spoken with other former runners who have successfully switched to triathlon, like Gwen Jorgensen or Hunter Kemper?
I haven’t talked to them, no, but I’ve heard their stories. I was struggling with injuries again, and my former coach Jerry [Schumacher] told me Gwen’s story because he was the coach at University of Wisconsin, and that’s where she went to school. He said, “You could have success there and maybe should consider it.” Jerry brought up her name, and I know Hunter Kemper’s name and I know of his success. I do know Jarrod Shoemaker. I ran against him in high school. Jarrod did very well. I haven’t seen or spoken to him in quite a while, but I remember when he was doing very well and being around and hanging out and thinking, “Man, this guy is really doing awesome,” and that was during my peak years of running, so I was happy for him and I was just as a spectator. It’s only now that I’m like, “Oh man he did such a good job.” Hopefully I can emulate someone.
What would you consider success in the sport?
Like I said, my ultimate goal is to compete at the highest level. We’ll see whether that’s a realistic goal. If you ever asked me what my goal is in running, it’s to win 10 Olympic gold medals and set the world record. Is that reality? Maybe, maybe not. My goal is to go as high as I can go, the sky is the limit, but let’s not count our chickens before they hatch. I want to get in there and compete and make appropriate goals after that. Based on what other people tell me and what my potential is, I think being in the mix to make the Olympic team is something that’s possible. It’s a very real possibility, easier said than done. It’s a realistic dream.
When you mention making the Olympic team, do you mean the team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio?
Yes, sir. I have two years. I am going to try to get up there. We’ll see. I need to do a race and get a pro card first. I’m going from step one.
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