VANCOUVER — Ask any devoted harrier to define their love of cross-country running, and many will tell you that on their best days, it’s an act which takes them back to being a kid at recess, running unbridled through their old school yard.
Last Saturday, at the age of 22, UBC Thunderbirds’ senior Nicola Symonds had the surreal pleasure of experiencing not only that romanticized version of her sport, but having it play out in reality at the re-launched Canada West Cross-Country championships held at Calgary’s Canmore Park.
Quite amazingly, Symonds attended elementary school at Ecole Banff Trail, which sits adjacent to Canmore Park, the same place she ran her first-ever cross-country meet as an eight-year-old back in 2005.
“When I was a little kid, we literally took field trips to Canmore Park for science class,” Symonds recalled earlier this week as she prepared to leave with her teammates for Saturday’s U Sports national championship final at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
Growing up that close to the course makes you an expert in ways you just can’t fake, which Symonds proved with this gem: “You can actually throw a stone from the playground of my elementary school to the park.”
Despite blinding snow over stretches of the race, however, Symonds won a pure-guts duel down the stretch-drive of the last 100 metres against Saskatchewan’s Courtney Hufsmith, displaying a finishing kick in front of friends and family lining the course that was straight out of a fairy tale.
In fact when she did a little research after the race, Symonds discovered enough stuff to give her goosebumps.
“I found a photo of that first-ever race I had run, and it was at Canmore Park,” began Symonds, who later prepped at nearby William Aberhart High. “It was run on Oct. 26, 2005, so exactly 14 years to the date (of the Canada West final). It was a Halloween race, but I have no idea what costume I’m supposed to be wearing.”
Needless to say, as you can see by the photograph, she wasn’t as serious about the sport back in the day.
In fact you might even say she wasn’t too serious about the sport when she accepted UBC’s offer to both hit the trails and run some middle-distance with the track team following her high school graduation in 2015.
“I reached out to a number of schools for their academics,” says Symonds, who is hoping to pursue a career in medicine and public health upon graduation. “It had never even crossed my mind to explore my chances as a runner (in university). And I think I hit a window of opportunity to join the (UBC) team.”
That’s because in 2015, as she explored her post-secondary options, Thunderbirds track was in the transition stage of longtime coach Marek Jedrezejek’s retirement from the program, and new head coach Laurier Primeau’s hiring.
“Marek was stepping down and since it was Laurier’s first year, there hadn’t been a lot of athletes recruited yet,” remembers Symonds.
And thus began a most fruitful career of development, one which happened so far outside of the spotlight that to many, Symonds’ victory Saturday was a complete surprise.
“I don’t think anyone outside of us expected her to do what she did at the Canada West meet,” says Brant Stachel, UBC’s newly-hired cross-country coach. “But inside the program, we all saw it. It’s the quiet confidence she exudes, and the way she never gets too high or too low.
“She loves the daily process of training and that is one of the best indicators of whether or not an athlete will do well,” adds Stachel. “It’s not easy to get outdoors each day, with the rain and the bad weather, feeling tired, but she truly loves the process.”
Added Symonds: “It always feels great to win, and I was so excited for our team banner. Winning is always something very special, but to do it on this course with my family watching? That was unique.”
The Canada West conference championship for cross-country was contested up until about 30 years ago, at which point it was simply gleaned from the conference’s finish at the U Sport nationals.
And thus, it was pretty hard for Symonds not to feel that the running gods were doing her a solid by scheduling the return of the Canada West championship meet in what was pretty much her own back yard.
And that was all part of day in which the UBC women’s team won the conference title, while the men finished with bronze. Symonds was also named the conference’s Athlete of the Year, and this past week, she was named Canada West Athlete of the Week, and later U Sports national Athlete of the Week.
UBC’s Naomi Lang finished fourth while Kyla Becker took sixth. Sarah MacArthur, Mikayla Tinkham and Jamie Hennessey were 14th, 15th and 16th respectively.
Kieran Lumb was UBC’s top finisher in the men’s race, winning the bronze medal.
“I was right there, I ran alongside the last 100 metres with her,” said an elated Stachel, already in Kingston preparing for Saturday’s national championship race, which incidentally is being run on his home course at Queen’s, one which overlooks Lake Ontario and Fort Henry.
“It was a special moment for us as a program to have a woman win the first Canada West title in 30 years,” he continued. “But beyond that, to have it on the same course you ran your first-ever cross-country race, and to have your parents there to share in a joyous experience? It was a storybook fairy tale… the chance to have one of the best days that you could possibly have.”
It was just like those days running on the old school yard.
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