By Jonathan Gault
May 17, 2017
Right now, lane one is Nick Symmonds‘ enemy.
Normally at this time of year, Symmonds would be spending a significant amount of time there, running repeat 200’s in practice and racing around the world. But few 800-meter runners are able to run at an elite level into their mid-30s, and over the last few years, Symmonds’ body has begun to betray him. In 2014, his first season after turning 30, Symmonds did not race at all outdoors due to a knee injury. Last year, he managed just two races and was forced to withdraw from the Olympic Trials due to torn ligaments and a stress fracture in his left ankle. Most recently, Symmonds tore a tendon in his knee in January. Now 33, Symmonds has been back training full-time for two months, but the effects of last year’s ankle injury have severely limited his ability to turn on it. Hence the avoidance of lane one.
“I can say with 100% certainty that my first lap in lane one of 2017 will be when I make my season debut,” Symmonds said.
In fact, Symmonds, who splits his time between Seattle (where his coach Danny Mackey is based) and Eugene (where his company Run Gum is headquartered), has barely touched a track all year. He estimates that he’s run a grand total of three full laps in 2017, two of which came in a recent 2×400 time trial. Symmonds was mum on what times, exactly, he ran in those efforts.
“I don’t love speculation on your boards,” he told me in a phone interview on Tuesday, “so when I come out and race on the first or second week of June, people can have at it.”
However, Symmonds did add that he believes he’s in 1:50 shape right now and that he can get down to 1:47-low shape in four weeks’ time, which would be enough to get him a qualifier for USAs (the standard is 1:47.50). Symmonds, a six-time U.S. champion, is tentatively targeting the Portland Track Festival on June 11 as his season opener, but said he’s open to another opportunity should one present itself.
Still, Symmonds’ situation presents a fundamental dilemma: how do you train as an 800 runner without track work? You might be able to make it as a 5,000 or 10,000 runner on a diet of tempos and fartleks, but even for a strength-based guy like Symmonds, 800 runners need speed. That’s the challenge he and Mackey now face.
“This year’s about approaching it from a different standpoint,” Symmonds said. “I can’t do the kind of workouts that I used to do, but I’m wondering if Coach Mackey and I can kind of hack my training and create a 1:46 guy out of basically zero track work, is what we’re trying to do.”
Right now, Symmonds is running 50 miles per week, which includes a 12-mile long run, in addition to swimming and lifting twice a week each. He runs two hard sessions per week and has replaced most of his speed work with hill repeats geared toward replicating the same anaerobic stimulus without the pounding and turning. Even with a bum ankle, however, Symmonds cannot afford to stay off the track completely: when he’s feeling up to it, he will spike up and run hard 150’s in lane 8.
At this point, you may be wondering: Why doesn’t he just retire already? Symmonds is not going to run faster than his 1:42.95 personal best (#4 all-time among Americans), is not going to medal at Worlds again (he did that in 2013), is not going to make another Olympic team. The thought certainly crossed Symmonds’ mind. After shutting down his 2016 season, Symmonds said that he had “mentally hung my spikes up” and was ready to retire and focus on Run Gum full-time. But Symmonds wanted to repay the faith that Mackey and Brooks Global Sports Marketing Manager Jesse Williams have shown him over the past four years and it was that, plus a sense of curiosity, that convinced him to give it one more go in 2017.
“I was more curious about what Danny and I could do as a team, trying to reverse-engineer my training, than I was about the outcome of what that training materializes into,” Symmonds said. “If I make another World team, that’s cool, but that doesn’t really change my life in any way. I was more excited to help the Beasts TC grow and to help Danny Mackey grow as a coach. He’s never coached an elite athlete well into his mid-30’s and what he and I are learning right now will benefit him for decades to come, which will benefit athletes for decades to come.”
TrackTown Summer Series Draft is Friday
Off the track, Symmonds is a busy man. In addition to putting in 40-50 hours per week as CEO of Run Gum, he was recently named general manager for Team San Francisco in the TrackTown Summer Series. The draft will be held on Friday afternoon in Portland, where Symmonds will be joined by fellow general managers Sanya Richards-Ross (Team Philadelphia) and Bernard Lagat (Team Portland). Team New York GM Allyson Felix is competing in Jamaica this weekend but will be patched in remotely.
The draft, which will be streamed live on Facebook, will last five rounds, with each team selecting one male and one female athlete in each round. 2016 Olympic medallists Paul Chelimo (5,000) and Tom Walsh (shot put) are among the eligible draftees, along with fellow Olympians Boris Berian, Nate Brannen, Charlie Grice, Shelby Houlihan and Abbey D’Agostino.
Though Symmonds won’t have the same responsibilities as an NBA or MLB GM — TrackTown USA CEO Michael Reilly said that draft selections will be a “group decision” between the GMs and select TrackTown USA staffers — Symmonds said he’s spent an hour or two per day preparing for the draft since assuming his GM role last month, researching results and talking to agents to gauge athletes’ fitness.
Symmonds said that he still has to evaluate which events to prioritize in the draft as they haven’t finalized signing returning athletes to contract extensions. Currently, high jumper Erik Kynard is the only athlete who has signed an extension with San Francisco — which won the title last year — but Reilly said that there will be an announcement coming later in the week about an additional 30 athletes (across all teams) who have signed extensions, several of them, presumably, with San Francisco.
Symmonds doesn’t have plans to create a Mel Kiper-style Big Board. Instead, he is dividing the list of eligible draftees into tiers, with his goal to land 10 athletes from the top tier in Friday’s draft.
“A tier 1 athlete, to me, would be an athlete that has shown a proclivity to win in championship settings, has demonstrated fitness this season,” Symmonds says. “Those would probably be the two things I look for most.”
He still has a soft spot for the 800, however.
“I want to make sure that the first 800-meter man and 800-meter female across the line are on my team just because it’s my favorite event in track & field,” Symmonds says.
The best way to accomplish that would be to offer contract extensions. San Francisco athletes Erik Sowinski and Melissa Bishop swept the 800s last year and both have signed on for the series in 2017. San Francisco has exclusive negotiating rights before the draft (after the draft, all athletes who weren’t extended become free agents), so it’s in Symmonds’ interest to get a deal done before Friday.
As for Symmonds himself, he has declared for the draft but doesn’t expect to compete when the series kicks off on June 29 at Stanford.
“I think in an ideal world, I’m up in the press box with my GMs having a beer watching some great track & field,” Symmonds says. “I’m excited if another GM drafts me. I will run for them. I can’t promise that I’m gonna be in fighting shape by the time these races roll around. But if I can throw my name in the hat and make that pool a little bit better, I think that’s a responsibility that all us athletes have toward TrackTown for creating such a cool new event.”