Lear’s Latest Reaches the Medal Stand Again: Sub 4:00
By SteveU (Stephen Underwood), DyeStat.com
This review of Sub 4:00 will start a little backwards, with my
recommendation, which would usually come
at the end. Why? Because the most important thing I have to say
is this: BUY THIS BOOK. If you love track and field, do it on principle
alone. Not only will you be in for a very enjoyable ride, but in
a very real sense, you’ll also be contributing to the sport.
I’m not (yet, at least) a close personal friend of author
Chris Lear, nor will I personally benefit from saying the above.
But note this: Outside of the “How to Train For Your First
Marathon” books, there ain’t exactly a lot of literature
out there for the competitive runner. Fans of baseball, basketball
and football know that they’re always going to have a wide
selection of accounts on the elite levels of the sport, frequently
by fine authors like John Feinstein, Frank Deford and a sea of others.
Until Chris Lear came along, do you remember a whole lot of offerings
on college track and CC? I sure don’t.
Lear has given fans of our sport a lot more to enjoy the past few
years. Buy the book.
All that said, Lear has a real challenge here and it’s not
unlike the expectations laid on his prime subject. His wildly popular
debut, Running With the Buffaloes, was an unimaginable dream come
true for a literature-starved competitive running community. There
had been virtually nothing like his day-by-day account of the Colorado
men’s CC team before. So Lear is faced with improving in his
sophomore effort, but that’s not all. While many readers were
familiar with what the Buffs did in 1998, there obviously was nowhere
NEAR the scrutiny of their season that there was of Alan Webb and
the Michigan Wolverines in 2001. And while the Buffs’ NCAA
meet wasn’t entirely successful, though Adam Goucher had the
monster win, it was a much “happier” ending than Webb’s.
So Lear has the additional task of capturing and holding our interest
for a story we know reasonably well and that has a bummer ending.
Not an easy thing to do.
But let’s be honest. The conflict that developed that led
to Webb’s decision to go pro, in a sense, was a break for
Lear as a writer. Drama that wouldn’t have otherwise been
there adds something to the book that was lost by the lack of Webb’s
success. We want to know as much as possible about the give and
take between Webb, UM head coach Ron Warhurst and the rest, and
for the most part, we get it.
The Early Laps
Admittedly, I wasn’t completely enamored with the first five
chapters or so of Sub 4:00. Like the first 600 meters or so of most
championship 1500s, several elements of the book seem to be jockeying
for position. The flow seems choppy and you get thrown around a
little bit between past and present tense as Lear sets the story
up. (On a second read, some of the complex structure early actually
came together better for me, though).
However, we are given most of the necessary quality background
material in the book’s first five chapters, mixed in with
what had happened to cause Webb to be injured, some present-day
stuff and so on. (Note: For some reason, I had thought this book
was going to cover Webb’s entire freshman year, including
that stellar cross-country season. Unfortunately it doesn’t,
but there are some key workout highlights that set things up).
Actually, one thing missing here is the dated daily diary approach.
Lear writes most of the book in this style, using the present tense
and time-frame wording such as “today” and “tomorrow,”
but without the actual dates to head up these chapters or sections
it’s confusing at points, especially during the book’s
first five chapters.
But the background stories of Webb, Warhurst, fellow super frosh
Nathan Brannen and others are put together well. I enjoyed learning
about Warhurst’s military background and path to the present.
And the story of Webb’s legendary 3:53.43 HSR at Pre is well-documented,
with an added perspective from collegiate elite milers Adrian Blincoe
and Ryan Hayden slipped in. The thought they were left with after
watching the race on TV, “How, then, do you possibly top that?”
is one of the themes of the whole book.
Unfortunately, Webb never does top that, nor has he to this day.
And in these early chapters, even before the spring season has started
in earnest, Webb’s doubt and discontent are festering.
As the days wore on, his winter season vanishing, he turned to
Warhurst, searching for a plan. He didn’t get it. “It
wasn’t good (Webb says). Many, many times I just had no idea
what I was supposed to be doing ...”
The Later Laps
For me, things pick up noticeably by Chapter 6, appropriately entitled
“Escaping the Abyss.” To again use the championship
1500 analogy, someone has suddenly started running 56 pace and the
race is on. Beginning with his account of Webb’s (and Broe’s)
doubt-inducing “Arbs” run in early March, Lear’s
narrative gets more linear and the pace of the training and racing
accounts gets moving. Most importantly, the drama kicks in, which
is what we most have to look forward to.
As Webb struggles through the workout, what I can only describe
as his impetuous nature is revealed. Lear writes, “Warhurst
tells him to call it quits and head back to the indoor track for
some speedwork. Webb stubbornly refuses.” Says Broe after
the workout, “Oh, well, he’s got a lot to learn.”
But does he ever learn?
A few days later, Lear shares the details of a meeting where some
of the potential trouble spots are further revealed. “You
can only serve one master,” Warhurst tells Webb. Later in
the meeting, Lear writes, “Sully implores Webb to have faith
in his own God-given ability.” The meeting apparently has
a good resolution, Webb saying, “I just got off track a bit.”
But it’s only temporary. What Lear will describe as Webb’s
“perfectionist bent” and predominant inability to “satisfy
his most demanding critic – himself” will contrast with
the fact that the frosh star is also (as Lear says regarding the
Mt. SAC race) “nothing more than a guy in the race –
at the collegiate level.” Brannen will eventually find the
way to reconcile his pre-collegiate superstardom with the adaptation
skills necessary on the collegiate scene. Webb will not, despite
“the desire that separates him from so many.”
Though some successful workouts ensue and high hopes are periodically
raised, Lear deftly captures the ironic turning point in the stay-or-go
question as Warhurst exults after a strong workout of Webb’s.
Collegiate track is, Warhurst says, “a bridge to the pro level.
(Webb) may have had thoughts that he was ready to go pro earlier,
but now the kid knows better.” Then the coach receives the
phone call from USA Today writer Dick Patrick that was truly the
beginning of the end.
I loved the Penn Relays chapter that followed, which not only includes
the USA Today drama as Webb’s potential go-pro aspirations
are subversively revealed, but Sully’s (post-grad pro miler/assistant
coach Kevin Sullivan) coaching baptism and the great Franklin Field
As the season continues to heat up, Lear’s strengths are
displayed as he conveys the ups and downs of training and racing
at this level (Jim Ryun’s Forward to the book does this well,
too, by the way). Oddly, there was something from the Jurassic Park
movie I saw (again) one day before I finished that was a metaphor
for what’s going on here. Remember the “Chaos Theory”
of Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum’s character)? We see how the
finest strategic moves, the finest adjustments in training, the
most minute variances in mental states – mixed in with that
of every other competitor – can make the difference between
a winning 3:42 1500 and a 5th-place 3:44. Two athletes may have
very similar training times and so on, but in the chaotic cauldron
where every strength and weakness is exposed, every detail matters.
Did Webb win or lose because of those details?
“If they’re just patient, I can get ’em where
they need to be,” Warhurst says of the training. However,
Lear writes, Webb has “developed a dependence on his watch
(his ‘digital governor’), often checking his spits in
100-meter increments, and this has maddened Warhurst, who’d
like to see him running more according to feel. Winning requires
moving on instinct, feeling when the time is right and reacting
with reckless abandon.”
The race-descriptions themselves could hardly be better. When Blincoe
makes a move in the NCAA 1500, for example, Lear describes him as
“bursting free like water through a levee.” When Webb
dies in the last 50 meters, “The track turns to sand before
While the story moves to its unfortunate conclusion, the companion
accounts of Brannen’s journey are most enjoyable. It could
be said that Brannen provides an alternative center to the book,
with Lear showing him to have a more natural life balance and seeming
more like a normal freshman, despite his incoming credentials. Of
course, the Canadian did have his own period of uncertainty following
his first CC season. But during track, you almost look forward to
the Brannen passages as a relief from the pain of the Webb sections.
You know that ultimately, he’s successful and his 1:46.00
5th at NCAAs is the comparatively upbeat finish that Webb’s
story didn’t have. Frankly, without Brannen, the book, however
well done, would feel like much more of a downer.
After his NCAA run, Lear writes, “the normally stoic Brannen
is powerless to suppress a grin. ‘I’ve never been as
proud to wear the M as I was today.’”
But Brannen’s reactions are strong to some of Webb’s
doings. After Webb stomps off after losing the Jesse Owens 800,
“Brannen is ticked at Webb’s indignant manner ‘What
does he think, he’s just gonna kill us?’” Later,
the Canadian’s reaction to one of the USA Today stories is,
“I’m sick of it.”
The only thing missing in the Webb-Brannen axis that I would have
liked to have read is how they got on as roommates. Lear does provide,
at several points, insight into their relationship. But some off-the-track
stuff would have been interesting, too. We do, at one point, get
some pretty interesting stuff from one of Webb’s professors,
but that’s about it, off the track.
The Final Kick
Ultimately, Lear squeezes just about all the juice out of the turnip
of this season. Given what we already know about Spring 2001, we
get about as much new insight as we could have. Lear does well in
maintaining balance and neutrality, given the conflicts and the
human instinct to pass judgment. You get a subtle sense of his take,
but are left to draw your own conclusions regarding the approaches
and decisions that Webb, Warhurst and the rest of the cast took
and made that year.
Perhaps the most delectable piece of “new” information
is a key interview with John Cook, a former George Mason coach who
was a mentor to Raczko. In this we learn what MAY have been some
of the genesis behind Webb’s decision. But even as Cook is
putting the collegiate system to task, he is indicting Webb for
mixing Raczko’s and Warhurst’s training systems.
Ultimately, Lear will write of Webb, “For him, running is
not just an activity – it defines his being. It’s why,
despite his full scholarship at Michigan and some notable successes,
he’s contemplating charting another course to get his running
– his life – back on track.” You are left with
the question, “How could it all have been better?” Some
readers may feel they know. I did not, especially given the uncertainty
of Webb’s success in the year since he’s left Ann Arbor.
Has Webb been a victim of the conflicting and scrutinizing forces
around him or has he created his own difficulties? The closest I
can come to an answer is that impetuousness is not a quality that
well serves the post-high-school runner. Whether or not Webb went
pro from the get-go or after a year at Michigan, there’s seems
to be something in his OWN personal approach that doesn’t
work. That’s the strongest feeling I got from the book. But
in any case, it is Lear’s strength that he mostly walks the
line in presenting the case and lets you decide.
It’s quite interesting, though, that in the Epilogue, Lear
describes a post-Webb 2002 Michigan cross-country scenario where
“Everyone ... marveled at how tight the team had become and
how much more cooperative the atmosphere seemed compared to what
existed a year earlier.”
Still, as Lear concludes, he’s left with not answers, but
Many of my criticisms of the book are made as a fellow writer and
editor, not simply a runner. As a runner, you should enjoy the ride
and cherish it; yes, you should support it. We need more Chris Lears
in the world and we want and need more from the one we’ve
got. May he continue to reveal to us the world of elite distance