The 26-year-old Nike Oregon Track Club runner takes great pride in that consistency. He should. The 800 is a notoriously unpredictable race both domestically and internationally in which Symmonds has U.S. Ranked No. 1 since ’08, when he won an electric Olympic Trials final on the Hayward Field track where he trains in Eugene, Oregon.
But Symmonds didn't just shave a few 100ths off his ’09 best (1:43.83) with his 1:43.76 in Rieti near season's end this summer, he cut the average of his five best marks for the year down to 1:44.56 after two seasons where he averaged 1:45.21 and 1:45.22—a big chunk for the man who's carried the mantle of U.S. champion for three straight years now. The average Symmonds outing likewise keeps getting better and better.
Symmonds candidly admits he doubts he will ever run an American Record. His kick-'em-down-late racing style isn't about chasing times. He's got other motives.
"On the U.S. level," Symmonds notes in the Q&A below, "I'm the favorite and that scares me a little bit, but on the world level, where I'm an underdog, I really like the prospect of maybe a tactical 800 shaping up and me sneaking in there for a medal."
After his season-finale tactical win in the DécaNation meet near Paris, T&FN spoke with Symmonds in mid-September as he began his yearly break in the Oregon wine country with girlfriend Maggie Vessey.
First up on Symmonds' R&R docket was the wedding of former Oregon distance runner Eric Logsdon and then a trip to visit family in Idaho.
Symmonds: I'm on my time off right now. I'm taking about 2–3 weeks. I'm going to hang out, have some wine, travel a little bit. I'm going back to Boise right after this to see my folks for a week; trying to see as many people as I can in my time off here.
T&FN: Is it hard to "turn it off" after training and racing for a year straight?
Symmonds: No. I'm pretty good at taking time off, actually. I always stay active so when I'll be going back to Boise I'll be hunting and fishing every single day, which is actually nice because you don't have to get up at 5:00 a.m. and get your run out of the way before you go do the stuff you want to do.But I'll be excited to get back to training once I get back to Oregon—just because I think 2011 will be a really good year for me.
T&FN: You've got a reputation as a fisherman. What do you hope to hook?
Symmonds: In Boise we fish for trout. Here in Oregon my roommate and I usually go out on the ocean fishing for sea bass or ling cod or salmon, or whatever happens to be in season.
T&FN: What fish are in season when the track season shuts down?
Symmonds: Right now the tuna are offshore so my roommate's been going out to fish tuna for the most part. I probably will miss the tuna season just because it's a short, little season here. But when I get back the salmon starts to run up in the rivers and we'll probably be targeting salmon all fall.
T&FN: Tuna? Those aren't exactly minnows. They're more like major medals. Have you ever caught one?
Symmonds: I haven't personally, no, but my roommate's been catching a few the last few weeks, though. We get little tuna up here, not the big massive ones. But you get tuna anywhere between 20 and 100lbs here. Those are little guys.
T&FN: What will you be hunting?
Symmonds: I do a lot of bird-hunting with my dad, which is actually a great way to keep fitness while you're taking your time off.We'll go chukar hunting a lot over at the Owyhees in Oregon. You wind up hiking 5–10 miles while you're doing that.
T&FN: You're having a well-earned break. You had a great season and consistency at the end that's got to please you.
Symmonds: What I said going into this year was I want to be the kind of guy who can run 1:44 every single race that I need to. I actually came pretty close. I averaged my top 5 times and I think I was about a 1:44.5 for the top 5 times.It was a big drop. My consistency just really showed through and I think that has to do with how consistent my training was leading up to the season. I didn't have a single injury, no illness for all of 2010 and the latter part of 2009. I just had such a great base under me week in, week out, that I was able to sharpen up.Also it had to do with having guys like [World Record-setter David] Rudisha and [Abdelkader] Kaki, who were taking every single race out, so there were a lot fewer sit-and-kick races. But all in all, I was really happy with the season.
T&FN: It seems the stretch after you won USATF in Des Moines went particularly well. You ran 1:45.3 or faster in every race except that final win at DécaNation.
Your whole group relocated for several weeks to Albuquerque to train at altitude before the Indoor Nationals, where you won. Did that training set you up for the improvement?
Symmonds: I've done altitude before and I think it definitely helps. More than anything, we wanted to do that just to be prepared for U.S. Indoors and World Indoors, but of course, that training will carry you over into the outdoor season.
This year we probably won't have a chance to do any altitude training just because we're going to go to Australia and run the outdoor circuit there. But I will be sleeping in an altitude tent for the next 3 months so we're going to experiment a little bit with that and see if that helps out 800-meter running.
T&FN: I'd suspect the direct effect will be less for an 800 runner than a true distance athlete.
Symmonds: Yeah. I don't think it will help out in the 800 from the speed side of it but certainly the training that I do—personally, I train more like a miler most of the year—I think it will allow me to train harder as a miler, which may not relate directly in terms of better times but should probably relate in being able to peak later going into 2011. I'll need that because Daegu is so late this year.
T&FN: You strung together your best sequence of races at season's end. No running out of gas. Did you learn anything that will help you reach peak form at the World Championships in Daegu next year, assuming all goes well?
Symmonds: I think that the big thing for me was that I passed up a whole lot of races. After winning USAs, I probably could have got into just about any race I wanted to but we specifically passed on a few. We passed on Berlin, we passed on Brussels, passed on a couple of others, just because I wanted to be fresh at the end of August. That was the whole point of the season: to peak at Rieti and then again in Croatia. So that's what we were trying to simulate: what we need to do next year.
In 2007 I went over to Europe in between USAs and Osaka and raced 5 times in 3 weeks, and I learned that I can't handle that. So we raced only a couple times before Rieti this year and it ended up allowing me to focus on my training more and delay my peak a little bit better.
T&FN: You placed 5th at the Continental Cup. Any thoughts on that performance?
Symmonds: The point of running Zagreb in between Rieti and the Continental Cup was to kind of simulate running three races, like a three-round series for a championship meet.
So going into Continental Cup we knew I'd be tired. The plan was to race tired and see what happened, and going into the last few hundred meters I just felt exhausted.
A 5th place in that field, I think, is a pretty terrible race for me but it simulated what we need for next year. So even though it was extremely disappointing, the first two rounds, Rieti and Zagreb, went really well.
T&FN: You ran the fastest you ever had placing 3rd behind Rudisha's second WR in Rieti. What was that like?
Symmonds: It was weird. Going into that race, it didn't even feel like a race; it felt like a time trial. We were all on the starting line and we were all just planning on running as fast as we can and see how many people could get PRs. If you look at the results, that's pretty much exactly what happened. The top four guys all PRed and some of them were pretty big PRs too. Rudisha's World Record was huge [in an overall sense] and Rimmer, the British half-miler, his PR was by quite a bit.
So you got your nerves up a little bit [approaching the race]. More than anything, I was just pretty confident that Rudisha was going to improve on his World Record because Rieti is such a fast track.
I just thought, If this is the World Record race that lasts for 20 years, I don't want people to look back on it and see me lay an egg in this World Record race.
So I just said, Get out hard and hopefully when you cross the line it will be a good time. When I finished, at the line everybody was going so crazy for Rudisha—as they should, as they'd just witnessed a World Record—that I just walked off the track.
They didn't have a big scoreboard to display the other athletes' times so it wasn't for like 5 minutes that I learned that I'd actually PRed.
T&FN: Did it feel like a PR race?
Symmonds: When I crossed the line I thought it was a 1:44 race because I was like, I lost to Rudisha by 20-30-some meters; there's no way I could run 1:43 and lose to a guy that bad. But when a guy runs 1:41-zero that's exactly what happens.
It was a little disheartening because I got beat so bad, but at the same time, if you're going to lose to somebody, you might as well lose to somebody that runs a World Record.
My coach joked, "Yeah, Rudisha got Nick that day but he had to run a World Record to do it."
It was a good day. I'm not in the sport to run World Records; I'm in the sport to see how good I can get, and any time I shave a little time off my PR I'm pretty happy.
T&FN: There's also that tough nut to crack: championships racing, which even Rudisha has not been able to manage at the highest level. Any feeling how your racing this year will feed into the two championships years ahead?
Symmonds: There's a couple thoughts on that: One, Rudisha and Kaki have never made a final. I totally expect them both to be in the final next year but you never know. I have that experience of having made a final before.
And then my other thought is that my 1:43.7 would have put me second in the world [list] in 2007 and this year puts me eighth. So that's just how much this sport can change from year to year. You never know what's going to hit you, what injuries, who's going to come out of the woodwork, what's going to happen. For all we know, no one will break 1:44 next year. It's just crazy how the men's 800 shapes up that way.
I fully expect it to be another fast year. I expect Rudisha and Kaki to be in the final but in the men's 800 you have to prepare for anything.
So all I can control is myself and my own preparation. I just want to be as prepared as possible when I step on the line in Daegu.
T&FN: You are in a hair-trigger event. You can't make a mistake in the 800 and expect to finish well. It's not a forgiving event.
Symmonds: No, it's not.
T&FN: You could consider moving up to the 1500. Is there something about the 800 that just compels you?
Symmonds: Yeah, the 800 just excites me. There is no room for error and often tactical guys can defeat giants.
On the U.S. level I'm the favorite and that scares me a little bit, but on the world level, where I'm an underdog, I really like the prospect of maybe a tactical 800 shaping up and me sneaking in there for a medal.
I just like the 8. I've been running it for 4 years now [as his prime event], I've got experience; I don't feel like starting all over with a new event. So at least until 2012 I'll be running the 800 for sure.
T&FN: I wasn't seriously suggesting you should make the switch, to be honest.
Symmonds: No but one of these days I should give it an honest try and see how fast I can run the 15.
T&FN: When will you guys head Down Under to Australia?
Symmonds: The date's aren't determined yet but we're just a little frustrated with the indoor circuit so we'd like to go down there, and I'll probably just run some 1500s down there. But hopefully just get some good warm-weather training and get out of Eugene for a little bit.
T&FN: So are you thinking December? January?
Symmonds: Probably January, February.
T&FN: So you won't run any 800s and try to hit the A standard for Daegu?
Symmonds: If I think I can run an A-standard, then I will try to run an A-standard there, but I also feel I can run the A standard at Pre if I need to so I won't feel too pressured to do that.