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What happens when you take one of the best American runners of all time and turn him into a triathlete? Hopefully, for Alan Webb, an Olympic medal.
Ask anyone who was on a high school track team around the early 2000s who the biggest name in running was, and chances are they’ll all answer the same: Alan Webb.
Webb first achieved national status when he broke the four-minute mile barrier as a high school senior (in 2001)—first indoors in 3:59.86, and then, months later, by breaking Jim Ryun’s 36-year-old record by a full two seconds with a 3:53.43. In 2007, he set (and still holds) the American mile record, 3:46.91.
For almost a decade, Webb accumulated a list of accolades that solidified his legendary status in the running world: He holds impressive PRs for the 800 meters (1:43) to the 10,000 meters (27:34), he won the 1500-meter final at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials; and, perhaps most notably, his record-setting mile, ran at a meet in Belgium in 2007.
His illustrious accomplishments led to a level of celebrity not common for a young track star—an appearance on “The David Letterman Show,” a book written about his sub-4:00 quest, countless magazine covers and articles, a Nike contract and a frequent spot on Internet running forums.
With the trajectory he had become accustomed to, Webb had his sights set high. “I didn’t want to think that the American record was going to be my best. I wanted to break it,” he says. “I wanted to break my own record and run faster and have a medal—I didn’t want to rest on my laurels and sit back and say, ‘Oh this is as good as I can do.’”
Eventually his streak of success started to resemble a rollercoaster. He navigated through a series of discouraging results (including missing the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams) and an array of injuries. He switched distances, coaches, locations, seemingly anything to try to get back to the runner he once was, all while dealing with toxic message board participants scrutinizing his every move and the feeling of defeat that came along with not living up to his own standards. “I made a lot of mistakes with myself,” Webb admits. “Everything—training, moving and living situations, coaching, just my own mentality, to name a few, but I think that after all that, if things had happened differently, I might have wanted to continue even if I wasn’t setting PRs.” His frustration led to the decision to retire from running after the February 2014 Millrose Games.
“I had lofty goals and I accomplished some of those goals—not all of them to be honest—and I got to the point where I felt like, after another round of injuries and disappointing performances, kind of coming to terms with the fact that I had given everything I could give as a professional runner,” Webb says. “I had come to the point where I just wanted to do something else.”
That “something else” for some retired athletes is a transition to coaching or corporate America. For 32-year-old Webb, it’s racing triathlon. And not just as a side hobby—he wants to go to the 2016 Olympics.
“My original dream was to be an Olympic swimmer.”
Webb was in eighth grade when Athens was awarded the 2004 Olympics, and his sister Lisa brought him back a T-shirt from her visit to Greece. At the time, he wore it with the dream of competing in the Games—as a swimmer. Growing up in Reston, Va., he swam on a club team starting at age 11. He excelled in the pool, but his talent in running was undeniable, and juggling the two sports became too much by the time he was a sophomore in high school. He had to make a choice, and that choice was running.
“It was tough at the time—to give up that journey,” Webb says. “It was maybe a false hope at that point to think I could be an Olympic swimmer, but to give that up to be a runner … I think I made the right choice. I had instant success and I realized, ‘Whoa—I’m not good, I’m really good.”
He held on to that T-shirt, though, and wore it during warm-up at every meet in 2004 leading up to Athens, where he ran the 1500 meters (he got cut after the first qualifying round). And even though he stopped competing in the pool as a teenager, he never completely lost sight of swimming—Webb actually says his best years in running (2006–2007) were when he was cross-training the most in the pool.
“I’m in uncharted territory.”
Nearing the end of his running career, Webb started conversations with the leaders of USA Triathlon’s High Performance Team, whose goals are to identify and develop elite athletes with Olympic potential. Head coach Jonathan Hall urged him to come watch a super-sprint race in San Diego in the fall of 2013. Webb’s somewhat naïve curiosity led to genuine interest.
“It took someone grabbing the reins and bringing him down here to have a look at it,” Hall says. “And reassuring him that it was something he was capable of doing. I guess we were recruiting from one point of view, but trying not to sell anything, so to speak. We wanted to give him a clear picture if this was something he wanted to do.”
For someone who lived and breathed one regimented sport for most of his adult life, the idea of the unknown appealed to Webb. The pressure of beating his old times would be lifted. The lack of expectations would allow for a fresh start. And he could have the potential to be really good again.
USAT coaches took Webb under their collective wing and guided him through the process of learning what draft-legal ITU racing was all about and essentially taught him how to train for triathlon. Hall added more purpose to Webb’s swim workouts, introduced him to some tools like a power meter on the bike, and structured his training to get the most out of his time as a husband and father (he and wife Julia have a 2.5-year-old daughter, Joanie).
“I’m in uncharted territory for myself,” Webb says. “It’s a little bit scary. It’s kind of an exciting thing.”
Webb’s unique pedigree didn’t fit perfectly into any of USAT’s current programs, but he was in a similar situation to some of the athletes in the Collegiate Recruitment Program (CRP), best known for helping turn college runner and swimmer Gwen Jorgensen into the ITU world champion she is today. Last June, Webb attended a camp at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., with some of the CRP athletes and Hall at the helm. “We make no apologies—the Collegiate Recruitment Program is kind of fast-track, predominantly athletes who have been competing at a high level mainly in track and field, that’s aimed to have success in the Olympics,” Hall says.
“I feel like I can’t really lose.”
Throughout the latter half of 2014, Webb eased his way into racing with a few sprints, first taking a win at the Life Time Tri Marquee in April. He got a spot on the U.S. mixed relay team that placed fifth at the World Triathlon Series race in Hamburg alongside Jorgensen, Kaitlin Donner and Ben Kanute. He placed in the top 10 in two Pan American Cups, and his most confidence-boosting result came at a World Cup in Tongyeong, Korea, in October, where he got 10th.
“You have dreams and you set goals for yourself, but there’s a difference between a goal and a realistic goal,” Webb says. “I think I was really happy the way I progressed last summer and it confirmed things that I wanted to believe. I really started to believe special things could happen for me in this sport.”
It was enough to convince him to go all-in and temporarily uproot the family from Beaverton, Ore., to Scottsdale, Ariz., in order to train exclusively with a small group of USAT high-level athletes through April 2015.
Thankfully he’s always had the important buy-in from Julia. “I had been bouncing this idea off of her a lot,” Webb says. “She knew how frustrated I was getting. I didn’t want to keep putting so much into my running and not getting anything out of it and not enjoying it. She saw that, and she saw the fact that triathlon presented a new type of goal for me, and she was really supportive of it. She knows that, in athletics, there’s a timeline for these goals.”
Although he’s still a relative newbie who admits he’s made plenty of mistakes—like looking down at his feet while putting on his bike shoes and winding up with his face on the sidewalk during a race—Webb’s athletic hunger has been revived.
“It’s brought back my desire to be competitive, or to feel like I have the potential to be competitive,” he says. “That’s part of what I lost—I didn’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel. I guess I wanted to redefine what competitive means. It was hard for me to keep having to lower my expectations for myself as a runner. I had reached a pretty high level, the highest level, and so it was hard to dig real deep to claw my way back to that. I understood you have to take steps, but it was difficult to readjust my goals properly. … Whereas now, I’m starting from the bottom. You have to. My expectations are a little bit different than they would have been, in a positive way.”
Without backing from a big-name sponsor or the knowledge base to navigate the complicated Olympic qualifying system, Webb has relied heavily on (and has been grateful to have) USAT’s guidance. He knows the next two years will involve a lot of travel and racing to acquire enough points to earn his spot on the starting line of WTS races (ITU’s highest level) in 2015. He’s taking his new venture step by step with a renewed sense of optimism.
“I feel like I can’t really lose—and I love being in that position,” Webb says. “I’ve been through a lot and I have a different perspective now. It’s only going to be a success, because the purpose is to get the best out of myself. You can’t tell me that I failed; I’m the only person who’s measuring that. I’m the only person who knows if I’m giving it my all. I know I can do that—and I am.”
Olympics 2016: What are his chances?
There has never been an American man to podium at the Olympic Games. In 2012, the highest American male was Hunter Kemper, who placed 14th. Could Webb break that streak? “The door is surely open for [an American] man to take that spot and Alan certainly has the raw ingredients to do so if he continues on the current trajectory,” coach Jonathan Hall says. “Obviously the end game is to get him to Rio. And not just get him to Rio, but we quite openly talk about him on the podium in Rio.”
Training With Alan
What it’s like to have a running celebrity in the training group.
“Alan Webb is a larger-than-life character and there’s a lot of myth surrounding him. I think not only is this about looking at his now Olympic aspiration, but having him in the group with the athletes brings an incredible amount of character, humanity and humility. He’s a very interesting man, and it’s been already a huge positive to the program just to have him involved.”
–Coach Jonathan Hall
“It’s funny because a couple years ago, you would say ‘Alan Webb’ and you’d think—whoa. But now, it’s good because we’re friends [so] he’s just Alan Webb. He has been through a lot and has gone through the whole Olympics process through running, so he knows a lot about what works and what doesn’t. He brings a lot of experience in that way. I’ve been doing triathlons for a long time and he can ask me triathlon questions, and he’s been a great role model and mentoring me through questions I have.”
–Kevin McDowell, one of Webb’s Scottsdale training partners
Webb’s Running PRs
A look at his fastest times throughout his pro career.
800m — 1:43.84 (2007)
1,500m — 3:30.54 (2007)
Mile — 3:46.91 American Record (2007)
2 mile — 8:11 (2005)
5,000m — 13:10 (2005)
10,000m — 27:34* (2006)
*As a triathlon comparison, gold medalist Alistair Brownlee ran an open 10K on the track in 2013 in 28:32.