About an hour after Alan Webb won his first professional 1,500-meter race at the Home Depot Track & Field Invitational on May 22, a few friends approached him with a plan to celebrate. They wanted to go out for dinner someplace nice, grab a few beers and stay out late.
"No thanks," Webb said. "I've already got plans."
He went for a jog, had a quiet dinner and fell asleep around 10 p.m.
"I don't really like to celebrate," Webb said. "I just treat things like no one race is that big of a deal. I keep my focus on the long-term view."
Two years of acute disappointment taught Webb to maintain that perspective. After running a prep record 3-minute 53.43-second mile as a senior at Reston's South Lakes High School in 2001, Webb struggled through one year at the University of Michigan and flopped in his first year as a professional. Focusing on the big picture became his survival mechanism.
Even now that Webb has revived his career he vows to keep the same detached outlook. In the last month he set this year's fastest time in the 1,500, outran the 2000 Olympic gold medal winner and became a favorite to represent the United States at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
He celebrated none of it.
"Alan's focus is always on the future," said Scott Raczko, Webb's personal coach. "He refuses to get stuck in the moment."
Not that he hasn't been tempted. For Webb, each race during the last month has marked a major career breakthrough. He exceeded the "A" qualifying standard for the Olympic Games and won the Home Depot.
He ran the 1,500 in a personal-best 3:33.7, the fastest time by an American since 2002, in Hengelo, Netherlands, on May 31. Then, about a week later, he beat that time by a second and won his first international race in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
"I can't stop improving my times," Webb said. "I'm running better than I ever have in my life."
"The way he's running right now is flat-out scary," said Mark Pilja, an all-American and one of Webb's teammates at Michigan. "He's better than anyone in this country. He'll almost definitely qualify for the Olympics. He might even medal."
Even Webb seems baffled by the drastic improvement. He's trained one way most of his running career. His typical workout -- five hours of running, stretching and strength training each day -- has stayed the same for about 10 months.
Those who know Webb best agree his improvement has more to do with maturity than mechanics. He seemed lost after he left Michigan in 2002 and signed a deal with Nike reportedly worth $250,000 annually. At every professional race, his high school record flashed across the scoreboard.
While his competition improved, Webb's times stayed the same. He finished eighth in his first professional race, a standard that would become his average.
"All of that pressure, I just got so worked up about it," Webb said. "The nerves killed me. Before a race, my stomach would be a knot. I couldn't relax, because I felt like I had to win.
"It was like the whole world was watching me, and I wanted to believe that I was writing this grand screenplay of my life. I wanted everybody to see me win."
He felt most nervous before the 2003 U.S. Track and Field Championships, held at Stanford University in mid-June. Webb highlighted that race as the most important of his season, the race that could save his season. Before he left, he told his roommate and former high school teammate Richard Smith: "I'm in great shape right now. I could win this thing."
Instead, he ran miserably in his first-round heat, barely qualified for the finals and then ran a 3:47.35 -- good for 10th place. Two years earlier in the same event, Webb finished fifth, running a 3:38.50.
"After that race, I was practically in tears," Webb said. "It was like I had failed in everything. All of the time I had spent trying to get better felt wasted. I hit rock bottom, but I knew I couldn't quit. This is my life. I've committed my life to this, basically, so there's not really anything else I could do."
A week after Webb returned home his appendix ruptured, which required emergency surgery. It forced him to cancel a trip to Europe, where he was supposed to run three races. "I was glad to be in the hospital, to be honest," Webb said, "because at least I didn't have to race anymore."
To rejuvenate himself, Webb did something that he had not done in years: He took a full month off from running. Instead, he stayed out late with high school friends, catching up and gorging on pizza. Often, they chatted late into the night, with Webb doing much of the talking.
He wanted answers to the big questions, the ones he never dealt with after his high school mile made him famous. Who was he running for? Did he still love the sport? If so, then what made him so unhappy?
"I needed to kind of touch home base," Webb said. "I needed time to figure things out."
When he emerged, he seemed to ooze confidence and vibrancy. Training thrilled him again. Even when he had a bout with bronchitis in August, he decided he'd rather run through it than take another break.
Webb ran so much that his friends started to make fun of him. If they called him to hang out, friends said, Webb's reply seemed automatic. "Sorry, I've got to work out."
"Sometimes, running is all he wants to do," said Katherine Webb, Alan's mom. "When Alan's not at home, he's usually training. He realized that he really loves the sport."
The month-long hiatus cured his prerace jitters, too, Raczko said. He seems quietly confident at the starting line now -- even when he's out of his element. The first signs of his revival came in February, when he ran a 12-kilometer race at the U.S. Cross Country Championships and finished fourth.
When he stepped to the starting line at the Home Depot meet, Webb actually worried that he felt too relaxed. Something had to be missing, he thought. Then he realized that the familiar knot in his stomach was gone.
"I believed I could win, but I knew I didn't have to," Webb said. "That's pretty different for me. I never used to feel so relaxed. But one race isn't going to make or break my career."
Webb even plays down the Olympics, an event his mother has listened to him talk about incessantly since high school.
He said he hasn't started to focus on the Olympic trials for the 1,500 meters, held July 15-18 in Sacramento. Instead, Webb's preparing for today's Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., the same race where he set the prep mile record in 2001.
After the Prefontaine, he'll keep to his usual practice routine until the Olympic trials, where he needs to place in the top three to qualify for Athens.
"Some people might say that he's guaranteed to make the Olympics," Raczko said. "But there are no guarantees. The field will be tough because top runners get geared up for big races. They race well when the pressure's on."
Webb, though, will race better if he keeps the pressure off. That's why he'll step up to the starting line, take a deep breath and remind himself to think about the race in the span of his career.
"I'm always going to have opportunities," Webb said. "The Olympic trials, that's a big race. But so what? There'll be a lot of big races for me over the years."