Only eight months after running a PB 3:32.52 shortly before the end of last season, US 1500 metres champion Alan Webb entered uncharted territory with his first-ever 10,000 metres race at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational meeting Sunday night at Stanford University. The result was a most revealing come-from-behind victory in 27:34.72.
It was the fastest-ever debut 10K performance for an American runner.
Just as much of the story was the man he defeated, distance specialist Dathan Ritzenhein - 23 and exactly two weeks older than Webb - who himself was pulled to a PB 27:35.65.
“Come-from-behind” may be a misleading descriptive term in this case because the two protagonists were never separated by more than several metres during the entire twenty-five laps of the race. Only after clearing the final curve did Webb seize upon the opportunity as he eased ahead of Ritzenhein with about sixty metres remaining before the tape. Webb’s final lap was 61.1, with Ritzenhein needing 62.0.
“Damn those milers,” laughed Ritzenhein at the end, knowing full well that Webb’s superior finishing kick would be the deciding factor if the two were close together at the end.
Former Olympian Gabe Jennings was enlisted as a pacemaker and took the field through kilometers of 2:44.7 and 5:28.1 before yielding to New Zealand’s Michael Aish, who continued the pacing with 8:15.8 and 11:02.0 as he exited at the 4K mark.
This tempo allowed Webb to hit the 5K at 13:48.1, with “Ritz” following closely at 13:48.2.
Then the teamwork started in earnest. Ritz took over the lead just before 5600, with Webb back in front after 6400. And so the lead-sharing would oscillate every two laps until Ritzenhein took over the front again at 8800. At this point, Webb was content to let his adversary remain in the lead position until he made his final move at the end.
“Yes, this lead alternating was something we had planned together before the race,” said Ritzenhein and also confirmed by Webb. “We both wanted to run very fast, and we knew this was the only way to do it after the pacemakers were gone.”
For Webb, the entire evening was a bit of delving into a “black box”, since his only previous experience with a race of any kind at this distance was a cross-country 12Km.
“I knew I had the capacity to kick, but I wasn’t sure I would ever get to that point,” admitted Webb later. “As the hurt got greater and greater, I wasn’t sure just how my body would react.”
“At the end, I admittedly wasn’t as ‘fresh as a daisy’,” he continued, “but I always knew I had that extra gear.”
“It was a perfect pace, and at an amazing place [Stanford] to run a race of this kind,” reflected Ritzenhein, who returned to the site of his first 10,000 two years ago, also a sub-28 maiden voyage.
‘Ritz’ runs for a fallen friend
The Michigan native also revealed that he had been bearing an emotional burden throughout the competition, as he learned shortly before traveling to California that a close boyhood friend had died in Iraq on Thursday after suffering more than five months in hospital after a roadside attack late last year in Baghdad.
“Matthew Weber was one of my closest friends,” noted Ritzenhein, gazing downward at the track. “I just kept thinking ‘Matt, Matt, Matt’ during those final laps. It was the best thing I could do in his memory, to run a good race.”
As the crowd was being hypnotized by the nail-biting duel being waged on the front edge, it wasn’t until the final two kilometres that Anthony Famiglietti could be seen slowly clawing his way from outside of striking range to within thirty metres of the lead pair.
Using a formula of three 66-second laps and a 65, the 8:17.91 steeplechaser - who has both Olympic and World Championships experience - moved in to provide extra drama in the closing stages. Also running in his career-first 10,000, Famiglietti’s third-place 27:37.74 might have been even faster had he not employed such a conservative strategy in admittedly unfamiliar surroundings.
Webb and Ritzenhein will be back in action during May. Webb has 1500/mile races planned in Los Angeles, Eugene, and either New York or Oslo, while Ritzenhein plans to go to the line next in Hengelo.
On why he emerged from a late-winter illness with the determination to try this ultra-distance, Webb joked that he wanted “to squash the rumour that he wasn’t planning to move up to longer distance.”
Now, he has a World Championships 10,000 qualifying time for Osaka as a result of his experimentation. And Ritzenhein and Famiglietti are probably also buying him drinks tonight for pulling them over this often insurmountable hurdle, too.
Despite the superlatives laid down by the men in the long race, tonight’s programme was off its usual high quality standard.
Easy win for Ochichi
Only a few other events reached an international level, one of them being the Women’s 5000, won by Olympic silver medallist Isabella Ochichi of Kenya in 14:59.79.
The race was a two-woman affair almost from the gun as Blake Russell headed Ochichi for most of the first three kilometers. But then the Kenyan, the Commonwealth champion at the distance, strided away for an easy win as Russell took a distant second place with 15:10.58.
Russell came back less than an hour later to pace the first two kilometres of the Women’s 10,000, won off a final kick by Dulce Rodriguez of Mexico in 32:19.58. Also in the closely bunched final pack at the end were Sara Slattery of the US (32:21.64) and a second Mexican runner, Madai Perez (32.22.09).
The Women’s 800 was won by 20-year-old Liu Qing of China (2:01.90) who closed the contest with a furious sprint past Frances Santin (2:02.10) and Poland’s Aneta Lemiesz (2:02.58).
Ed Gordon for the IAAF
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