American Milers

Ever since Jim Ryun, the former world record holder in the mile, ran his last Olympics in 1972, America has been searching for its next great middle distance runner. Steve Prefontaine had the most potential but was taken from us too early. Steve Scott ran in the shadow of the great Brits Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett, never really overcoming them. The latest hope was Alan Webb, who broke Jim Ryun’s high school mile record in 1999, and ran the fastest 1500 meter race this year, finishing in 3:30, just 4 seconds off the world record. He also broke Scott’s American mile record, running a 3:46.91 this year (the world record is 3:43.13). So all eyes were on Webb in Osaka for the 1500m World Championship final.
He broke out and took the lead for two laps, but the pace was slow, around 58 seconds for the first lap, and 59 for the second. If you do the math, you see that this translates to about a 3:54 mile, 8 seconds slower than he’s run this year. The pace picked up some on lap 3, with a 57 second lap, but the runners were all bunched together for a sprint finish. And out of the pack came not Webb, but newly-minted American Bernard Lagat, who took the title in 3:34.77. Lagat became an American citizen in 2004, but had to wait to race for the US until this year. He became the first American to win the 1500 at a world or Olympic championship since 1908.
For Webb, it was a disappointing result. He ran a good race tactically speaking. In earlier heats, he had to fight through traffic just to qualify for the finals, and it was clear he wanted to avoid that in the final. But if you are taking the lead and hoping to win, you need to break the runners with a good kick early with some quick laps. Instead, he allowed the entire field to stay in the race up to the sprint finish, and was punished for it, finishing 8th. He may say that he wouldn’t change a thing about the race, but he made some critical mistakes early in the race that came back to bite him in the end. Still, it is Webb, at 24 years old, not Lagat, who is the future of American middle-distance running, and I look forward to seeing him redeem himself at the Beijing Olympics next year.