Nick Symmonds is Leaving the Sport Better than He Found It

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S: So you said that you were using other stimulants. Was it just caffeine and energy drinks?

N: Yeah, you know, I drank coffee and espresso and taurine pills, and No-Doze and 5 Hour Energy and Red Bull and of all the things I tried, Red Bull really kind of was it for me. And I loved the way it made me feel, like, emotionally, like, energy and focus wise. But again it was really hard on my stomach. And I didn’t like drinking 8.4 oz of fluid right before I went running. It seemed so counter-intuitive to me that emotionally I’d feel this great lift, this focus and energy, but my stomach would be in knots. It just was so absurd to me. So I thought, ‘You know I just want the energy, I’m really not thirsty.’

You can imagine just dehydrating a Red Bull down to its essence, a sugar-free Red-Bull specifically. I’d say we’re most like a sugar free Red Bull. And then just taking that. You’ve seen functional chewing gum before, Nicorette is a great example, it’s a chewing gum with nicotine. Utilizing sublingual absorption just made sense and chewing gum was the answer. It’s a delivery vehicle. So I always say don’t think of this as enhanced chewing gum, think of this as a dehydrated energy drink that just happens to be reduced to a piece of chewing gum.

S: Interesting. So we know caffeine is a performance enhancer, that’s been scientifically proven, and that at one point it was banned in competition.

N: At certain levels, yeah.

Nick Symmonds says no to dope
S: What if that happened again? Do you think that would ever happen? Are you concerned about it?

N: No, and the Wall St. Journal did a really good piece on this just before the Olympic games, estimating that in 2012 I believe it was something like 90% of athletes utilized caffeine in competition. In track and field professionally there is no illegal dose. You can use as much caffeine as you want. I believe in the NCAA there is still an illegal dose? I believe it would be like–don’t quote me on this–it’s a massive amount of caffeine, and I don’t know that you could even get it through Run Gum, possibly if you chewed enough packs. But it’s a powerful performance enhancer; it’s one that’s so widely used throughout the world whether in tea or cola or coffee or energy drinks or Run Gum, people have come to understand the power of caffeine as a performance enhancer. We’re not recreating the wheel here, we’re just making a better wheel in my opinion.

S: No, there have been gels with caffeine forever, it’s widely understood. But I’m just curious, what do you think the difference is between using a legal performance enhancer like Run Gum or caffeine in general, or you know, altitude tents, vs. some of the banned substances, like medical stimulants. Where’s the line? When is it doping and when is it not?

N: Honestly it’s super black and white in my opinion. WADA and USADA released rulebooks with a list of every single chemical you can put in your body and whether it’s prohibited or not prohibited, in competition or out of competition. You can go to and look up every single chemical you can put in your body and it will tell you exactly when it is and when it is not illegal, and that’s all you need to know. Again I don’t think that it’s up to the athletes to set the code, it’s their job to just follow the damn code. Run Gum is not illegal in competition, it’s not illegal out of the competition. But a product like testosterone is going to be illegal in competition and out of competition. And EPO and many stimulants. So again I think it’s up to every athlete to take control of the products or chemicals that go into their body and with a resource like there’s no excuse for not knowing what you’re taking.

S: I see what you’re saying. It’s a matter of rules. You’re either following the rules or not following the rules. But philosophically, when is it cheating and not cheating? Is it just according to the rules, or is there a level of performance enhancement that’s…

N: There are athletes that say you need to follow a moral code, but morality is so subjective. What I think is moral someone else might view as immoral. It’s legal to go into an altitude tent, but someone from an East African country that can’t afford an altitude tent might say that’s illegal. Who am I to force my morality on someone else? All I know is that there is a governing body that has put in place rules that I need to follow and I expect all my competitors to follow. Anything that falls outside of that rulebook is open to interpretation. That’s a grey area that you hear a lot of people talking about. Whether it’s inhalers or synthetic thyroid or [Therapeutic Use Exemption] exploitation, any of those things fall in a grey area.

S: And yeah, what do you think about the TUEs for marginal thyroid problems and things like that?

N: Yeah. I think it’s a system that’s super flawed and is being abused today. And I think that it is up to USADA and WADA to police the sport better. I think they do a very poor job of policing the sport and trying to catch cheaters, or making things that should be illegal illegal. And it’s just demoralizing a little bit as an athlete that prefers to stay very well left of the grey area. I don’t use TUEs, I don’t use an inhaler, I’ve never taken synthetic thyroid. I barely take any multi- or any vitamins. I take One-A-Day multivitamins and use Run Gum and that’s all I’ve ever used. So you know I see these athletes playing to the far right, you know, pushing the envelope in the grey area, and I just shake my head. But you know I don’t think they’re breaking the rules. I’m certain they’re not breaking the rules. They’re just playing in a different set of moral rules than I am.

S: Yeah. I was a tax attorney before I had kids and started this, and it really reminds me of how people view tax laws and how some companies are more aggressive with bending the rules and some aren’t.

N: Exactly. If you take the standard deduction, you’re just doing your job. But if you utilize tax shelters very very aggressively, but you’re still playing within the legal rules, who’s to say one’s right and one’s wrong? The IRS is the only one in my opinion to say who’s right and who’s wrong there.

S: And just like the IRS, USADA and WADA may or may not be doing a great job.

N: Yeah, that’s something we can definitely talk about is whether WADA and USADA do their job correctly. But whether an athlete wants to abuse the TUE system or not, I mean, that’s just pretty much up to them and I can’t try to force my moral code on them, I don’t feel like.

S: Right, and USADA and WADA need to make rules and enforce their rules and be clear with their rules.

N: Absolutely.

S: Like you said when there’s so much grey it’s really hard too, it’s when people start getting into problems there. And then I think it’s hard with the sport too because it’s so competitive. With tax it’s just about saving money but with sport you’re trying to compete with someone else. You need to be able to keep up with people who are bending rules and things, so you know, just like the Lance Armstrong stuff, like, if everyone’s doing it how do you not? You don’t get to participate if you don’t, to some level.

N: I remember when Lance Armstrong came out and said that he’d been doping everyone said ‘Yeah, well he had to level the playing field just to be competitive, so is it really that bad?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah it’s that bad because there’s a guy out there who refused to stoop that low and cheat and he sat on his couch watching the Tour de France when he probably could have been out there winning.’ You know? Or there’s  a guy who finished 200th in that race who’s probably actually your legitimate winner. It’s not okay. Just because everyone else is doing it does not make it okay.

S: Yeah that’s just so sad. And speaking of …

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Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. I loved this interview and really appreciated a lot of the things he had to say, in fact he surprised me a few times. I really appreciate his thoughts on the doping situation (black and white when it comes to breaking the rules) but also acknowledging that grey area. As well as on genetics and when it comes to intersex/trans athletes. As someone who admittedly is VERY grey (I rarely see things in black and white, though I agree that if you break the law or rules…it’s pretty clear) its nice to read that I’m not alone in believing it isn’t always as simple as yes/no etc. Same thing with the PETA stuff, you can eat meat/hunt/fish and still believe in animals being treated properly etc.

    1. He’s a very talented guy all around – athlete, pitch-man, entrepreneur, advocate, conversationalist … I was impressed and I really enjoyed talking to him. I think the one thing that was most surprising to me is that he possesses humility. He is confident, opinionated, and assured, but knows his place in the world too. He is grateful for his gifts, his success, and aware of the power those things afford him and is committed to doing good work with that power. How can you not be a fan?

  2. Great interview. Nick does come across a little cocky and brash at times, so it was great to see something more long-form and get to hear his thoughts. I enjoyed this obviously thoughtful responses.

    I really appreciated his comments on the USATF — as a “sub-elite” (apparently, according to Spikenard’s article posted last week!), I ask myself somewhat regularly if I need to join USATF. But I struggle to see the benefit for me as an athlete, and I don’t think Siegel needs my money for jet fuel.

  3. Love this guy and what he has brought to the sport…and I’m not just talking about the gum 🙂 I had previously listened to the Run to the Top Podcast and this was a great change up from all the usual stuff you hear from Nick. Thank you!!