Catching Up With Nick Symmonds

At the start of 2017, Nick Symmonds announced this would be his last year of competitive running. But that doesn’t mean the hard-charging middle distance runner is any less motivated.

Symmonds, a six-time U.S. 800 meter champion and two-time Olympian, is lacing up for one final race as a professional runner before turning his attention to professional mountain climbing and growing Run Gum, a company he started in a quest to find a better product to boost performance.

In December, he’ll run the Honolulu Marathon, and earlier this month we caught up on the phone to talk about his journey and training, living in and visiting Minnesota (his father and grandfather both worked for Mayo Clinic in Rochester), future plans and his outspoken nature in taking on track and field’s governing bodies.

Thousands of runners have been inspired by his style on the track, where he often followed the pack until racing past competitors in the final straight of the 800. At 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 165 pounds, he didn’t always make it look easy. But Symmonds, now 33, always seemed to come barreling out of the final turn to break the tape.

With personal bests of 1:42.95 in the 800 (in 2012, good for the third fastest by an American) and 3:56.72 in the mile, the Boise, Idaho-native is one of the best to circle the track.

He’s also made waves with his outspoken nature in standing up for athletes’ rights.

At the time Symmonds announced his retirement, the New York Times wrote: “He will also leave as perhaps the most outspoken, polarizing and essential American track and field athlete of the past decade.”

In a Sports Illustrated article, Tim Layden reflected on Symmonds decision, writing “It’s inarguable that he is one of the best American 800-meter runners in history and easily one of the appealing. … In a sport that has been ruled by bureaucrats and shoe companies that have successfully suppressed athletes’ earning power and voices, Symmonds became the most forceful agitator since Steve Prefontaine was raging at the AAU four decades earlier.”

Symmonds has always appeared to be the guy standing up for the little guy and a voice for athletes standing up for themselves. So, when given the chance to catch up with Symmonds earlier this month, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

On Tuesday, Aug. 1, Nick and I connected by phone for an interview, which you can read below. Also, you can visit Nick’s website to find out more about his training and adventures.

What made you decide to train for a marathon?

Symmonds: It’s the only thing I haven’t done on my running bucket list. You know, I’ve raced in 2 Olympic games and a dozen world championships but I always wanted to run a marathon, and now that I’m retired from the track, it seemed like the next logical running goal.

Talk about your decision to retire. Was it a tough decision?

Symmonds: Actually, it was really easy. It was hard emotionally in the sense that’s what I’ve focused on the past 20 years. It was easy in the sense that I couldn’t run around the track another lap. It was a black and white decision for me. My left ankle was deteriorated from turning left for the past 20 years. It was a small miracle that I made it to USAs and made it around the track twice. It was a no-brainer. It wasn’t even a decision I made, my left ankle made the decision for me. It was emotional because I was saying goodbye to something that was important to me for 20 years.  

Why did you select Hawaii to run your marathon?

Symmonds: Well, I needed time to train and I knew my track season was going to go at least until July 1 and possibly all the way to September. So when I selected a marathon, I selected the one that I found is latest in the year, and that was Honolulu Dec. 10. I thought about New York, I thought about Chicago, but they were just too early in the year to have adequate training.

How is your training going?

Symmonds: Thus far, it is pretty similar to what I used to do when I was building my base for track. I’ve just been running easy miles and doing some core. I’m only 3 weeks into my training so I’ve gone 20 miles the first week, 30 miles the second week, 35 miles the third week and this fourth week will be my last week at base phase just easy mileage. I’ll get up to about 40 miles this week, all in singles. And then next week I’ll really start adding in lifting and the workouts and by September I want to to full mileage, which for me will be 50-60 miles a week with 2 lifts each week. If I can hold that for September, October and partially thru November, I’ll be in really great shape to run a sub 3 hour marathon.

Is that your goal?

Symmonds: Anything under 3 I’ll be happy with.

What about the marathon journey is exciting? Anything you might be dreading?

Symmonds: I’m really looking forward to the long runs. I like doing things I’ve never done before. I’ve never run longer than 13 miles so every time I set a new personal best in distance, it’s going to be something really cool for me. That first 14-miler, which will happen in about 5 weeks, I’m really, really looking forward to that.

I’m also kind of dreading the volume as it wears me down and I don’t have as much energy to devote to my business or the blog or numerous other things that require my attention. And I really, really don’t want to get injured. It would suck to put all this energy and time and sacrifice into this marathon and not even get to realize that moment.

I’m trying to do everything right, be smart in my training, be smart with my recovery. I’m trying to approach this marathon like I approached an Olympic season and make the appropriate sacrifices and allocation of time and energy to be successful at this marathon.

Do you have concerns about the ankle?

Symmonds: The ankle doesn’t bother me at all if I’m running straight, it’s only when I turn left on a track that it bothers me.

I’m guessing you’ve received some advice about training for the marathon?

Symmonds: Everybody that’s run a marathon has been kind enough to chime in their two cents. I think the big one I’m trying to take away is preparedness. I know people who say I just woke up one day and ran a marathon and I know people who train 11 months for it. It seems to me that the ones that go into it best prepared are the ones that have the most fun. That’s why I picked cych a late marathon so I could have 5 full months to prepare for it.

I know that there’s a lot to be learned so I’m going to keep trying to learn as much as I can and listen to people who have a lot of knowledge in the subject.

As a pro runner, lifting has been an important part of your training. Will that be the case for your marathon training?

Symmonds: Lifting has always been really important for me. I lift twice a week. I think it’s important for all runners, whether you’re a 100 meter runner or a marathon. Lifting improves running economy. It makes a you a stronger runner, it makes you a more efficient runner.

In track it makes you more explosive but in distance running it just helps your posture and running economy. I lift Monday and Wednesday. Jimmy Radcliffe, the head strength and conditioning coach from the University of Oregon, he writes my program. I love weight lifting. I constantly sign its praises as something that can help anybody, whether you’re trying to train for a marathon or trying to train for your local 5K. I really believe weight lifting can help.

Any differences between lifting for shorter distances and the marathon?

Symmonds: Yeah, certainly. When I’m lifting for the 8, it’s a little heavier weight. I’m moving in short reps as quickly as I can. A lighter weight … is probably better for distance running training. Similar exercises, just more reps at lighter weight.

What does life look like after the marathon?

Symmonds: My two biggest passions after the marathon are growing Run Gum and climbing the world’s biggest peaks. This summer I spent a lot of time in the mountains learning skills that I’ll need to know to climb bigger mountains. As soon as I retire from pro running, I’ll transition into pro mountain climbing. Of course, with that, I’m working as the CEO of Run Gum and this company will turn 3 on Oct. 14, and it’s been such a pleasure to create something like this. It’s been able to fuel and inspire thousands of people.

We want to continue to do that and my business partner and I are all in on Run Gum for the next decade or so.

Where did you come up with the idea for Run Gum?

Symmonds: I was looking for something that would boost my performance in practice and racing, and I was turning to a lot of the traditional energy products — energy drinks, coffee, energy shots. They all required me to swallow some liquid and that would slosh around in my stomach and bother me, and a lot of times I’d end up throwing up that energy product. So I thought let’s get rid of all the junk I don’t want. There’s no reason to drink anything, you can absorb all of these stimulants sublingually …

So I took my favorite energy drink, dehydrated it and took the actives out of that energy drink and infused it into 2 pieces of chewing gum, and that’s what Run Gum is.

I was using it in my own training and racing, but everybody else around me saw me utilizing this product said I want that, and that’s when we knew we had a product that could be very successful.

Do you feel like a scientist?

Symmonds: Well I do have a degree in biochemistry so it is scientific. I knew this was a better way to absorb these stimulants.

When people try it, it hits them so quickly. It’s so unusual. It’s such a unique way to get energy that they usually come back for more. I do joke a bit that we’re drug dealers, we get people hooked on our product but in a functional way. Caffeine, by all means, is a drug. It is a very functional drug if used correctly can help enhance a person’s life whether it’s in sport or business or just getting through their busy day.

What feedback have you heard and what does that mean?

Symmonds: Some of the best stories I’ve heard are people in marathons. They’re not going to carry around an energy drink with them. You’re not going to haul around Red Bull for 26.2 miles. But you can tuck a pack of Run Gum in your pocket and I’ve heard from multiple people that they hit mile 20 or 22 and they’re bonking and Run Gum gives them the energy and power to get across that finish line at their target pace.

I go this example because I’ve heard from numerous people that it saves their race. When I run Honolulu, you better believe that I’ll have Run Gum in my pocket for when that happens to me. That what really resonates with me. It’s a very functional use of a product that we created for runners. It really makes me happy to hear that it’s been able to help people.

How long have you been climbing mountains?

Symmonds: I grew up mountaineering. I was an Eagle Scout in ‘94 in Boise, Idaho, so I’ve been climbing well before I was a pro runner. I set a goal when I was a young kid to climb the Seven Summits, that’s the tallest mountain on every continent, so now that I’m done with my professional running career, I really want to focus on that next chapter and go back and honor that goal that I set for myself when I was young and climb the tallest mountain on every continent.

You’re also planning to climb the highest peaks in each state?

Symmonds: Yeah, it’s called high pointing. I like to collect high points and I’ve got 12 or 13 of the hardest ones accomplished already, and my plan is to go climb Mt. Rainier the highest point in Washington, next week.

I have a feeling once you get to our next of the woods you might be a little disappointed with the high points.

Symmonds: For me, it’s more about seeing the country and seeing each state than having a great mountaineering experience. Each state has its own unique high point.

What’s the most memorable so far?

Symmonds: Mt. Hood, just because I attempted it three times. It took me three attempts before I was able to summit it.

Why was it difficult?

Symmonds: Hood is just very difficult because it has a very short window to be climbed safely. I tried climbing too late in the year in my two previous attempts. This year I went back with better gear and more knowledge and the right time of the season, and I had no problem at all.

You have so many accomplishments and run on the world’s largest stages. What memories stick out?

Symmonds: I think just traveling the world was the highlight for me. I really felt like I was this playboy billionaire flying around the world and seeing all the coolest stadiums and beautiful cities. You don’t get paid very well as a pro runner but when you add in all the extras — the nights in hotels and the free swipes and the food and everything — you’re getting a lot for what you’re doing. That’s not lost on me.

I guess the memories that I’ll take with me are highlights, seeing all these beautiful capitals of the world.

Things that I won’t miss include dealing with the bureaucratic b.s. Track and field is just managed very poorly and it’s sad that such a beautiful sport is managed by selfish imbeciles.

One of the thing that die-hard track and field fans respect you, not just your running style, but that you’re not afraid to stand up and speak your mind. You seem like you’ve always been compelled to stand up?

Symmonds: There was some selfish aspects of it, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I wanted to make sure my hard work paid me dividends. That’s one of the reasons I got into pro track and field. Seeing other people making money off my hard work made me angry. And then to see other athletes who were doing it right and working their butts off, to see them not get compensated for their hard work, really upset me. I definitely spoke out because it’s not right.

In this country, especially, when someone works hard, they deserve to be compensated for their hard work.

Has there been progress?

Symmonds: Yeah, there’s been a lot of progress. It’s always slow and you have to take it step by step, but we’ve had some major, major progress in the last decade.

What is the biggest thing you would like to see changed?

Symmonds: The biggest thing is creating an entity that is separate from the governing bodies — USATF (USA Track & Field), USOC (United States Olympic Committee), IOC (International Olympic Committee) — they’re all governed by the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act in this country. Why professional sport is governed by an amateur sports act is beyond me.

Do you ever see it change? Are you going to be a part of that?

Symmonds: Yes. My company Run Gum has a pending lawsuit, an anti-trust suit, against USATF and USOC. We’re putting our money where our mouth is. We’re not just whining about things, we’re spending time and money and energy on corporate litigation to make sure this stuff gets changed.

At the time of the last U.S. Olympic Trials, they wanted to control what you could wear. Do you feel like that was the right thing to do?

Symmonds: That’s the crux of the argument, the crux of the litigation and why we’re suing them because athletes don’t own their own skin. They don’t actually own anything when they compete, they are beholden to the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act and what USOC and IOC deems is correct. That’s wrong. That’s the reason we brought the lawsuit.

Where does that suit stand now?

Symmonds: It’s in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. We’re still waiting to hear (about oral arguments). Unfortunately, the courts are really backed up so we’re just sitting and twiddling our thumbs waiting to hear what they want to do.

Have you ever been to Minnesota or North Dakota?

Symmonds: I used to live in Rochester. My dad was working as a doctor at the Mayo Clinic and my grandpa worked there for 30 years. I used to go to Rochester every fall to visit my grandparents.

Anything else you want to add?

Symmonds: One plug for Run Gum. I created it for people who are busy and athletes that want to maximize their performance. It’s so empowering to us as a company when we hear feedback from people who say, ‘I was studying for an all-nighter for a test and Run Gum helped me,’ or ‘I was bonking at mile 20 and Run Gum was able to help me.’

We selfishly created this product for me, so I could perform better at the highest level of competition, but now it’s really humbling and a special moment for us when we hear feedback from people who can tell us how Run Gum has helped them in their busy lives.