Monday, July 7, 2008

What Alan Webb needs to do

Since everyone else in the world is chiming in on the Alan Webb situation, I’m going to have to finally dive into the debate. And while there are dozens of issues to splash around in, I’m going to keep my point simple.

Alan Webb does not have the instincts to be a champion 1500m man. Period. He can run very fast in paced races, and is capable of breaking more American records in the middle distances. But for Olympics and World Championships, he needs to look at the 5000m (possibly) and the 10,000m (definitely).

The more races I see the more I am convinced that while an athlete can learn better tactics, the very best tacticians have an inborn talent that enables them to instinctually make great racing decisions without a moment’s hesitation.

At the high school and even college levels, a miler can become great simply through great physical talent and conditioning—where Webb has excelled. But in international championships, the difference between champion and failure is razor-thin, and a moment’s hesitation on the track can easily lead to failure.

More than once Webb has displayed that kind of indecisiveness. It doesn’t matter how smart he is, or how good his race plan is, in championship racing, he who hesitates is lost. If he stays in the mile, he faces a career full of public recrimination for “failures” such as his fifth-place run yesterday. To win gold, he will need luck—amazing luck.

Luckily, Webb does have phenomenal skills that can take him beyond four laps. In his first ever track 10,000m he ran 27:34.72 and beat Dathan Ritzenhein. (And don’t look at Ritz’s lackluster Trials 10K performance and conclude he’s chopped liver. He ran 120M that week and his only tapering was going to single runs instead of doubles the three days before the race).

With his speed, and his proven long distance ability, Webb could be very dangerous in a championship 10,000m. He could be the master of the sit-and-kick. (And don’t be deluded by the Prefontaine mythology on sitting-and-kicking. In championship races with closely matched runners, he who leads usually loses.)

And because a track 10,000m is more spread out, and close-contact tactics don’t play anywhere near as big a role as they do in the 1500, Webb could excel at 25 laps, without ever exposing his weakness.

I would love to see Webb regarded as a success. Just because he had the misfortune of running 3:53 in high school doesn’t mean he should be sentenced to the mile for life.

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