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.