For more than three decades, U.S. runners had been chasing memories of Jim Ryun, the last U.S. man to win an Olympic medal, a silver in 1968, in the metric mile.
That began to change Sunday, when Alan Webb outran the past.
Not only did Webb, of Reston, Va., smash Ryun's 36-year-old national high school record in the mile, but he held his own in an international field led by history's fastest miler, Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.
At the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., a meet named for Webb's childhood hero, the 18-year-old high school senior stole the show from Olympic sprint champions Maurice Greene and Marion Jones by finishing fifth with a time of 3 minutes 53.43 seconds.
That bettered the 3:55.3 Ryun clocked as a Wichita, Kan., senior in 1965.
"I wanted that high school record," said Webb, headed to the University of Michigan.
El Guerrouj, 26, world record-holder in the mile and metric mile, won the race in 3:49.92, the fastest outdoor mile ever run in the United States.
Yet the four-time world mile champion and 2000 Olympic silver medalist was almost an afterthought to the sellout crowd of 11,211. El Guerrouj shared his victory lap with Webb, who then took another on his own.
"Alan Webb can become my No. 1 rival if he really works at it," El Guerrouj said. "Obviously, he has a great future."
In January, when he ran 3:59.86 indoors, Webb had become the first U.S. high school miler to break four minutes since Marty Liquori in 1967.
"Before today, Alan was shooting for something that hadn't been done in 34 years or a record that lasted 36 years," said ex-miler Craig Masback, chief executive officer of USA Track and Field. "Today he did something that never had been done before."
Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic had a similar achievement Sunday in Gotzis, Austria, where he became the first person to top 9,000 points in the decathlon. Sebrle's total, 9,026, broke the record of 8,994 set in 1999 by countryman and training partner Tomas Dvorak.
In less than four minutes, Webb went from being the kid challenging high school records to the favorite in the metric mile at the U.S. championships next month.
How big had Webb become? In the interview area after the race, as dozens of reporters surrounded Webb, only one was talking with Marion Jones, the world's leading female track athlete, about her victory in the 200 meters.
"I think this is great experience for nationals," Webb said. "I don't want to make predictions, but after today I've proved myself at that level.
"Now I want to get to the next level, to put myself in position to win international races."
A national-meet finish in the top three would earn Webb a spot on the U.S. team for the August world championships, provided he could make the world-meet qualifying time of 3:36.20. Webb was clocked in 3:38:26 at the 1,500-meter point Sunday, breaking Ryun's high school 1,500 record of 3:39.
Webb's mile was fastest by any U.S. runner since Richie Boulet's 3:53.26 in 1998. Webb has run three seconds faster outdoors than any other U.S. miler this season.
As impressive as Webb's final time was his tactical mastery of the plan he set out in a race where the pace-setting was done for El Guerrouj. Webb was not discomfited by running next to last of the 16 starters at the midway point, which he reached in 1:58.
"I think I ran great splits," Webb said. "I played it pretty conservative for the first two laps, but at the end of the third, I pulled up on the pack.
"I got excited then. I was like, 'I'm five meters from El Guerrouj with a lap to go.""
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