Webb still holds the American record in the mile and still trains each day like he’s on fire. He has spent the past several years trying to return to that elite level where everything just clicks, where things happen instinctually.
Instead, he’s 29 years old now, and so much has changed. Away from the track, nearly all of it for the better: He’s back in Virginia, and he and his wife, Julia, are expecting their first child, a girl, any day now. But on the track, Webb’s best times are all nearly five years old, and he seems to be running circles in his own head.
What’s wrong? asked one voice in a small pack of reporters earlier this month in New York. Webb had just finished 11th in the 1,500 meters with a time that again fell short of the “A” standard required to compete in the Olympics. What’s wrong? It’s not an easy question.
Webb looked at the reporters and tapped his temple with his left index finger.
“It’s just in the head, you know,” he said.
‘Where everything started’
Just a couple of weeks earlier, Webb was flying around a high school track in Charlottesville, wearing just running shorts, shoes, sunglasses and a digital watch. There didn’t appear to be an ounce of fat on his sleek frame.
“He’s lost 17 pounds since the first of the year,” said his coach, Jason Vigilante, staring at the iPhone he uses to time Webb.
As Webb prepared for an Olympics push — realistically, the final one of his running career — he decided he needed to return home, back to where he felt most comfortable.
“It’s been great,” said his wife, Julia. “This is where he grew up; this is where everything started for him.”
Webb was just a teenager at South Lakes High in Reston when he burst onto the national scene, when he ran a sub-4-minute mile, when he broke Jim Ryun’s 36-year-old national high school record, when he appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman,” when he became a folk hero in the sport with a future as bright as anyone’s.
And he indeed lit tracks aflame from 2002 to ’07, improving his times, winning a national title in the 1,500 meters, running the mile faster than any American before him or since and twice winning the 5,000 meters at the Penn Relays.
Really, the only thing that seems to be missing from his résumé is Olympic success. At the 2004 Games in Athens, he failed to reach the final. He fared worse four years later, failing to even make the U.S. team for the Beijing Games. His chances of making this year’s squad have dimmed in recent weeks.
Inside the track community and on the sport’s active message boards, Webb’s name still sparks plenty of reaction, his supporters and detractors equally passionate. Webb doesn’t need a reminder that success at the Games has thus far eluded him, but he also feels the Olympics shouldn’t be the sole criteria for judging runners.