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.”