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Mile Record Holder On Track With Triathlon

By Peggy Shinn | July 23, 2014, 5:30 p.m. (ET)

Alan Webb competes in the men's 1,500-meter heats at the 11th IAAF World Athletics Championships on Aug. 25, 2007 at the Nagai Stadium in Osaka, Japan.

At the PATCO Sprint Triathlon Premium Pan American Cup in Magog, Quebec, on July 19, Alan Webb crossed the finish line just a couple of steps behind 2012 Canadian Olympian Kyle Jones.

“Had awesome race today coming in 2nd ‪#MagogITU,” tweeted Webb, the American record holder in the mile who switched from track to triathlon just five months ago.

The Magog race was only Webb’s third individual triathlon and a sign that the runner’s change of sports might be one of his best moves yet.

“One of the exciting things about Alan is probably what we don’t know,” said Jonathan Hall, USA Triathlon’s performance leader who has been coaching Webb. “He’s already competing at a high level, and there’s a huge margin for the unknown and improvement.”

Although new to triathlon, Webb, 31, had been on USA Triathlon’s radar for several years. He had, after all, been a promising swimmer through his freshman year in high school. And that was before he went out for track — just because he wondered how good of a runner he could be.

Webb quickly proved that he was America’s next great hope in middle distance running, clocking his first sub-4:00 mile in January 2001 during his senior year. Then in May that same year, he broke Jim Ryun’s 36-year-old high school record in the mile, running 3:53.43. Webb also set the American high school record in the 1,500 at the same meet. Both records still stand.

Alan Webb races for Team USA at the ITU Mixed Relay World Championships on July 13, 2014 in Hamburg, Germany.

Chris Lear, author of “Sub 4:00: Alan Webb and the Quest for the Fastest Mile,” described Webb as having a “V8 engine in a V6 body.” With fast-twitch muscle fiber, Webb could unleash a blistering finishing kick. As others tired, Webb could rev his big engine in the final lap and bring the crowd to its feet. Webb could also run a competitive 10,000-meter time.

But Webb’s pro career was marked with as many highlights as lowlights. For example, he made the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team by winning an emotional 1,500 at Olympic Trials. But then in Athens, he failed to make the Olympic final.

Then in 2007, at a small meet in Belgium, he ran the mile in 3:46.91, breaking the American record.

It would be the pinnacle of his track career. Two weeks later, he hurt his hamstring, thus beginning a long series of injuries and frustrating attempts to comeback.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” said Webb. “After [setting the mile record], I had such high expectations.”

He trained hard and long, but the injuries compounded.

“Alan’s tendency is if five hours of training is good, why not six?” explained Lear.

Webb soldiered on because he refused to give up. Friends and coaches had suggested that he try triathlon, but he dismissed the idea.

Last fall, Hall asked Webb to come watch a super sprint triathlon in San Diego, and the runner at last conceded that it was time for a change.

“I wanted to see growth in myself again,” Webb said. “I finally got to the point where I was comfortable saying that I had given everything I had as a professional track athlete. I sort of accept that. Now I want to explore something else.”

On Feb. 15, 2014 at the Millrose Games in New York, he ran his last mile on the track and was given an emotional tribute.

Three weeks later, Webb competed in his first triathlon — part of a mixed relay team at a PATCO triathlon in Sarasota, Florida. His team finished fifth.

Since then, he has competed in three individual triathlons, winning two easily and battling with Jones and American Kaleb VanOrt at the Magog race. He also was selected to compete on the United States’ mixed relay team at the World Triathlon Series race in Hamburg, Germany, where he brought the team in fifth.

Lear believes Webb’s “natural inclination to do tremendous volumes of training might be perfectly suited for the demands of triathlon,” while training across three sports will hopefully keep more injuries at bay.

So far, Webb does not see over-training as an issue.

“Rarely in this adventure of me trying to be a triathlete have I felt like I’m not doing enough,” he said, laughing. “As a runner, you’re self-conscious about not doing enough. But so far in triathlon, in my very limited experience, I’m like, oh my gosh, I don’t even do nearly as much as some people do. It’s crazy.”

Being a parent is also keeping Webb’s training in check. Daughter Joanie just turned 2.

“If I’m so tired that I can’t even spend any time with my family, then that’s a sign,” he said. “It’s not a sacrifice I’m willing to make. If I get to that point, I’m probably doing too much.”

Hall has been impressed with Webb’s athletic ability in the swim, bike and run, and also his character.

“I saw someone who is what I call the seesaw,” explained Hall. “Incredibly confident, at times bordering on arrogant, but at the same time can be incredibly humble, incredibly vulnerable, incredibly willing to listen. From my experience, these are characteristics of athletes who go on to be the very best.”

Then there are the benefits of setting out on a new adventure where everything is new and fresh.

“His better running is behind him,” Lear said. “I can’t imagine how demoralizing it would be to go to your job every day and know that you’re never going to be what you once were. Here, he’s starting with an entirely clean slate. Just about every race he’s going out to, it’s going to be a personal best. It’s hard to quantify the positive psychological effect that’s going to have.”

The Rio Olympic Games in 2016 are Webb’s ultimate goal — “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that was my goal,” he confessed. But for the moment, he is not looking that far.

“I’m still establishing what my goals should be,” he said. “If I feel like I can move on to the world cup level, then I’ll move on to that. Once I get to that point, I’ll move on to the WTS level if I can get that far.”

And if he can reach that highest level, said Lear, “it really will be a hell of a final act to his athletic career.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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Alan Webb