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Nate Pace

You have to go back to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta to pinpoint a moment when Canadians were really fanatical about track and field. I will never forget the late Don Wittman making the call as Donovan Bailey anchored the men's relay team to gold, "Oh if you're Canadian, you have to love Saturday nights in Georgia." The previous Saturday night, Bailey had just become Olympic champion in the 100-metre sprint.

Years later, I was preparing to head out to Edmonton for the world's biggest track and field event of the year. It was 2001 and Alberta was about to play host to the World Championships. It was a big deal and while the Atlanta Games had inspired some runners, I wondered if track had really caught on with the rest of the Canadian public.

With this idea in mind, I went to Ontario's big annual high school meet, OFSAA, to interview athletes and fans. I remember very clearly finding a teenager from Cambridge sitting on a hill waiting for his event to start.

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Nathan Brannen was 18-years-old and told me he'd been running in races since he was nine. He looked up at the empty stands and lamented, wishing track and field could find the popularity enjoyed by other Canadian past times, like hockey. Still, Brannen loved running track and off camera, told me his dream was to make it to the Olympics.

I went back to our CBC offices, we filed our story, and knowing we don't always archive short interviews, I asked our video librarian to hang on to that particular piece of tape. I asked for it to be saved because I had a feeling....

A couple of weeks ago, I sought out Brannen again, at a National Track League meet at Toronto's Varsity Stadium. The crowd, while not sparse thanks to the presence of several Olympians, didn't pack the stands either.

Brannen won the 1,500-metre race, far out-classing the rest of the field. It was a warm-up really, because Brannen was on his way to the Olympics. Not his first Games, mind you. London marks his second time at the Olympics.

Brannen is now 29-years-old and a new father. Oh, how times change (sort of). We chatted a bit about that meeting on the hill 11 years ago, and although his memory was vague, he guessed it was probably his first television interview ever.

I was curious if his views had changed over the years, after becoming one of the fastest 1,500-metre runners this country has produced, competing internationally on a fairly regular basis. So I followed up by email.

Back in 2001, when we spoke about how he thought the state of track and field in Canada could be improved, a younger Brannen answered, "more money." He said that's what Canada has to do, be more like countries such as Australia, which had just hosted the 2000 Summer Games and put more funds into amateur sports.

Today, Brannen gets Sport Canada carding money and has a contract with Saucony. But he still sees an issue with money, saying there's a need to go beyond the shoe companies, to bigger corporate sponsorships.

"We are limited by the number of sponsors we can have and the size of the logo. The IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) allows one sponsor on your race kit, which has to be within a certain size and also one team logo. Without corporate sponsorship and being able to have multiple sponsors on your race kit like other sports, it is hard to see Track and Field in North America really taking off. These limitations really hurt the chances of track growing in Canada like NASCAR in the U.S."

Brannen's goal for the London Olympics is to make the finals of the men's 1,500-metre, perhaps even produce a milestone result.

Along the way, Brannen has had support from training partners like Nova Scotia's Geoff Harris. The 800-metre specialist is about to compete at his first Olympics and soaking up every moment. He talked to me about a little something some of Canada's middle distance runners call "Nate Pace."

Harris explains the phrase started off as a bit of a joke, named for the speed Brannen runs his laps. Until about a year ago, the now veteran Brannen often found himself running alone because he was just too quick, running at "Nate Pace" so-to-speak.

"He was the most successful runner in our group. So I started going against my coaches advice at Nate Pace," writes Harris. In the past months, he says, running at a pace "just outside my comfort zone" has paid off. "It gets me pushing into that area where I can make the biggest gains in fitness, " says Harris.

Brannen says "Nate Pace" has come to mean different things to different people. For him, it's doing "a nice run at an honest pace... a solid pace". He adds, "We see this as something that could rally take off, assuming I do really well at the Olympics."
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Brannen and Harris envision slogans such as, "what's your Nate Pace?" catching on. They've even come up with a "Nate Pace" cap, offering it for sale and tweeting photos of some of the fun places they've found to hang their rather unique hat on.

The message to Canadians - work hard and find your own "Nate Pace".

As Brannen tells me, "Just another way to get people out and being active and trying their best." Inspirational, sure. And who knows, perhaps one day will help pack the stands at Canadian track meets.