It took 3 minutes and 53.43 seconds in late May of 2001 for Alan Webb to ignite the heaviest track and running message board assault in history and establish himself in prep track immortality -- and as the DyeStat/ESPN RISE Track and Field Boys Athlete of the Decade. But Webb-mania actually began two years earlier.
In the Foot Locker Outdoor Championships, Brendan Mahoney won the mile in 4:04.78. But in second place, wowing track fans everywhere, was a sophomore from South Lakes High School of Reston, Va. Webb's 4:06.94 that day smashed a 36-year-old 10th-grade record by none other than Jim Ryun. Young phenoms don't always pan out, so no one knew that a much bigger Ryun record would be under siege a few years later.
Webb's stature grew the next fall when he won the first Great American Cross Country Festival in 15:03 in Charlotte, N.C. He returned there for a course-record victory at Foot Locker South, then was a mildly disappointing eighth in the super 1999 Foot Locker Finals in Orlando, Fla. Indoors, he won the Nike mile in 4:07.87.
Then came the Penn Relays. Webb turned the track world upside down with a 3:59.9 in the 1,600 to anchor his school's runner-up distance medley relay. In May, he took a much-hyped sub-4:00 shot at the Herbster Invite, settling for 4:03.33. Unfortunately, the season was cut short by injury.
In the fall of 2000, Webb again won Great American and set another course record at Foot Locker South, despite heavy rain. Momentum built to a manic level for the Foot Locker finals and a showdown with the other members of the year's "Big Three" of prep distance running, Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall. Ritz won decisively, with Webb 20 seconds back in second, but enormous anticipation kept building for that upcoming track season.
It didn't take long for the promise to be fulfilled. On Jan. 20, 2001, running in an elite field at the New Balance Indoor Games, Webb became history's first (and only) prep sub-4 minute miler indoors, taking second in 3:59.86.
"I want to go faster," Webb said.
Now fans could speculate with confidence regarding Webb's chances for Ryun's immortal 3:55.3 mark outdoors. Webb would add another indoor record with a 2:23.68 over 1,000 meters. At Nike Indoors, Webb had a 4:03.0 1,600 distance medley relay anchor, though his team lost, but then stormed back the next day for an epic shot at the 2-mile high school record, running a decade's-best 8:45.19.
Finally, it was time for Webb's senior year outdoors at South Lakes and the grand finale. He traveled to California for an epic victory at the Arcadia Invitational over Ryan Hall, lowering his outdoor PR to 4:01.81. He anchored two winning relays at Penn, the distance medley and 4x800. Then the great opportunity arose: Webb received an invite to compete in the Prefontaine Classic mile, against many of the world's best middle distance runners.
Would he be able to use it to take down Ryun's legendary 36-year-old record? The answer was a resounding "YES," as Webb blasted a 55.0 final quarter to place fifth in 3:53.43. He also set a 1,500-meter national high school record en route (3:38.26). So impressed was winner and world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj, that he took Webb on a victory lap with him.
The rest of the spring was anticlimactic, but Webb's 1:47.74 for 800 (No. 4 all-time), anchoring a high school record-setting distance medley relay at Adidas Outdoor (9:49.78, with a 3:59.80 1,600), and placing fifth in the USA Senior Nationals in the 1,500 against the pros was still impressive.
Since high school, Webb has had an up-and-down career. He ran one year at Michigan, then turned pro. He's won three national 1,500 titles and made the 2004 Olympic team (but failed to make second round of the 1,500 in the Olympics). He has run fast times for events from the 800 to the 10,000, including a spectacular American-record 3:46.91 mile in 2007.