In 10-plus years of putting on races around the globe, we've heard literally thousands of remarkable stories about why people race. Now, our mission is to bring them to life. In Why I Race, we're highlighting the infinite reasons that people take to the course, and the unbelievable, transformative impact it has on their lives, and the lives of those around them.
James Nair grew up in Scio, Oregon, a small town with a population of just 927. But with two parents in the school system — his father a science teacher and his mother a school counselor — the Nair family was constantly uprooting for their newest destination. Moving from Oregon to Latvia to Abu Dhabi, his small-town mentality didn’t last long.
“If you grow up in a small town, you’re like, ‘Oh, the world is small. This is home, this is the world,’" he said. "Whereas when you start to see the greater world, you realize there’s so much more that’s out there."
Eventually, they settled back in the States — in Gardnerville, Nevada — where Nair lives now. But even after seeing all that the world had to offer, the self-proclaimed ambition-less kid had one goal, and one goal only: to be a snowboard bum.
“That was my whole plan,” he said. “I was just going to sit on the couch all summer, and snowboard during the winter. That was my pure ambition in life.”
But like most plans in life, it didn’t exactly turn out that way. Nair, taking after his mother, actually found an interest in running, and signed up for middle school track and field.
“But I was there to goof around,” Nair said. “I was there to hang out with my buddies and run fast every once in a while. Fortunately, I actually turned out to be decent at it.”
That was enough to make Nair, then a high school freshman, focus on running for real. The 200- and 400-meter runner made the varsity team, but was wholeheartedly unsatisfied with running in circles. He wanted something more. Something better.
“I saw an ad for a Spartan race on the television, and something about going out and running around in the mud and climbing up ropes and carrying stuff made me think, ‘I have to do that. I have to give this a try,’” he said.
When Robert Killian Asks to Coach You, How Can You Say No?
So the track star signed up for the Open heat of a Sacramento Sprint. And in true Spartan spirit, all-day sunny skies opened into a complete downpour right as he toed the line. But 120 burpees later, Nair was hoping that there was a way he could turn his newfound hobby into a full-time career. After a few competitive heats, he started noticing and following Ryan Atkins, Robert Killian, and other Spartan pros on social media. He couldn’t have dreamed what would happen next.
“That led to me say, ‘Okay, I have got to get some structure to the way that I run,'" Nair said. "Eventually in my junior year of high school, Robert Killian actually reached out to me and said, ‘Hey dude, I’ve seen you at a couple different races. You’re doing alright, but I think you could be a lot better. Would you like me to coach you?’ For me, that was a really obvious answer.”
Knowing he might never get an offer like that again, Nair immediately quit his high school cross country team, telling his coach that OCR had his heart. Then, he got the break he’d been looking for. At the 2019 Castaic Saturday Sprint, a 16-year-old Nair snagged his first elite podium — third place, only behind Ryan Kent and Veejay Jones. And on Sunday, he got his second third place.
From Training After School to Finding a Full-Time Gig
After that eye-opening weekend, Nair spent the rest of high school getting his homework done, and then training for races with whatever time he had left in the day. But as he began to grow up and the bills began to roll in, he had to shift his focus.
“Going from a snowboard bum to where I was then, that’s where Spartan showed me that I needed to find a job that would allow me to train, but also give back to the community that had given so much to me,” Nair said.
Following some soul searching, the OCR athlete stumbled upon the idea of personal training, and — quite literally — ran with it.
“I found out that you can help people achieve their fitness goals, whether that be losing 10 pounds or improving their 5K time,” he said. “That was really cool because so many people did that for me. So many people were willing to give up their own time to help me succeed and make memories that were going to last a lifetime.”
Developing Human Beings First
Nair, who is now a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified trainer, attributed much of his motivation to the coaching figures he’d been lucky enough to have throughout his middle school and high school years. They showed him that so much of being an athlete is not just physical, but also about the connections you make along the way.
“Killian would take time and we would chat on the phone sometimes for like 20, 30 minutes, and just talk — not just about training, but about life,” he said. “About how I was doing. My cross country coach Jay Frey used to sit me down and we’d talk like, 'Alright, we’re here to run, but we're also here to help you develop as humans. So what’s going on in your life? What can I also help you with as a human being?'”
And while most young kids might have found frustration with parents who moved them across the globe and back for work before they were even old enough to drive, Nair said his parents’ ambition and devotion — qualities he now hopes to mirror — have been the biggest inspiration and driving force behind his success, both in OCR and in life.
“Seeing their passion and willingness to put aside some of their own personal wants and needs — like sleep and really important things — in order to help other people, made me aware that somebody else could benefit from my help," he said. "I owe it to the world, I owe it to the community to give back. You never know when you’re going to say just the right thing or be the person that ends up changing somebody’s life.”
In the immediate future, the personal trainer now has his sights on the 2021 Utah Spartan Trifecta Weekend, but said he hopes one of his biggest dreams will materialize sooner rather than later — with some pretty intense work ethic.
“I would really like to earn my way onto the Pro Team eventually,” Nair said. “I’ve seen so many people who I’ll call my heroes, my idols, growing up on the Pro Team, and that is one thing that I’d like to prove and earn. Whatever that takes, however long that takes — that’s another big goal of mine.”
But his biggest goal of all? Sharing his life — the struggles, the successes, and everything in between — with his clients and the Spartan community, in hopes that the right person will see it and it will change someone’s life the way his coaches did for him.
“Whoever sees it, I hope they think, ‘I want to do something like that,’” he said. “Maybe it changes their life, maybe it changes their day. I mean, heck, maybe it just changes the minute that they’re in. But if I can make a difference — it’s not for me, it’s for them — but that ends up inspiring me.”
And to anyone doubting that they’re capable, looking for a sign to really get started with a goal, procrastinating making their next big move, or even considering being a full-time snowboard bum, Nair had one message:
“There’s never going to be that green light," he said. "Just jump in, and trust yourself that you can get through anything. Trust yourself that you’re tougher, you’re stronger than you think you are. The day I got my first Spartan podium, I didn’t wake up and say, ‘This is the day.’ I just knew I wanted to make it happen — for me and anyone that had inspired me. Find your ‘why’ and that will get you through absolutely anything and everything. If you know WHY you’re doing it, it doesn’t matter what adversity comes your way. You will find a way to do it.”