Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Tue, 7 Aug 2001 09:10:20 -0400

Best Boys

RUNNING COMMENTARY 368

For me the best part of watching meets like the recent national championships isn't what happens on the track. I can read about that (and sometimes see some of it on TV), and likely learn more there than I could by watching in person.

The best part of being there is seeing the actors in the wings, before or after they go on-stage. My favorite sighting from this meet was an unplanned glimpse of Alan Webb.

He's THE American track athlete of the moment -- bigger than the M&Ms, Marion and Maurice (the third M, Michael, is all but retired). Never has a high school runner received more attention.

A case can be made for Jim Ryun being a better runner at the same age. But he ran in a time before Internet and cable (and even Runner's World).

Young Alan has websites devoted to him. He has made the cover of the New York Times and USA Today -- not the front of sports but the news section -- and has appeared on Leno and Letterman. He has visited the White House.

Sports Illustrated, which almost never profiles a runner now that Kenny Moore has left its writing staff, has profiled Webb. ESPN, whose "Sports Center" usually pretends that running doesn't exist, broadcast the national 1500 live to focus on this one runner.

Reporters and fans dogged most of Webb's steps here in Eugene. But even he needs to and knows how to get away from the prying eyes and probing questions. He runs away.

The day of his 1500 I had to dash back to my car parked several blocks from the track. Walking alone, I saw Webb warming up alone in this neighborhood.

I said nothing to him and resisted gawking at him. He had come out here specifically to avoid such attention.

Back at my seat I joked that I'd seen Webb and told him, "You're pretty good, but Jim Ryun was better." I came dangerously close to writing that after the Pre meet, where Ryun's high school mile record finally fell.

But such arguments are pointless. Jim was the best boy of his time, as Alan is of his. Enough said.

Well, not quite enough. I have a point to make here, but before making it I need to introduce another actor from the Eugene meet. I saw Dathan Ritzenhein only on-stage.

But I watched him more closely there than any of the leaders, paying him more attention than I would give to Alan Webb. Dathan is the other high school star of the moment.

Unlike Webb, he looks the part of a boy among men. In the Eugene 5000 he was the shortest, lightest and youngest runner.

But this didn't panic him, any more than running in the Pre meet or the nationals spooked Webb. Ritz knew what he had to run, paced himself perfectly from the first lap onward and came within a second of succeeding.

That is, he made the most serious run at the national 5000 record since Gerry Lindgren took it into space in 1964. Ritz missed that mark by seven-tenths of a second.

Now I'm trying to purge myself of yes-but thoughts. Good, yes, but Lindgren ran his 13:44.0 on a dirt track... yes, but Lindgren beat the Soviets and made the Olympic team the same year.

Forget all that. Lindgren was the best of his time, as Ritzenhein is his. Enough said.

I don't want my old-timer's biases to show. Jim Ryun and Gerry Lindgren were agemates of mine, born in the 1940s. I've run and talked and shared meals with both.

Ryun was the god of my youth, a bigger-than-life athlete I looked up to in awe. Lindgren was the overachieving kid, the much-faster me.

No young runner today could overtake them in my eyes. But my point here (and I do have one, though making it took awhile) is that today's runners need someone to inspire them as Ryun and Lindgren did me.

They now have their heroes, as I had mine. If they want to think Alan Webb and Dathan Ritzenhein are the best ever, and this gets lesser runners to go the extra mile, or the same mile faster, how can I object?

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