Nate Brannen ends near 20-year athletics career; owes the sport nothing

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Nate Brannen at Vancouver Sun Run 2014. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

Neil Young and Stephen Stills wrote Long May You Run in 1974. The melody is enough to make your heart ache. The seemingly literal lyrics continue to be shrouded in mystery. What really happened at Blind River where his Hearse “Mort” broke down? Had it run a car’s version of a marathon?

“With your chrome heart shining/in the sun/long may you run.”

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip is even more mysterious with the lyrics to Long Time Running. But, as a lyric-oriented artist first and melody maker second, Downie writes in greater metaphor. Who is he going to tell on when he drops a caribou? Someone’s heart aches for a very different reason, here.

The songs are part of the soundtrack of our lives, especially Canadian lives.

A guy can get pretty emotional about a car, even if it was built for the purpose of carting around dead people in a wood box. The experience of running around a track in a 1500-metre race is different, but it’s metaphorically-speaking just as heart-achingly salient.

Any Canadian fan of running and really any North American running fan has run across the near 20-year middle-distance career of one Nate Brannen of Cambridge, ON. Born in September of 1982, the 35-year-old just officially stepped off the track for the final time, weeks before the season starts.

In 1998, when Wayne Gretzky was being hounded relentlessly by the press about when he will make a decision on his imminent retirement, he said that he will make that decision before the season starts, not after it ends, so there is no need to continue asking the question. He felt that the decision would otherwise be made primarily on current emotions, not logic. He played one more season, poetically, to year ’99. He did so without telling the public. Not until later in the season, so to not create a distraction for his fellow New York Rangers who were wanting a deep playoff run.

It was a rich move for the poster boy for cooperation with the Canadian media, who were mad for the kid from Brantford. His nickname was “The Kid” before it became better known as “The Great One”.

Brannen, is a dedicated father to Gianna and Grayson and committed husband to Theresa, should it be any other way? He wants to be close to his family, after two decades of running around…the track and the planet.

With marathon running, he can train at home, travel a couple times of year, rather than from meet-to-meet and camp-to-camp and be home more than the average nine-to-fiver.

It is difficult to speculate how fast of a marathon Brannen can run based on his middle-distance career. He ran personal bests of 3:34.22 over 1500-metres and 1:46.00 for the 800-metre event and 13:43.19 in the 5,000-metre distance.

Canadian running fans know well of the Simon Bairu story, the Regina native who won six consecutive Canadian Cross Country Championships, held the national record for the 10,000-metres at 27:23.63 and seemed to have all the promise in the world. That promise never translated to the marathon, nor did it for Vancouver’s Jeff Schiebler, who owned a handful of national records including in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000-metre events.

St. Catharine’s Mohammed Ahmed owns all three now; the beautiful gazelle may take them all.

Schiebler continues to own the half-marathon record which is stubbornly stuck at 61:23.

The national marathon record is even older and deemed slow for a national record by today’s standards. At 2:10:09 and set some 43-years-ago, it was thought that Guelph’s Reid Coolsaet would have taken it. He came very close on several occasions and proved to be one of the most consistent marathon runners all-time. His best is 2:10:28 from Berlin’s 2015 edition.

Vancouver’s Dylan Wykes came close too with his 2:10:47 in Rotterdam in 2012. Eric Gillis of Antigonish was less than a minute back.

A new crop of marathon runners are on the horizon, who Canadian running fans hope will modernize the long-running record. At this time, it is difficult to say if Brannen is in that conversation, but Black Creek’s Cameron Levins and Ahmed and maybe – and likely not for some time – Toronto’s Justyn Knight will be in the conversation too, should he choose to go all the way.

Levins could threaten Schiebler’s record if he continues to be in good health, as he just ran a 62:15, coming off of an injury. Ahmed seems destined, inevitable.

What could Brannen have run the 5,000-metre distance in if that was his career focus? Maybe not Ahmed’s 13:01.74, but certainly faster than 13:43.19.

Brannen broke seven Canadian records of his own and is the current record holder in the outdoors at 1,000-metres at 2:16.52 and 2000-metres with his 4:59.5 performance. He continues to hold indoors records of 1,000-metres in 2:16.87 and the mile (1609m) 3:54.32 and has run sub-4:00 and sub-3:36 too many times to count.

He is a three-time Olympian, six-time national 1500-metre champion, Commonwealth Games and Pan Am Games silver medallist. He is indeed a racer and one tough runner.

In 2012, he told me, “I’ve had to overcome some very serious injuries in the past, some that have actually ended many runner’s careers. I partially tore the head of my hamstring off my ischial tuberosity in 2007 (similar injury that Solinksy had last year that resulted in surgery and screws to hold it in place), had back surgery for a herniated disc, and in 2010 had a navicular stress fracture in my left foot.”

University of Arkansas’ John McDonnell – the nuggety-tough Irishman loved his Irish runners and he loved his Canadians, because they were willing to work very hard. He recruited Graham Hood, one of Canada’s all-time great middle-distance runners. McDonnell had his eyes on Brannen too. McDonnell was known for winning more than 40 NCAA team titles while at the helm – the man is a legend, but so is the University of Michigan’s Ron Warhurst.

Warhurst also had a keen eye and was smart enough to recruit the great Kevin Sullivan – the other Brantford legend – who would go on to finish fifth in an Olympic final and set the national record for the distance at 3:31.71 in June of 2000. Brannen chose Michigan and never looked back.

At Michigan he was an 11-time All-American. He was a four-time NCAA champion, tying Sully’s record, including winning twice in the indoor 800-metre event.

Brannen gave his athletics career all he could and represented Canada with a commitment to excellence for nearly 20 years. He owes the sport nothing.

It has indeed been a long time running and will continue to be, as he moves to the marathon. So queue Young and his acoustic guitar.

Long may you run
Long may you run
Although these changes
have come
With your chrome heart shining
in the sun
Long may you run