Sub 4:00 is a riveting account of Alan Webb, one of America’s greatest track & field milers, that captures the up-and-down physical and emotional struggles he faced his freshman year in college that threatened to derail the future Olympian and American Record Holder.
Sub 4:00: Alan Webb And The Quest For The Fastest Mile by Chris Lear covers the 2001-2022 college running season of Alan Webb while a freshman at the University of Michigan. Lear is the critically acclaimed author of Running with the Buffalos, which centers on the 1998 University of Colorado’s men’s cross country team. He is an accomplished miler himself winning All-Ivy, All-East, and All-American honors while at Princeton University.
Alan Webb is the principal subject of the book. The American miler burst onto the broader running world consciousness when he ran 3:53 to break the American High School mile record previously held by Jim Ryan for the past 34 years. Overnight, Alan Webb became America’s next great miler chasing after the American Record and Olympic success. The last medal at 1500m by an American was Jim Ryan’s in 1968. (This has since been surpassed by Matt Centrowitz’s 1500m gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games.)
The journey starts during Alan’s freshman year at the University of Michigan under accomplished track & field coach Ron Warhurst. The book briefly recaps the successful Fall cross-country season followed by a Winter season cut short by injury. With that background, the book enters the Spring outdoor track season where the world is watching what Alan is capable of on the larger, more competitive NCAA stage.
Things are not going smoothly for Alan. There is tension with his coach whose running system is drastically different that that of Alan’s high school coach. There is tension with his teammates --- some who are outperforming him and others who are not participating the way Alan had envisioned when joining the Michigan program. And, there is tension as Alan adjusts to life as a college freshman while balancing the politics and business of U.S. Track & Field.
The book culminates in the 2002 NCAA Track & Field Championship. This is Alan’s last chance to salvage his, to date, unremarkable season. At the same time, he is thrust against a deadline to decide whether to return to the University of Michigan or to turn professional with the potential of a multi-million-dollar payday.
Overall, I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history and sport of running even beyond that of track and field.
Personally, I was never a competitive college or even high school runner. Therefore, the running world in which Alan Webb competes would seem unrelatable; however, in this book, Chris Lear describes the thoughts and feelings of the featured runners in way that is relatable to anyone that participates in the sport regardless of pace. The book makes it clear --- running a 1500 meter or mile personal best is painful at any speed. It is refreshing to see that running is hard even for the most gifted of athletes. There is work, pain, and disappointment. The result is a narrative that is relatable to runners, allowing the reader to dive deeper into the athlete’s stories.
One such story is the dilemma between staying in college or turning professional. It’s a story routinely reported in college football and basketball. Even as a fan of the sport, I was unaware that a similar struggled existed in collegiate track & field. The reader is put in the head coach’s chair as he balances the need for the university to field a competitive team across the cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track season with the optimal development needs for an individual runner seeking elite performance at one particular race. There is the summer international race season that is important for individual runners, but in the conflict with the university’s chartered athletic program goals. And, there is sponsorship dollars from top shoe and apparel brands that look even more appealing to a 20-year old college kid.
Lastly, this book continues to remind the reader that college runners are still kids. These runners may gifted athletically, but, for many, they are away from home for the first time. They are dealing with college classes, peer pressure, self-discipline, and the opposite sex. All of this in addition to the pressure of having to perform as the best national athletes. Alan Webb has the added pressure of international media coverage!
In a sport such as running that is driven by the unemotionality of the stopwatch, Chris Lear adds an empathetic layer to the race times and podium finishes that helps the reader feel what it must be like to run a mile in those kids’ shoes.