Sparking an American Pastime
A nervous excitement spread through the spectators and it immediately felt as if we were doing this together, willing Alan around the track.
By JT Service, Running Times
Every sports fan has their IT moment. The day “IT” happened. Your grandfather remembers “IT” and your dad remembers “THAT”, while some probably even claim to have been present on that historic day. Maybe it was the day that Jordan dunked from the free throw line, the day Lance won his last, or the day Mickelson won his first.
Growing up in a passionate athletics family, where my father continues to be a university track & field coach, I was inundated with tales of America’s greatest distance runners. These stories often originated in the U.S.’s heyday of distance running, the scene often set in the parlance of the 70s and early 80s. Maybe it was Shorter’s Marathon gold, Prefontaine’s bravery or even Steve Scott’s Mile record of 3:47.69; a mark that went 25 years without being touched.
Now I have my “IT” moment that I will surely exaggerate and pass on to my children and grandchildren.
While some of America is fixated on Barry Bonds’ tainted home run chase, another American athlete chased down a record of his own, in a fashion as pure as the fluidity of his stride. In one of track’s marquee events, in a performance virtually unknown to the average U.S. sports fan, Alan Webb shattered the American record in the Mile, when he posted a 3:46.91. Strong, confident and graceful assess the effort given on that calm Saturday evening on July 21, 2007 in Brasschaat, Belgium. An athlete absent from ESPN’s “Who’s Now” crowd, Webb litigated a persuasive argument over the one Mile distance for being considered one of America’s best athletes.
My children’s likely response will be, “so what daddy,” but I will tell them the tale of American distance running; from its peak in the 70s and 80s to its valleys throughout the 90s. Then, I would tell them how I witnessed Webb organize an assault on Scott’s record, successfully reaching his goal in front of a meager, yet passionate crowd of an estimated 500 people. How that evening, that crowd, served as a perfect metaphor for the current state of American Track & Field, and how it fanned the flames of the U.S. revival in the purest of sports.
The track in Brasschaat is nestled within a park and substantially surrounded by protective trees, providing a wind wall and partial shade for the fans and athletes alike. And where the trees are not acting as nature’s cove, spartan stands are erected, lining both straight-aways. The place is not big, but it was certainly sufficient to host the record attempt. Of course, standard at each European track meeting is the popular beer garden and barbeque. In this case it consisted of an actual bar and plastic table settings on the top of the final turn where fans were allowed to cajole and feed in between events. Here it is easy to have a sandwich and a Stella, while watching tremendous feats of athleticism, a pastime in Europe equated to an American afternoon in the bleachers.
On this day, the weather would be beautiful and as the night crept in it became clear that it was perfect for an attempt at Steve Scott’s mark. There was a slight cloud cover, yet the weather was calm and the temperature mild, maybe 63 degrees. As for the wind, the flags failed to move even an inch and we—the athletes, the coaches and spectators—knew he would have a shot.
Most of the athletes, including the large contingent of Americans, had already completed their events for the day and we were just waiting for Webb’s run. While many of them were posted at the 1500 meter starting line on a grassy knoll, a few were dispersed in the beer garden enjoying the barbeque that had been tempting their senses throughout the day. And then as if we had almost been lulled to sleep by this serene scene the starter’s pistol exploded, signaling the beginning of the Mile. We raced to the rail to cheer on our colleague. A nervous excitement spread through the spectators and it immediately felt as if we were doing this together, willing Alan around the track. Through the first circuit, Webb was tucked behind the pre-ordained pace setters and he simply looked focused on the task at hand. This was a man on a mission, one that had been planned for many years.
For the better part of a decade, Webb and his coach, Scott Razcko, have been preparing him to be the best. At least since Webb broke Jim Ryun’s high school Mile record and likely even before then, the pair have had big goals. Razcko has always had long term plans for Webb and besides a small stint in college; he and Webb have worked together. Their long term goals of American records, World Championships, and Olympic medals put Webb on a rocky course. Even as critics commented on the snags and hiccups that would accompany anyone training through races and supposed missed opportunities, Webb and Razcko stayed the path. On this Saturday evening, that path led Webb to one of his first goals.
When Steve Scott had set that seemingly unattainable mark, American Track & Field was on the upswing. Scott was competing with the world’s best, including the likes of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. People cared about the Mile and in turn so did the media. Now, even though Webb’s camp announced that the record attempt was on, the U.S. media failed to lift a finger. In fact the only American filmed coverage of the event was from Mark Floreani’s internet based FloTrack, a small company that has recently been covering the sport through videos of interviews and races.
Finding the positive in the lack of attention, Webb seemed to invite the low-key nature of the event describing the atmosphere of the day as “pure”. Without any major media outlets on hand or rabid marketing campaigns looking to capitalize on such an event, this meet created a simple experience between the fans and the athletes. The athlete ran simply to see how fast he could go and the fans were there to enjoy the effort.
As the Milers came around the second lap, the first pacer was right on queue and a legitimate attempt was in the works. However, as Webb came through 800m it seemed as though the second pacer was slightly off the mark. Understandably this pacer had the duty of going through an entire 1200 meters at a very difficult clip, but it would make the final loop arduous for the American. Webb, wanting to come through the early laps a little faster, failed to let the circumstances break his confidence. He ended up running even splits for the record, unofficially reported as 56.1, 1:55.5 (57.4), 2:49 (56.8), and then miraculously closing in another 56.
The last lap was by far the most impressive. Webb’s two pacers had veered off the track in the prior laps and with their job complete, they were left to cheer him on like the rest of us. In a race versus the clock, he started to wear down the ticking competition. With the crowd clapping and the American athletes screaming wildly, Webb found the energy to accelerate into the final straight. Even though there were only a few hundred people in the stands, the small group still made the final hundred meters deafening. He flew through the finish line and through the blurred sounds of screaming fans as the announcer made it official.
American Track & Field was back.
After his arms had been raised in triumph and Webb had taken a well deserved victory lap, the track became eerily quiet. The American athletes who had been stricken with excitement eased back within their thoughts. Taking into account what they had witnessed, I saw many distant and yet satisfied faces. These young American had just witnessed a long held record taken back by their generation. We could be good again; in fact, we are good again. Dreams of future medal and record attempts were concocted right there by the athletes inspired by the unimaginable feat that they just witnessed. This was another spark in the resurgence of U.S. distance running.
The truth is the American distance athletes are making great strides towards becoming some of the best in the world. Aside from Webb, runners like Ryan Hall, Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi are taking it to the world’s best in the marathon. In the 5000, Matt Tegenkamp may get his own American record after taking over as America’s fastest two miler just last month. Shalane Flanagan already covered the 5000 meter distance faster than any other American this past April, while Jen Rhines is constantly hot on her heels. Dan Lincoln took the steeple record back for his generation last summer, while Lisa Galaviz followed up with her own American steeple record this summer. At 800m, including Webb’s recent best of 1:43.84, it is difficult to also ignore Khadevis Robinson and the young Nick Symmonds who are prepared to take on all-comers. These are athletes leading the U.S. distance revival.
Alan’s record in front of his fellow athletes may just be the spark that ignites a fire amongst U.S. middle distance runners. Heading into the World Championships and then the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the athletes are beginning to believe. Even if it is simply the support of each other and a few hardcore fans, they are gaining the mettle to face the elites from around the world. Like chiseled pieces of flint, Webb and the American contingent will continue to spark a fire on the track and it is up to us to fan those flames in support of their constant endeavors.
In the end, and as one of the few lucky people at the Atletiek Vlaanderen meet in that sleepy suburb of Antwerp, I could easily provide a rare description of the day. And while I could reveal to you the calm nature of Alan’s demeanor, or the sly smile on his face an hour before the gun, or even the words exchanged between he and his coach shortly before the race, it is the spirit of the day that is difficult to portray. It is the simplicity and purity of track & field that truly reflects one man’s incredible effort and dedication to a goal, and its unlikely sparking of an American pastime in a European village.
U.S. Mile record progressions HERE.
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