Nick Symmonds has spent nearly a decade as one of the best active American runners, winning an unprecedented seven national titles in the 800 meters since 2007, as well as a world championship silver medal in 2013. The 32-year-old has also had his fair share of off-the-track headlines, from dating Paris Hilton, competing on American Ninja Warrior, and suing the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Track and Field on behalf of his company, Run Gum. Which is why, when we heard about his plans to climb the world’s tallest mountains, we thought it might just be just another stunt. Turns out, he’s serious.
“[With track] I always felt like I was playing the hand that I was dealt, but it wasn’t really what I was meant to do,” Symmonds tells Outside from his home in Seattle. Whether he retires before or after the 2017 season—a decision that is largely in the hands of his sponsor Brooks—Symmonds says that the next portion of his life will be focused on mountaineering.
In late August, on Washington’s Mount Baker, Symmonds learned the skills necessary to not only summit but survive some of the biggest peaks. Now, with Mount Rainer, Kilimanjaro, Olympus, and maybe even the Seven Summits in his crosshairs, he’s more confident than ever about his future after track.
OUTSIDE: So, before we dive into your high altitude exploits, catch us up. What’s happened in your life since the spring track season?
SYMMONDS: My Olympic preparation was going really well, and I was doing some of the really intense last speed workouts leading into the Trials when I tore a ligament in my left ankle and had a stress fracture in the fibula. That ended my season. With that realization, I went out to the Olympic Trials and cheered on some of my friends and teammates; worked on my company, Run Gum; and then decided that I was just going to have a great summer in the Pacific Northwest. Over the last ten years as a professional runner, I haven’t had a chance to spend a lot of time up here in the summers. I made some plans to climb some mountains and go fishing, take some trips that I’ve always wanted to take around here.
What were the emotions around the realization you wouldn’t make your third Olympic team?
At first I was pissed, but then I realized, at 32, I was on borrowed time anyway. I think I was really upset for about three hours on my long drive home from the hospital, and then I felt gratitude that this was happening this year, and not back in 2008. If this had happened in 2008, then I never would have had the chance to become an Olympian. I put it all in perspective, and was just grateful that I’ve had the opportunities that I have as a professional runner.
In August, you said you were “learning how to not die on glaciers.” What exactly did that mean, and how did that come about?
I’ve wanted to take this six-day mountaineering course with Alpine Ascents International here in Seattle for a while. I’ve done a lot of great hiking, and I’ve even had the chance to summit some really incredible mountains, but I’ve never really done proper mountaineering work; I didn’t know how to travel across a glacier safely, I didn’t know how to self-arrest properly, how to climb out of a crevasse, or how to just be a good member of a roped-up team. So I took this course and learned all those skills, and now I feel prepared to do some much bigger and technically challenging mountains. It’s all a stepping-stone. I know I can’t climb Everest tomorrow—I’m going to have to get the skills that I need to get up there.
Isn’t it a little late to be getting into mountaineering?
I grew up in Boise, Idaho, and was into climbing long before I was a runner. I had been out hiking with my dad and backpacking and snowshoeing and rock climbing from the age of two onwards. It might seem that I’m starting late, but I’m really just returning to what I had always grown up doing—it just happened to be on the back burner for the last 20 years while I tried to see how fast I could be on the track. I think I’m in my prime right now for climbing, and my 30s will be devoted to climbing some of the biggest mountains in the world.
[The course] was really my first true taste of mountaineering, and before I left, I told my family, “When I get done with this, I’m either going to really, really love it, or I’m going to really, really hate it.” Having done it, I immediately wanted to go up again. It really called to me—the simplicity and the challenges that you face on a mountain. It resonates with something inside me.
You mentioned back in 2014 that you were interested in climbing the Seven Summits. Is that still the plan?
I think that physically I can absolutely do four or five of them—without question I know I can do that. Some of the taller ones, like Aconcagua [in Argentina], could be very difficult. Everest, I don’t know if physically I can climb that mountain, but there’s only one way to find out. I’m not saying today that I’m going to climb the Seven Summits, but I will say that I sure as heck want to start with Kilimanjaro—arguably the easiest of the seven—and then take it from there.
Besides the technical skills you learned, how did this trip affect you?
I realized that physically I’m more suited for climbing than I am for track and field. On the track, I’m a short, stocky guy who kind of waddles. When I was on the mountain carrying a 70-pound pack up thousands of feet in a push—effortlessly, almost—I looked down at my short, stocky legs that are inefficient for middle-distance running, and they were suddenly the exact type of legs that you want to move large loads up a mountain. My lungs have been trained to move oxygen into my blood stream efficiently, I’ve got a strong heart, and my upper body, which is just a bunch of weight to carry around a track, is actually really important when you’re trekking or carrying big loads on your shoulders. I looked down, and I was like, “This is what my body was made to do.”
Seattle’s not far from Mount Rainier. Any plans to attempt?
I’m going to do a one-day ascent of Mount Rainier the week after [USATF Outdoor Championships, June 22-25, 2017]. What I’d like to see is if I can move up and down 9,000 feet in a day across glaciers and aluminum ladders spread across crevasses. And then the last week of August, after the London World Championships [August 4-13, 2017], I have a trip planned to climb [the 9,600 foot] Mount Olympus. It’s a 20-mile trek just to get to the base of the mountain. That will be a five-day trip. Those are two very different mountains with two very different challenges, but they’ll teach me an awful lot. And then I’ll retire at the end of 2017 and start climbing in 2018.
Any thoughts on what will happen to your running after your retire?
I’ll say that at 32, I love running more today than I ever have in my entire life, and I hate training more than I have in my entire life. Those two things are very different. Running is going out for a run. You can run ten minutes, you can run two hours, you’re meeting up with friends. You’re running at whatever pace you feel like for however long you feel like. It’s enjoyable, it’s meditative, it’s cathartic. Training is making sacrifices. It’s being away from home, it’s doing whatever’s on your daily schedule. It’s just not fun. It’s a difficult life to live, and it’s a lifestyle that I don’t particularly want for much longer. I’ll do it for one more year, because I love this team so much. But I’ll look forward to the day that I can just go out for a run.