By Jonathan Gault
June 22, 2017
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Even before Nick Symmonds began training for his final track season in February 2017, he had already set his next goal: run a marathon. That is just the way Symmonds’ mind operates.
Symmonds, a six-time U.S. champion, fourth-fastest American of all time (1:42.95) and the 2013 World Championship silver medalist is one of the U.S.’s greatest-ever 800-meter runners. But he is also 33 years old and running on an ankle so fragile that he did not run a lap in lane one until his first race of the season out of fear that the tight turning radius would cause it to fracture. Symmonds has made seven U.S. national teams, so in February he knew what it was going to take to make it to this summer’s IAAF World Championships in London. And at 15 pounds over his racing weight with one good ankle, four months was not enough time to get in the shape required to survive three rounds against the nation’s best half-milers.
But Symmonds has always needed something to drive him. So he looked up the latest marathon he could find in 2017. December 10. Honolulu. It was settled.
“And I said no matter what happens at USAs, the days that the going gets tough, at least I can say it’s okay because my real goal is in December,” Symmonds said. “And it allowed me to wake up every morning and go through the motions. And then when I was really tired and really hurting, I just kept thinking, ‘I just gotta keep training.’ Because 26.2 is gonna hurt. And I guarantee you before the marathon, I’ll set another goal so that however that goes…Just keep waking up, keep setting goals and keep training for something.”
Today, in boiling 106-degree temps, Symmonds ran the final track race of his 11-year professional career in the first round of the 800 at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships in front of a sparse crowd at Hornet Stadium. It was more of a couple victory laps than a race, Symmonds settling into his familiar place at the back but this time staying there, his body unable to reach the speeds of his prime. Symmonds, the oldest guy in the 800 field by five years, finished last in his heat in 1:51.52, his slowest time ever in a professional race outdoors. It was an ordinary ending to a extraordinary career.
Post-race, Symmonds said:
“I’m arrogant or confident enough to think I could have got through that round. … It wasn’t until 200m or 300m in that I’m like, ‘Just enjoy the moment. Just go for a ride.’ … You know what? I left everything I have on the track. I’m five years older than the next oldest guy. I feel like I did myself justice. All you can do is play the cards that you’re dealt. I’m a short, stocky kid from Boise, Idaho, who went to a DIII school, and ended up being ranked number two in the world, finishing fifth in the Olympics. I played my hand about as well as one can.”
Wanted to Say Goodbye
But today’s race wasn’t about running fast.
“Coming here, it was always about saying goodbye to everybody,” said Symmonds, who received pats on the back from a steady stream of his competitors while addressing the media after the race. “I gave everybody a hug that I could find today.”
Symmonds leaves behind quite a legacy. He won five straight U.S. 800 titles — no man in history has ever won more consecutively — and his World Championship medal in Moscow in 2013 broke a 16-year drought by American men in that event at the Worlds/Olympics. Then, after missing the entire 2014 outdoor season due to injury, Symmonds returned to win his sixth U.S. title in 2015 at 31, an age at which most 800 runners have either moved up to the 1500 or hung up their spikes for good.
But for all that Symmonds has accomplished — in 2012, he also became just the third American ever to break 1:43 — he said that the highlight of his career was his victory at the 2008 Olympic Trials.
“In this sport, there are two camps of people: your Olympians, and then everybody else,” Symmonds said. “And I don’t think that’s right. I know a lot of people who are way more talented, way more determined than I am that never made Olympic teams. But that [race] set things apart. And I think the reason that it’s most important to me is that it proved I could get out of my own damn way. You know, most people, many people, don’t make teams because they can’t get through the mental part of it. And I came this close to imploding in the ’08 Trials.”
Two weeks out from his first Olympic Trials, Symmonds couldn’t sleep. Every time he’d think about the race, his heart would start racing.
So Symmonds called his former coach at Willamette University, Kelly Sullivan for advice.
“Nick, the cream always rises to the top and you are very definitely part of the cream,” Sullivan told Symmonds. “Just stop thinking about it and let your legs do what you’ve trained them to do.”
That’s what Symmonds did, and he accomplished the goal of every runner by qualifying for the Olympic team. The goals are different now — in addition to completing a marathon, Symmonds wants to summit the highest peak on each of the seven continents — but for Nick Symmonds, there will always be something to chase.
Full Nick Symmonds post-race interview
Messageboard chatter from USAs today:
- Official 2017 USATF Outdoor Nats Day 1 Live Discussion Thread
- Nick Symmonds and Cas Loxsom go home DEVASTATED
— Nick Symmonds (@NickSymmonds) June 23, 2017
Nick’s Competitors Pay Their Respects
Drew Windle: “When I was 16, I said one of my life goals was to race Nick someday and the fact I got to be in his last one was pretty f****** cool.
Drew Windle entered USAs with the third-fastest time in the US this year and as a Brooks Beasts teammate of Nick Symmonds. Until today Drew and Nick had never run a race together. Drew thought it was extra special he got to run in Nick’s final track race. His words summed it up perfectly, “When I was 16, I said one of my life goals was to race Nick someday and the fact I got to be in his last one was pretty f****** cool. He’s done so much for the sport. He’s done so much for the Beasts.”
Erik Sowinski: “Nick’s the guy I looked up to since I was in high school.”
Erik Sowinski also had high praise for Nick.
“I quit soccer because the coach said I was too small. I ran like 23 minutes my first 5k and wanted to give it up…[but I stuck with it and] that’s when I really found the sport when was Nick was coming into his prime,” Sowinski said.
Sowinski said Nick and Khadevis Robinson inspired him and that Nick was a “great ambassador” for the sport. “He was a great guy on the track and off the track so I’m going to miss him.”