The 800 meters is considered one of the most (if not THE most) difficult and painful contests in all of athletics.
Longer than a sprint but faster than adistance event, the two-lap 800-meter race challenges its contenders to stretch their endurance and their velocity seemingly beyond human limits. To compete, you must be a gladiator; to win, you must be a legend.
Spectators at the 2006 Track and Field National Championship in Indianapolis didn’t know it, but they were about to watch the unfolding of one such legend right before their eyes. At that year’s 800-meter race, a little-known competitor named Nick Symmonds took the starting line wearing his high school racing singlet.
“I was still racing as an amateur,” Nick says, remembering that day. “I was going out to have fun, and I made it through the first round.”
Years earlier at a high school in Boise, then-pint-sized Nick had joined the cross-country team because he thought he’d be too small for the soccer field. For the first two weeks, Nick blended with the other racers. But in the third week, Coach Tom Shanahan (a former track and field racer himself) watched Nick break from the pack with a determination he’d scarcely seen before.
“One thing about Nick—he is a fierce, fierce competitor,” Shanahan once said, “the type that says, ‘I’ll crawl on broken glass before I lose.’”
Nick finished high school with three state championships and a 1:53 personal record in the 800. But instead of pursuing a Division I college to focus solely on athletics, Nick chose to pursue academics at little Williamette University, a Division III college in Oregon with less than 3,000 students.
“I really liked the coaches at Williamette,” Nick says, looking back. “I wanted to be a premed student, and a lot of the Division I recruiters told me I couldn’t do that while being a college athlete. So I said, ‘I guess Division I isn’t for me.’”
In his first year at Williamette, Nick dropped his 800-meter time down to 1:49.51 and claimed his first Division III championship. When he graduated with a biochemistry degree in 2006, Nick had become one of the most prolific runners in Division III track and field history with six more championships, but his achievements somehow managed to slip beneath the radar.
Right after graduation, instead of finding work or applying for medical school, Nick took a month to do nothing but run.
“When I really focused on running,” Nick remembers, “I shaved seven seconds off my mile time and took my 800-meter time from 1:48 to 1:45.83 in a month and a half.”
The next month, Nick went to the 2006 National Championship in Indianapolis. And in the final, something happened that no one saw coming: Nick Symmonds blew past everyone except the reigning national champion. Though he’d walked into the stadium anonymously, Nick walked out with a dozen business cards in his hands and a silver medal around his neck.
“It surprised everyone—especially me—to have this no name come in second,” he says. “I left that racetrack thinking, ‘What did I just do?’”
Athletes who race the 800 fall into one of two categories: frontrunners and kickers. A frontrunner will run to the head of the pack and simply try to outlast the rest. But although frontrunners are gutsy, kickers are often gutsier. They’ll stay with the pack and trust their race plans, and on the final turn, they’ll unleash a blistering last-minute sprint to the finish.
“You still want to have an explosive start and get out fast,” Nick says, “but the 800 is such a long race that you have to hold something back.”
In 2007, Nick emerged as the quintessential kicker, winning the Prefontaine Classic ahead of that year’s world champion, Alfred Yego, and clinching the indoor national championship as well. That summer, he discovered Melaleuca and began using Melaleuca products as he trained and raced.
“I eat an Access® Bar in the morning before I run because I can’t eat a full meal,” Nick says, “And I go through two sets of running clothing a day, so I use a ton of MelaPower®.”
In 2008, the U.S. Olympic Trials were held right in Nick’s adopted hometown of Eugene, Ore.—aka “Track Town, USA.” While other athletes were staying in hotel rooms and racing in front of complete strangers, Nick slept in his own bed the night before and raced in front of his neighbors and friends.
Despite the crowd support, the race wasn’t easy. Through the first 600 meters, Nick appeared to be boxed in. But with a little “hockey move” he squeezed out of the scrum and kicked for the win—his first Outdoor National Championship. As Nick emerged from the race carnage to break the tape, his adopted hometown crowd rose to their feet and let out a deafening cheer. Nick wasn’t just any pro; he’d become a local hero.
“I knew I had the potential to do something great,” Nick said after the race. “But it’s one thing to have the potential and it’s another thing to do it on the night everyone else is trying to.”
Taking on the World
In 2009, Nick defended his championship with another win at the Outdoor National Championship. Then, at a meet across the Atlantic, Nick lowered his personal best from a speedy 1:44.54 to an unfathomably fast 1:43.83. In 2010, he further lowered it to a lightning quick 1:43.76, and late in the season he took his first international win at a meet in Croatia.
Nick realized he could compete on a world stage, so he set a new goal for 2011: a medal at the World Championship in Daegu, Korea.
“It’s going to take a 1:43, but I think I can do it,” he said. “I’m hungrier than ever.”
At the Outdoor National Championship in June, Nick lined up against the fiercest pack of U.S. contenders ever assembled.
Right from the gun, young frontrunner Charles Jock set a break-neck pace. Knowing he couldn’t kick from the very back this time, Nick carefully made his way up to the shoulder of his longtime rival, Khadevis Robinson. Then, as the race rounded the final turn, Nick accelerated like a bullet.
“When I flipped that switch,” Nick said after the race, “I put a couple of meters on everybody.”
With Robinson nipping at his heels and Jock still tapping out a metronome-like pace, Nick left everyone behind and crossed the finish line in 1:44.17 with two triumphant arms raised above him and a remarkable fourth outdoor national title clenched in his fists.
“This one feels really, really sweet,” he told the press. “I’ve never been as nervous as I was for this championship.”
Approaching his “A” race, the World Championship in Korea, Nick felt better prepared than ever before. He knew he’d be lining up against powerful frontrunners like world record holder David Rudisha and challenger Abubaker Kaki. But instead of feeling nervous, Nick salivated at the prospect of challenging the world’s best.
When the starting gun crackled and the competitors shuddered into speed like startled racehorses, Nick found himself right where he wanted to be. Rudisha and Kaki went to the front, and Nick patiently stuck to his strategy, hanging behind the runner in third. As they neared the final bend, everything appeared to be going according to plan.
“No one would be crazy enough to pass me on my right side on the last turn,” Nick thought to himself as he reached the curve in the track. But just then, someone did.
European Champion Marcin Lewandowski came around on the right, leaving Nick with nowhere to go. Hopelessly boxed in, Nick was forced to jog across the finish line with the pack in fifth place.
“You spend all year dreaming about a medal—you don’t dream about fifth place,” frustrated Nick told reporters after the race. “[The United States hasn’t] had a medal in the 800-meter World Championship since ’97.”
Nonetheless, Nick drew strength from knowing he has all of Melaleuca cheering for him back in the United States.
“The entire Melaleuca family has gotten behind me,” Nick says with a smile. “I like to think there were thousands of fans back in America watching [the World Championship] because they were excited to see me. That’s the one thing I’ll take away from that experience.”
Following a handful of other races, Nick went home and took a relaxing break. After two weeks of hunting, fishing, surfing and running for fun, Nick got right back into training. After all, the London Olympics are less than a year away.
“That’s my next goal,” he says. “I know a medal at the Olympics will erase all of that disappointment.”
This article was previously printed in Leadership In Action magazine. Sources include: Portland Register-Guard, Flotrack.org, Runnersworld.com.