With just 100 days remaining before the 2016 Olympics, hundreds of athletes are making the final push to represent their country in Rio de Janeiro come August. Track and Field takes its place in the spotlight every four years, but the preparation needed to reach the starting line begins long before the big moment. Running goes beyond just putting one foot in front of the other as fast as you can. And coaching a runner is more than just telling someone to push harder.
Danny Mackey is the head coach of the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts training group, which includes two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds and other emerging U.S. distance runners. Mackey has been entrusted by his athletes to guide them and help make their Olympic dreams come true.
Each month, Mackey will write a first-hand look for Sports Illustrated discussing the training, races, and preparation of his runners as they aim for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in July and the 2016 Olympics in August.
I think about August 12th every day.
For exactly 20 years, I have been obsessed with track and field. What started the obsession? Stop reading right now and watch Michael Johnson’s 200-meter race in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Make sure the volume is on. Watch Michael Johnson’s eyes when he crosses the finish line, and listen to the crowd. There is no luck. It is raw. Him versus the world.
I grew up in Chicago and, thanks to the Bulls and Michael Jordan, I had no choice but to be a huge sports fan. Now, I am more than a fan: it is my job to think about athletics. I am the head coach of the Brooks Beasts Track Club, and August 12th is the first day of track and field at the Rio Olympics.
But where did our team come from and how are we going to get to the starting line in Rio?
The Brooks Beasts were created by Brooks Running in 2013; I was hired to start the team and recruit its members. Brooks is a running company with world headquarters in Seattle, which is where my athletes live and train. The Beasts consist of 17 athletes, men and women, who are some of the best in the world in the middle-distance events, and trying to get better.
We didn’t always have 17 athletes on the roster, though; the first member of the team roster was none other than Katie Mackey, my wife. Katie is a beautiful blue-eyed blonde who loves people and life so much that she will turn a relaxing day on vacation into a 16-hour adventure. I married her on New Year’s Eve, 2011. Similar to her teammates today, Katie is unassuming. She is 5' 4", weighs 106 pounds and is always smiling. She, also like some of her teammates, is a scaled down version of an NFL running back with the mentality of a boxer equipped with SUV air bags for lungs.
After we got married and moved to Boston, Katie found herself without a coach while I was working with a few other professional athletes. She had gone through a few coaching changes and I was resistant to coaching her myself because it was always way more fun (and easier) to be the cheerleader. But I knew Katie better than anyone else, and taking over her coaching was the best option at the time. People always ask if it is hard to coach your wife. When your wife’s job comes down to running a mile one-tenth of a second faster than the other women in her race, let’s just say our lives should be a reality TV show sometimes.
That year, Katie PR’d in every event and made the U.S. Championships 1500-meter run final. The other professional athletes I was working with were doing well, and the timing aligned with Brooks since they were looking to start a professional track team in Seattle. I got the call to build and coach the team, and haven’t looked back.
With Katie as the first member of the Beasts, the first item on my agenda was to recruit and create a true team in professional running. I read the books from Phil Jackson, John Wooden and John McDonnell. I watched teams succeed at the NCAA level. I thought, “What could these solitary track animals do if they worked together to take on the world?” I recruited hard in 2013 and by the end of the year, we had signed a number of NCAA graduates, including Casimir Loxsom and Riley Masters, both of whom are accomplished members of the Beasts today. A year after we started the team, we signed one of the most popular, successful and outspoken athletes in track and field, Nick Symmonds. We’ve continued to grow since then.
Recruiting wasn’t easy, though. When you’re a small, new team in the corner of the country, persuading elite runners to come train with a group of other pros was an immediate challenge. Just as important as my athletes’ speed and potential is their ability to run and compete with a team. From my research and my experience, I knew the team model was the right way to go, and our sponsor agreed. The athletes that join the team also seek their own running community and other teammates who can push them. Together, we modeled the Beasts after the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project, a long-distance running team with which I ran for a while. I had the blueprints for the team, I had sponsor support, the athletes I coach were talented and they bought into the program and my philosophy, and they were doing well on this new team.
If 2013 was about building the team, then 2014 and 2015 were about getting results as a team. Two races come to mind that make me proud of all the work we did to get to where we are today. The first is the 4x800-meter relay we ran in Boston after signing Nick in 2014. He, Cas and former teammates Matt Scherer and Mark Wieczorek battled to break the world record in that event together at the New Balance Grand Prix, which was held at the Reggie Lewis Center. We came up short that day, but it was a great display of teamwork from four of the country’s best middle-distance men, all Beasts teammates. The other moment was when Cas ran his first of two American records in the indoor 600 meters last year. His record was amazing, and I knew he was capable of it, but what struck me most was seeing Katie at the finish line in tears cheering for Cas. As much as track can sometimes be about individual accomplishments, we work together toward those moments and we celebrate them together. It’s something the team and I believe in.
Now, in 2016, I realize my athletes have entrusted me with a lifetime of their work in order to help them be as mentally and physically prepared to compete for a chance to represent their country at the Rio Olympics. When the team started in 2013, I became partially responsible for the livelihoods of a bunch of Type-A, hyper-driven, physical freaks of nature, and they are partially responsible for mine. Sound a little stressful? It is.
We just returned to Seattle after spending a 4 week altitude training camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we rented three houses in the foothills and spent the days training and recovering a lot. Training in the thin altitude air where there’s less oxygen helps the athletes become more aerobically efficient. Plus, it is a great time to cement the team bond. They get to know each other (think: “Real World – Albuquerque”) living and training together for a month.
We may have just returned, but we’re just about to head out again. A number of the Beasts like Katie and Garrett Heath are headed to the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford University this weekend to kick off their track season. I would not trade this job for any other in the world, though.