Talent, a sporting idol, or pushy parents could all be reasons for someone to take up track and field. Not for world 800m silver medallist Nick Symmonds. When he started running XC in eighth grade, he hated it. But there was one reason he had to stick with it: girls. SPIKES gets an exclusive excerpt of his new book “Life Outside the Oval Office: The Track Less Traveled”.

One hot August day, just before I began my eighth grade year, I voiced my soccer frustrations to two friends as we sat by our local pool. My friends had just signed up for the cross-country team and suggested I do the same. 

Normally I would have laughed at the idea of “running for fun,” but these weren’t just any two friends. Rather, I was lounging poolside with the two prettiest girls in my class. I had a huge crush on one of them and would have gone out for the dance team if she had asked me to. Hormones had recently kicked in and I found the opposite sex fascinating.

As soon as I got home I told my parents that I wanted to run cross-country that fall. As always, my parents were supportive. Just as they had done with my interests in golf, hockey, and skiing, they made sure I had all the gear I needed. In hindsight, they were probably relieved to find that all I needed for cross-country was a new pair of running shoes.

From the first day of practice I could tell two things about my new sport. One, co-ed practices were awesome, and two, distance running sucked. I quickly got to know many people on the team and liked most of them, but the idea that we were going to run, for an extended period of time with no real purpose, seemed absurd to me.

We often practiced with the high school team and one afternoon, before our scheduled workout, a senior girl asked if I wanted to buy one of the T-shirts they were having made. She showed me a mock up of the shirt. On the front it read BISHOP KELLY XC (which was the name of our high school) and on the back, OUR SPORT IS YOUR SPORT’S PUNISHMENT.

Nick Symmonds SPIKES ()

"Why in the world am I doing this?"

Are you serious? I thought. That’s exactly what this is: punishment. Why in the world are we doing this? I was just about to say this to her when, as if on cue, the girl I had joined the team for said, “I want one.” Immediately, I echoed, “Oh, yeah, me too!”

I showed up at cross-country practice every day after school excited about the social aspect of being on the team, but dreading the athletic part. My teammates kept telling me how much fun the meets were, but I secretly dreaded them. I got nervous before soccer games, but calmed my fears with the knowledge that a bad performance reflected on the entire team, not just me. On the other hand, if I ran poorly, there was no one to blame but myself. I imagined people laughing at me and asking how I could be so good at the mile in P.E. class, but so bad at cross-country running.

As the first meet neared I began to think of ways I could get out of it. Surely if I throw up during class they won’t make me run. If I twist my ankle during the warm up I bet Coach will let me out of racing.

I expressed my concerns to my mom and she told me not to worry, to just have fun with the race. “Win, lose, or draw, just make sure you are the one to shake everyone’s hand and congratulate them after the race,” she said.

Her words did little to ease my nerves, and my concerns ran through my head all the way until the moment I toed the start line. With a bang the gun went off and several hundred middle school kids took off in a sprint. Once I was running, my mind calmed and I simply ran. I keyed off the other kids and every so often did a check to see how my heart, lungs, and legs were feeling. 

With only a half-mile to go I found myself nearing the lead. Though my legs and lungs ached, I took off in a sprint. To my surprise, the pain didn’t increase. Instead, my legs simply went numb. This numbness quickly took over my entire body and I rigged hard in the final stretches of the race. I was passed just meters away from the finish line, but managed to hold on for second place.

Apparently, the boy who beat me had built up a pretty big name for himself as a distance runner in the southern part of the state and people were surprised to see me, a newcomer, this close to him. When I crossed the line people ran over to congratulate me. “Who is this kid?” people asked. Boys shook my hand and girls came up to talk to me.

Nick Symmonds SPIKES ()

Girls - the only reason Symmonds took up running in the first place

Several years of riding the bench in soccer and struggling to figure out how to connect with the opposite sex had left my self-esteem in tatters. I felt my peers had left me behind socially and I wondered how I would ever catch up. That day, as I looked around and saw the respect and admiration I so desperately craved, I began to wonder if running could ultimately help me get all that I wanted in life.

To put this idea to the test, I knew I needed to continue with competitive running. As hard as it was for me to do so, this led me to skip tryouts for the high school soccer team my freshman year so I could run cross-country instead. Many of my friends, however, weren’t sure that was a good idea.

“Distance running is lame!” they said.

“You are a good soccer player and will have way more fun playing soccer,” my soccer teammates said.

“Soccer players are the most popular kids in school. Can’t say that for the cross-country runners,” some girls laughed.

Still, there was something about the unity of the cross-country team, the fact that everyone got equal playing time, and that all my hard work would pay me dividends. I liked that. I stuck with my gut and showed up for the first day of cross-country practice.

“Life Outside the Oval Office: The Track Less Traveled" by Nick Symmonds. Copyright © 2014 by Nick Symmonds. Published by Cool Titles and reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Photography: Brooks Running