Dave Milner is a well known figure in the world of track and field for his work with the Music City Distance Carnival and other professional track meets for emerging elite athletes. We cover his experience as an athlete of the legendary Jack Daniels, his journey into (and out of) college coaching, Letsrun notoriety, and how he found himself coaching his first national qualifier in track and field.
In 1995, Dave Milner moved from his home in London, England to sunny Nashville, Tennessee to run for Belmont University. He would not graduate from this program, however, as he followed a young woman to SUNY Cortland. By absolute chance, his coach was the legendary Jack Daniels. Milner loved hanging out in Daniels’ office to talk about running – even if these conversations bled into his class time.
“I was less than average at running, but pretty great at drinking,” Milner admitted. Nevertheless, Daniels was the one who suggested that Milner, who was an avid student of the sport and a Psychology and Exercise Physiology double major, take up coaching. “At the time, I was fairly dismissive of it,” Milner remembers.
After graduation, however, he found himself managing a chain of three running stores. He was quickly pulled into leading the stores’ marathon training plan, and he had no idea where to start. “They told me, ‘you’re a smart guy, figure it out.’ So the first thing I did was sign up for a USATF Coaching Clinic… and a marathon, so I wouldn’t feel like a fraud.”
Twenty-five miles of his first marathon went well, but he received a crash course on “the wall” in the last half mile. Nevertheless, he found his niche helping adult marathoners qualify for big races: from the Olympic Trials to the age-graded Boston standards. Soon, he was leading Tuesday morning and night group workouts with a wide variety of committed runners of varying skill levels.
“Most of the runners I take on are relatively experienced, self-motivated, and thick-skinned. I don’t treat the woman who runs a 3:30 marathon much differently than I would a professional runner,” Milner explained. “Obviously the training is very different, but the same physiological principles usually apply, and the way I interact with the athlete and deliver their training is very similar. I wouldn’t take them on unless I thought they could handle it.”
Despite his “blunt as a hammer” approach to on-the-ground conditioning, Milner took a more subtle approach to planning the athletes’ training. As a new coach, “Jack Daniels’ Running Formula book was my Bible,” Milner shared. “Now, the concepts of that book are hardwired and memorized. I have a pretty good idea how to recreate Jack Daniels’ formula, but now, how do I put my own spin on it?”
Milner gleans as much information as possible from other coaches with the intention of melding their wisdom into his own unique training system. For example, Milner’s coaching is influenced by Peter Thompson and his system of “New Interval Training”. Peter is a fan of “floats” during interval workouts, wherein, rather than jogging your recoveries at a glacial pace, you just let your foot off the gas and cover the recovery jogs (say 200m) at your regular easy run pace.
He would also periodically bounce ideas off coaches like Danny Mackey and Pete Rea when he had the chance to hang out with them.
“I’m probably not doing anything that someone else isn’t doing,” Milner admitted, “But it’s always flattering when I share workouts with other coaches and they say ‘hey, that’s a good one.’ It helps me know I’m on the right track.”
The ability to adjust training cycles comes in handy when Milner is working with, for example, a mom who can only run significant mileage on the weekends.
When setting up a program, “I use a few basic tenets that Peter Thompson instilled in me,” Milner explains. For example, “Working backwards from your target event when planning the program, using 3-week cycles with a down week at the end of each cycle, and never doing a long run the day after a race. Some of his rules like that I still use.”
A foray into collegiate coaching
Some of the adult athletes that he was coaching were high school cross country coaches, and they convinced him to get into the field. Soon, he was coaching both high schoolers and marathoners. In 2002, he was invited on as a Graduate Assistant Coach at Belmont University. He pursued his Master’s in Sports Administration while working with the middle distance runners and doing recruiting.
After finishing this program, he returned to high school coaching and worked in a running store again. He led the school’s previously struggling distance program to significantly contribute to three state championships. He connected especially well with one exceptional athlete who ran 4:09 and 8:52 as a junior: the top returner in the nation going into 2007. This young man generated some buzz in the coaching community, and soon Milner found himself the recipient of a full-time, paid offer to return to Belmont University. Milner inquired if the position could wait until this high school athlete graduated, and the Belmont coach acquiesced. This gave him an opportunity to finish what he had started.
Milner began coaching full-time at Belmont in the summer of 2008. “I recruited and worked with middle distance. Plus, I led strength and conditioning, which was essentially glorified core,” Milner joked.
After over four years coaching a Belmont, Milner learned of an opening at another NCAA DI school that had, in his eyes, enormous potential. “It was kind of a dream job for me. I felt like they were a sleeping giant,” Milner recalled. “I felt like if the right person came in and could recruit effectively, they could turn the program around… Plus they had an indoor track. Seems like everyone does now, but eight years ago that wasn’t the case.”
“So this is a valuable lesson for aspiring coaches,” Milner mused. “I moved there on nothing more than a golden handshake and promise. I coached there basically on a volunteer basis at first… Things were going great, though.” Within the first year, everything fell apart. The new head coach was forced to resign. “I was just collateral damage. I realized it wasn’t going to work out.”
Milner then had a brief stint at NCAA DII King College, where the cross country team qualified for nationals for the first time. “They had the budget to pay for cross country, but not track,” Milner shared. In Spring of 2013, he had no way to make money. At this point, he knew it was time for a pivot.
Backwards and upwards
He took a job in the Running Specialty industry as an independent sales rep, and has worked with companies like Pearl Izumi, Nuun, Picky Bars, and Under Armour, while continuing to coach on the side.
Milner had always had a dream of creating a new kind of professional track meet in America, so he decided to throw his energy towards growing the Music City Distance Carnival.
After years of the hard work of bringing his vision to fruition, Milner laughs about a little notoriety he picked up. “I managed to get an F-bomb on the front of Letsrun.com,” he said, referring to an article on a professional track meet that he put on in South Carolina, funded out of his own pocket.
“I kind of saw the sport just dying a slow and gradual death just because of the way it was presented. If you go to an average college meet, nobody in the crowd knows what the f*** is going on,” he told Letsrun.com. The quote made it to the front page of the site.
Since then, he’s been able to distill his vision for how the sport of Track & Field could gain relevance to the general public: “gambling, beer, better meet programs, and team competition: that’s what it boils down to.”
“When I started MCDC back in 2003, there really was nothing like it, except for some post-collegiate meets in Indianapolis, which disappeared about six or seven years ago. It is great that now there are other meets that are similar, like the Sir Walter Mile in Raleigh, Festival of Miles in St Louis, and Portland Track Festival. Indoors, there is the Camel City Classic. These meets cater to up and coming post-collegiate runners too, rather than just the high-profile elites that can get into meets like Pre or Millrose.”
Milner, like the directors of the these meets, considers himself an advocate for the sport as he seeks ways to implement these strategies. He tries to stay in conversation with the elite East-coast track clubs to make sure that the meets that he puts on are working for their athletes, and, indeed, they have cooked up a 6-meet series called the Eastern Track League that will be announced this week.
The making of a track star
It was at the Music City Distance Carnival that Milner first connected with his most well-known coaching client, Quamel Prince. Prince was in high school at the time. As a collegiate athlete at Tennessee State University, Prince ran only 1:48 for 800m and missed out on the national meet, but Milner recognized greater potential. “After he graduated, I knew he didn’t have anything in place,” Milner said. “I hated for him to quit just because he didn’t have anyone to coach him anymore.”
Most of Milner’s clients were road-racers and age-group placers, but he decided to take on the training of Prince. “This kid had massive potential,” Milner shared. “Coaching someone with Quamel’s talent level was exciting!”
The duo found success, and Prince qualified for his first USA Track & Field championship in 2017, clocking 1:46.76 at MCDC.
Seven months later, he qualified for the 2018 U.S Indoor Championships. Citius Magazine named the relatively unknown middle-distance athlete as “the unsponsored underdog you should root for at USA’s”. He made the 800m final and placed 5th.
Four months later, he lowered his 800m PB to 1:46.30, again at MCDC. And at the U.S Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, he missed making the 800m final by just 0.04 seconds.
“In 2017-18 I carefully doubled Quamel’s college weekly mileage – from about 25 miles per week to 50-55. He is only 5’9 and about 135lbs and is really built more like a miler than a typical half-miler. I felt like he could be very dangerous at 1500m, with his finishing speed (21.74 FAT 200m), so put in place a strong aerobic foundation with a view to running 800 and 1500 equally in 2019 and 2020.”
Last fall, Prince joined District Track Club, a professional group based in the nation’s capital. He is in great hands now with Tom Brumlik, who heads up DTC. Although Milner no longer coaches Prince, he certainly played a pivotal role in his rise through the ranks of American middle distance running.
For more in-depth content from this interview with Dave Milner, stay tuned! We will be offering an inside look at what it’s like to coach an athlete at nationals, from the perspectives of several coaches who have done just that.