Can Alan Webb get back to the Top?

Wed, 6 April 2011 - 12:54 p.m. MT
Credit: Steve Nearman - American Running Association

Along the Backstretch--------- ARA Commentary


By Steve Nearman
Correspondent for the American Running Association

[Ed note:  Alan Webb recently acknowledged that he has injured his shins and is out of next week's USATF Nationals in Eugene, Oregon.  He and his wife Julia also have confirmed that they indeed will move east to Charlottesville Viriginia to train under UVA's Director of Track & Field Jason Vigilante (Vig). Can Webb get back to the top in the U.S. as a miler/1500m competitor and make the 2012 USA Olympic Team? If not for being the American Record Holder in the Mile, most track followers would dismiss his chances for redemption on the track.  Here is our commentary from April]

 

What is known is that America’s fastest miler ever has left the training group headed by Alberto Salazar at Nike in Portland, OR, and is a free agent looking to land his third coach in two years.

While Webb was not available to discuss his future, his agent Ray Flynn of Flynn Sports Management was very candid Monday about his star athlete.

“Alan is in the process of making a decision of who will coach him in the future,” said Flynn, Webb’s agent since Webb turned pro in 2002.

The speculation on Webb’s future was no surprise. He’s about as close to having paparazzi following him than anybody else in the sport of running.

But the floodgates of prognostication let loose moments after Dave Monti, who publishes the popular Race Results Weekly and is the connected elite athlete coordinator for the New York Runners, tweeted at 4:16 p.m. on March 30: “We wish Alan Webb good luck in selecting his new coach. He will indeed be great again.”

Monti would know. He chatted with Salazar at the New York City Half a couple of weeks ago.

Will it be Ron Warhurst, Webb’s old coach from his one-year stint at University of Michigan? Will he go back to Scott Raczko, his mentor in high school who took Webb to the greatest of heights as the fastest U.S. prep miler ever (3:53.43) and then the fastest American over 1760 yards (3:46.91)? What about Gags, as in Frank Gagliano of Georgetown University fame and maker of such middle-distance stars as Steve Holman, Rich Kenah and others? Maybe John Cook, who was head coach at George Mason University when Raczko was his assistant, the very Cook responsible for two-time Olympian and 1987 World 1500-meter champ Abdi Bile and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Shalane Flanagan?

And what about another name being thrown around, Jason Vigilante aka Coach Vig, who left powerhouse University of Texas in 2008 to become the head track and cross-country coach for men and women at the University of Virginia?

American Running Association Executive Director Dave Watt spoke briefly in person with Vigilante, who acknowledged that "he and Alan have talked briefly." Watt asked Vigilante if he would consider taking on Webb and he responded: "I have three small kids and this team (gesturing to the athletes around him on the infield).”  Vig did say he expected to speak again with Webb, but it might not be for some time.

Agent Flynn preferred not to offer names of potential coaches, but instead stated that Webb was “quietly meeting with people.” Flynn stressed that Webb was looking as much if not more for the right fit with the other runners in the program than the perfect coach.

Flynn further offered that Webb left Salazar’s group after 20 months because he did not believe he was a good fit with runners more focused on 5,000 and 10,000 meters, like Galen Rupp and Mo Farah. Flynn added that “Alan wanted to be in line with a middle-distance group.”

Running for any of the aforementioned coaches may involve a relocation or more travel outside Oregon.

One of the ways for Webb to stay in Portland is for Webb to run for Nike-sponsored OTC/Portland coach Jerry Schumacker. Although the former Wisconsin coach brought on 1500-meter Olympian Lomong Lopez a couple of months ago, his horses are mainly distance runners like Chris Solinsky, Tim Nelson, Shalane Flanagan, Lisa Koll, Andrew Bumbalough and Matt Tegenkamp.

Webb turned 28 in January and the last time he PRd at 800, 1500, mile, and two mile was in 2007. Four years ago. I asked Flynn whether he felt this was the time for Webb to move up to 5,000 or 10,000 meters, both distances Webb has shown proficiency even though he has not trained specifically for longer races. He ranks in the top 10 or so all-time for an American in the 5,000 and 10,000 with bests of 13:10.86 (2005) and 27:34.72 (2006) respectively.

“That’s part of the problem,” Flynn said. “He’s shown he’s run those distances, too. Find me a runner who can run 1:43 for 800 and 13:10 for 5000.”

But Flynn said Webb is committed to getting back to where he was in 2007, running faster than his 3:46 mile best. “He thinks he can get back to where he’s been at 1500 and mile,” Flynn stated. “Maybe the next two years [for middle distance]. As a [longer] distance runner, there’s a lot of time left.”

However, all that aside, Webb’s bigger concern may be his contract with Nike, which since he went professional in 2001 may still be $250,000 per year plus incentives. Obviously, incentives have not paid well in the past four years. And with a spacious new home in Portland, the recently-married Webb supposedly is in contract negotiations with Nike, with huge expectations and multi-year guarantees. 

[Ed: Would he leave Nike?  Warhurst and Michigan are an Adidas' sponsored program while Vigilante's UVA athletic program is a Nike school.  This could be telling.]

Flynn offered Webb’s 3:37.82 performance in Melbourne, Australia, four weeks ago as evidence that Webb, after not qualifying for the 2008 Olympic team and battling injuries and anemia since then, is back on the right track.

“Alberto’s done a lot of good things for Alan,” he said.

The road back to 3:46 is incredibly filled with speed bumps. Finding the right sparring partners and coach is just one of the hurdles. Being patient over the next couple of years will be particularly challenging for Webb, who gained fame early in his running life and he has not been a particular patient runner or racer.

Then he has the added onus of aging so his biological clock is ticking. Of the seven men in history ever to run a mile faster than Webb – all of them retired now – only one ran a top time as old as age 27. The top three – Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, Noah Ngeny of Kenya and Noureddine Morceli of Algeria – were 25, 22, and 23 when they ran the world’s fastest three times and their personal bests. El Guerrouj ran his fourth-fastest mile at age 27. As well, the man one place ahead of Webb on the all-time mile list – Said Aouita of Morocco – also hit his PR in the mile at age 27.

Even Flynn, the legendary Irish mile record-holder, ran his mile best of 3:49.77 in 1982 at age 25.

A personal best in the mile for Webb at 28, 29, 30?

There, risk for failure and subsequent frustration in this lofty goal is high. This is obviously something that any professional coach would have to consider before accepting Webb into a training program.

 

 



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