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.
“If Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant could only win once every four years, they wouldn’t have five or six titles,” he said. “It’s like, I’ve done really well, I had a great year in ’07, ’05 and even ’04. But it’s like, if you miss one little cycle, it’s all magnified, and everybody thinks you’re horrible.”
Webb is slated to compete in the 1,500 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials, which begin this week in Eugene, Ore., but if the U.S. Track and Field Association grants a late petition, he could enter the 5,000 meters instead, an 11th-hour change of strategy that speaks to some of Webb’s recent difficulties in the 1,500.
Either way, Webb knows what’s at stake. Win, and he has a chance to validate all that promise outsiders have long sensed in him and extend a career that has sputtered in recent years. Lose, and — well, he can’t afford to even think about that.
“I’m not old,” he said. “But I’m not super-young any more either.”
He is married now. (His wife will stay in Virginia while Webb competes in Eugene, knowing he might miss the birth of his first child.) And he’s still on Nike’s payroll. Though Webb says he keeps running in better perspective now, failure still tears him up inside.
For example, Webb signed up for piano lessons about a year ago, shortly after moving to Charlottesville. He recently had a recital in a small church and wasn’t pleased with his performance.
“It set him off for the rest of the day,” said Julia. “He was just like, ‘I suck!’ I told him, ‘It’s just piano. The audience was a bunch of 5-year-olds. Nobody cares.’ ”
‘The sorest loser ever’
Aging isn’t easy for an elite runner. The hard work is still there, the effort is still there, but the results can be elusive. “The thing about being 29 versus 23, you can still run just as fast — that’s what keeps people in the game — you just can’t do it every week,” said Marty Liquori, a former middle distance runner and track broadcaster. In 1967, Liquori became the third American high schooler to run a sub-four minute mile and was a 19-year-old Olympian in ’68. He was later slowed by injuries and retired from competitive running at age 30.
“In many ways, you do better workouts when you’re older,” he said. “But all those little injuries — you really have to have a lot of self-awareness and patience. You’re one injury away from missing a whole season while the younger guys seem to just bounce back.”
Webb had Achilles’ surgery in 2009 and still hasn’t run a full track season since 2007. In March of last year, he parted ways with his coach, Alberto Salazar, and began to explore his options. His agent, Ray Flynn, urged him to chat with Vigilante, the track coach at the University of Virginia at the time.
Webb and Vigilante met over three days last spring, and at one point, the coach issued a challenge, trying to gauge the runner’s commitment level. For Vigilante, running is more art than science, so without passion, the technical skills and training are moot.
“I told him, ‘Why don’t you just quit? You’re at that point where you haven’t been successful in a few years. Go back to college, get a real job,’ ” Vigilante recalled.
Vigilante said he liked Webb’s response: The runner was indignant and became angry at the mere suggestion that he hang up his spikes.
“He still had that fire in him,” Vigilante said. “You have to be 100 percent committed. The coach can’t do it for him. I can help. I can guide him. But at the end of the day, it’s the athlete’s spirit that will ultimately determine success.”
As Webb moves effortlessly around the track, posting split times that would please any runner, he is chasing the younger version of himself who set those records and an impossibly high bar.
“Runners never compare themselves to their average. You always compare yourself to your very best,” Vigilante said. “He’d be a lot more fair to himself if he said, ‘Okay, this is my average and this is where I’d like to be.’ But instead, he’s always comparing himself to 2007.”
Webb’s competitive spirit is no different than when he was a teenager in Fairfax County, stirring the nation’s track community into a frenzy. Nowadays, back in Virginia, he and his wife often play games together, and Webb still has only one gear: He wants to win. The couple had recently been playing the card game Uno, and Julia strung together several victories.
“He turned into the sorest loser ever,” she said with a laugh. “He threw the cards, yelling, knocked over my water. I was like, ‘We’re never playing this game again.’ It’s like, he just doesn’t know how to lose.”
‘A blessing and a curse’
More than an hour after his final training run one recent morning, he was still at Albemarle High in Charlottesville, lying in the shade behind the track restrooms. Webb compulsively stretches, pulling this muscle and pushing that one.
“He doesn’t take anything for granted,” said Robby Andrews, Webb’s training partner and one of the nation‘s top middle distance runners. “He knows how hard he worked to get to where he was and knows how hard he has to work to get back there. He’s incredible to watch.”
Webb chatted as he stretched, thoughtful and contemplative with every question. He went silent for long stretches, slowly chewing an apple as a response churned in his head.
“I don’t know, it’s a tough question to answer,” he said. “I’d say it’s been like a blessing and a curse. I mean, I wouldn’t change any of it. Even the bad times. If I look back at my career, like the years I didn’t do well — 2002, 2003 and maybe 2006 — I wouldn’t have run my best races and best times without those years. I had to learn from the bad times.”
He says everything feels “amazingly different” from 2009. His life away from the track — a new home, a wife, a baby on the way — doesn’t eliminate the frustrating times but it offers a nice counterbalance.
In Eugene at the Olympic trials, he’ll have credentials entirely unique to him. But that won’t make him a favorite. His times this year are still short of what he needs. For every big step forward, it seems there are at least two small steps back.
To go to London, Webb needs to finish in the top three at the trials and also achieve the IAAF’s qualifying standard of 3 minutes 35.5 seconds in the 1,500. His best time of the year is 3:37.26, which he ran a month ago in Los Angeles. If he runs the 5,000, he needs to run 13:19; the best he’s posted this year is 13:49, though he hadn’t strongly considered competing in the 5,000 until just this month.
“After all that’s happened, I just want a fighting chance,” Webb said. “I just want to be close. I just want to be in the race again.”
He still gets lost in his own head sometimes, during a race, during training, at odd hours of the day and night. “Last night, in the middle of the night, he wakes me up and asks, ‘Am I too big up top?’ ” his wife, Julia, said with a laugh. “What do I say to that? That’s like me asking him, ‘Do I look fat?’ ”
This isn’t how Webb envisioned it, but his coach has seen big strides, both physically and mentally. In a perfect world, Webb figures he never battled injuries, didn’t change coaches and never stumbled after 2007.
“I just tell myself, don’t think about that,” Webb said. “However I got here, I got here. You can’t change anything that happened before this.”