Going Long: An Interview with Danny Mackey

Mario Fraioli
May 30, 2017 · 22 min read
“The one thing that was the key thing — that I like about coaching — is that it’s so hard and there’s so much on the line,” Mackey says. “It kind of scratches an itch that keeps me a little bit settled. Coaching helps me because there’s so much going on all the time. It’s intense, and humans are really unpredictable.” Photo: Courtesy of Brooks Running

Danny Mackey has done a lot of things since getting his masters degree in biomechanics and exercise physiology from Colorado State in 2006. He’s taught classes at the college level, qualified for the Olympic Trials Marathon, worked on product teams at Nike, adidas, Puma and Keen footwear, written articles and provided live race commentary for Flotrack, and, through it all, coached runners to personal bests and top performances at every level of the sport.

Coaching is where Mackey’s passion lies, and it’s the path he’s stuck with despite getting rejection letters from the 209 collegiate positions he applied to after finishing graduate school. The now 36-year-old Mackey now heads up the Brooks Beasts Track Club—a full-time position he’s held since 2013—where he coaches Olympic level middle and long-distance athletes, including his wife, newly crowned U.S. road mile champion Katie Mackey, cross-country maestro Garrett Heath, and two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds, amongst many others, as well a few non-Brooks athletes such as 800m Olympians Justine Fedronic of France and Angie Petty of New Zealand.

I spoke with Mackey recently to talk about the path his coaching career has followed, which mentors have influenced him the most, what the sport of track and field is struggling with most right now, and much more.

If you sat down next to a stranger on an airplane, what would you tell them that you do?

If I say I coach pro track athletes they look at me kind of funny, so I usually say I coach Olympic professional track athletes. That’s what I tell people.

How did you got to that point? Please tell me about your athletic background, where you developed an interest in coaching and how you began to put yourself on that path.

I was hurt quite a bit when I went to undergrad. So I guess backtracking a quick step from there, I was in pre-med for a while and then I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I was hurt a lot in college, but I was also the captain of the team. I just loved the sport but I couldn’t stay healthy, so in pretty much any program, if you’re banged up a lot, you’re kind of on your own just because universities have 50, 60 athletes they’ve gotta worry about.

I was pretty independent trying to rehab and prehab and not get hurt again and come back from injury and I’d do a lot of management there. So when I graduated, I knew quite a bit about the body, and I wanted to stay in the sport, so I decided that I wanted to go to grad school. Instead of getting a teaching job I wanted to go to grad school for exercise phys and biomechanics, and learn more about the people and athletics and performance, with the intention of coaching and teaching at a university level.

Let’s fill in some of the blanks here. Where did you go to school? And what kind of times did you run as a collegiate athlete?

I went to Eastern Illinois University. In college I ran 4:16 in the mile, 15:18 in the 5K and then 25:25 in 8K cross country. So I got quite a bit better right when I graduated — like I PR’d by minute in the 5K. I also went to college for six years, which my friends still give me a hard time about that because I’m not a doctor. I don’t know if you remember that Tommy Boy quote, “Some people go to school for seven years,” and they’re like, “Yeah, they’re called doctors.” I stayed a sixth year because I was hurt so much that I got a six year for NCAA and then I was hurt my sixth year, so I graduated with something like 170 credit hours. I had just off a double major, but I had a major and two minors. I could have been done in four and a half, but I stuck around to run, and I just hurt.

And from there you went to grad school. Talk a little about that transition, what you went to study and what you were hoping that would lead to or how it would push you further ahead in your career.

Yeah, it’s still the best decision I made career-wise. Hands down, even though it’s been, shit, it’s been 12, 13 years since I went to school. I was really late to the game, so that stuff I was just telling you before, I made the decision to go to grad school like three days before the deadline. I went online, I just Googled “top five extra physiology programs in the U.S.,” and I picked the one that was in the coolest location — which was Colorado State in Fort Collins — that’s exactly what my mindset was, and then I called the dean in that department who said, “Yeah you have 48 hours.” There happened to be a testing center right where I was at, so my prep for the GRE was literally nothing. I got a book from my friend that had already taken it just to see what the sections were because I had no idea what it was, and then I took the GRE the next morning, had everything sent over to the school, wrote my essay that night and I got it all in in 48 hours. And so, I actually only conditionally got accepted because I didn’t have all the pre-reqs. But my GRE scores were good enough to get in, and then I had to fly out there and basically beg them, because they were only going to accept three people, and promise that I would get all the pre-reqs done that summer — and if I didn’t then I would take the pre-req’s while I was in grad school.

My first semester there was really weird and it sucked because I would go to the undergrad Bioenergetics class, walk across campus and then take the graduate one. I literally was sleeping in the office, that’s how crazy it was. It was a really crazy two years, and I had to teach five classes. And then I coached. I had a full volunteer coaching position at the school, so yeah, it was super intense. I mean, I don’t even know how many hours I was working, like a hundred, I don’t even know. I learned a lot, and actually our physiologist and our nutritionist for the Brooks Beasts, Corey Hart and Kyle Pfaffenbach, were both were in the program with me.

It was awesome. The transition was really intense academically, but I loved it. I lived with a couple of guys that were still running, so I basically was coaching myself and jumping in training with those guys and then I made the Olympic Trials. It was an intense transition, but it was definitely the best decision. That school just taught me what I didn’t know, and how to learn. It was something that I still use a lot today, and I think the intensity of it was good prep for being a pro coach, because it’s a very intense job on the bottom line. I think because I had a fellowship with the school and they were paying for the education, if I got a B, they were going to kick out of the program. If you can imagine how scary it was going to Bioenergetics at the 1,000 level and then walking across campus to the 4,000 level Bioenergetics class, knowing I’ve got to get an A in this class, and I’ve got to learn it because I’ve got to invent a thesis and stuff. It was pretty cool.

From there, what were your next steps? What were you hoping to do when you graduated from Colorado State in 2006?

I think I applied to about 170 coaching jobs. I was so scared to go to get a PhD because I knew how hard the masters program was. I just wanted to coach and I didn’t think I needed to get a PhD to coach. I started applying to jobs, so that was my main goal. I had a little bit more time when I was defending my thesis, which was basically like a 40-hour-a-week job at that point. So I started training a little more seriously, and then was applying to jobs, applying to jobs, and didn’t get any. Then I ran a marathon, that’s when I placed at the U.S. champs and qualified for the 2008 Trials. I did that and then I had no job offers, but I ran that marathon and the Hansons called. I decided to go join their team in Michigan because I really wanted to keep running also. I was just kind of looking at what doors are opening up — like I can’t coach. I went out there and kind of like a cattle dog, it was hard. Just running and working at the store, it was really unsettling to me. It wasn’t a good fit for me being Rochester. I still keep in touch with Kevin and Keith. I see them all the time. I sometimes regret not staying there because I would have liked to run faster, and I know I would have if I stayed there. I made the decision pretty quickly, like two months in, that I wanted to do a little bit more stuff with my career, so I got a teaching job at a university. I was teaching, I was running for Saucony at the time, and this whole time I was just applying for coaching jobs and not even getting a phone call.

At that point, were you having doubts that you could make a career out of coaching and might have to take things in a different direction? Or did you still have some shred of hope deep in your heart that eventually it would work out for you?

No. I was pretty much like, “I don’t think I’m going to get a coaching job, but I’ll just keep trying” because it’s habit to not try to do it. Yeah, I was really discouraged at this point, because it had been a year. I put in the time: I coached for two years at the university, I had a graduate degree and I had been running. I couldn’t get anything, I’m talking about jobs that would pay like $10,000 a year — I couldn’t even get those. Then I was just looking and thinking, “OK, how can I stay close and just work in human performance,” so that’s when I applied for the job at Nike, which is really funny thinking back, because that’s probably a harder job to get than a coaching job. I just applied online. I didn’t know anybody that worked there, I’d never been to Oregon before — I literally did the generic “apply online” thing. I applied to two jobs. There was a biomechanist position and a perception position. I applied to both and then I forgot that I’d applied, and like five months later they called.

What was your role at Nike and how long did you spend in Beaverton?

I was there for about four years. They hired me as a perception researcher, which is more the psychology side of innovation. And then when I left I was the lead for their athlete insight group within the Nike sports research lab, the innovation kitchen. By the time I was leaving, I was working primarily with athletes and I was one of the leads on their spikes for the London 2012 Olympics.

And were you coaching any athletes on the side during that time? I know from our previous conversations that you started coaching some athletes on a one-on-one basis before you came on with the Beasts. When did you start doing that?

I started right away. When I got [to Nike], before I was there, there was a Bowerman Athletic Club, but it had died. I showed up at Nike in 2007, I was training for Olympic Trials and there’s all these stud athletes that work at Nike. I was like, “There’s no formal team, this is crazy.” They’re like, “No, we used to have this and it died.” So Chris Cook and I, or Cookie and I, we restarted the Bowerman Athletic Club, and we got funding from the Nike running category and we got a coach and then we started a kids group off of it. That group now is what Jerry [Schumacher]’s group is, and there’s an employee section of that. When that one started,it was working really smoothly and Nike didn’t have to put a ton of money into it to go well, because it was a community and people wanted that.

A former executive [at Nike] and I started Run Portland, which is still around. It’s a nonprofit that was looking at getting Physical Education into the Oregon schools and were going to use post-collegiate runners to teach that. And on top of that I was coaching a few athletes, so right away I was coaching athletes on the side from those two different groups. I always had one or two. I think the first person who ever paid me was this high school athlete from Georgia, his name was Brandon Griffin. He put a post on Let’s Run, or his dad did, because Georgia’s like really weird. They’re big into football so they don’t have a lot of running coaches. High schools literally don’t have track coaches. This kid’s a runner, he goes to a school that doesn’t have running, so his dad posted on Let’s Run, “My son’s looking for a coach.” Like everything else, I applied. I know it wasn’t an application so I sent the guy an email, said here’s what I do, here’s my resume. Then the dad called me, we talked a couple of times. I think he paid me $60 a month, so I coached him for two years. He ended up running really, really well. He was like runner up at three events at state. That was the first [athlete I coached]. He’d come out to where I was for training camps and stuff like that when he had breaks from school. I actually still talk to his dad. It’s really sad, Brandon passed away at 22. It’s super sad. I still talk to his dad. His dad has a race that he does in Georgia now in honor of his son. That was my first paying athlete.

Mackey says one of the biggest lessons he learned in trying to land a coaching job was not to become too emotionally invested in the process. “You’ve almost got to be mechanical and be like, ‘this is going to take 10 years potentially,’” he explains. “If you’re emotionally invested, you’re going to be riding up and down with each resume you send out, and that’s exactly what I was doing.” Photo: Courtesy of Brooks Running

If we could fast-forward it a bit: how did you go from working at Nike and coaching a handful of athletes on the side to starting a conversation about going full-time and coaching a team of professional athletes?

I also worked at adidas and Puma. By the time I was at adidas and Puma, I had a couple good athletes. I coached Shadrack Biwott, he got second in the U.S. 10-mile champs. I was coaching Steven Pifer, and coaching other athletes in Seattle just because I had been around a little bit. Basically athletes that were losing their Nike contracts would call me because they had no coach, I was cheap, and they knew me because I had written Flotrack articles and worked there for a bit, so I just knew these people in my relationships. They felt desperate or I don’t know what their thought process was at the time — but that was helpful because in this world it’s just who you know a lot of times.

I married Katie Follett, now Katie Mackey, and she switched coaches. I think five months into us dating, no eight months into us dating, she left her old college coach, and she was looking for a pro coach. She was like, “Do you want to coach me?” And I said no, there was no way I wanted to coach my girlfriend, fiance, wife. That’s not what I wanted to do, so she found a different coach. We got married. I really like being the cheerleader, I like being a husband versus coach, so that’s why I didn’t want to do that. We got married and we moved. She didn’t really have a coach anymore and it was an Olympic year, so 2012, and she asked again. She’s like, “I don’t have any other options. My contract’s up this year, you know me, blah, blah, blah,” and we had the conversation. So I said, “OK, we’ll do it this year.” So I started coaching Katie, she PR’d and everything that year, and Brooks was happy with how she performed. I already had a little bit of a relationship with Brooks from being at Hansons and working in the industry for seven or eight years. It was a really easy company to get to know and I got to know the sports marketing group. I was coaching those other athletes and they were running pretty well also. But I was still holding down a corporate job as a global product line manager for Puma, so I think that was appealing, and I was desperate, so I was cheap. It was very simple and it was kind of out of nowhere. I remember being at the office. Jesse Williams [head of sports marketing at Brooks] texted me and he’s like, “Hey, you got a second?” I thought he was going to ask me something about Katie or what she’s going to do racing-wise in the fall. He goes, “I think I have the budget approved for setting up a pro group. Would you be interested in being the head coach?” And I was like, “Are you kidding me?” He was like, “No I’m serious. I just want to know because I don’t need to interview anybody else if you want this job.” I said yes before I even asked how much it paid. I was like, “Yeah I’ll definitely do it.” And then I was like, “Wait, this is paid right?” I think I made like $200 total in my coaching career in eight years at this point. He’s goes, “Yes, it’s paid.” And then he asked me how much I made at my current job. I told him and he’s like, “Well, we can do this.” I said, “Definitely, I’ll take it.” That’s how that was. I didn’t even know that something like that would even exist with Brooks. They just called me, and it’s really neat.

Traveling along the arc of your coaching career — from your time as a volunteer graduate assistant to your current job as head coach of the Beasts — who have been some of your biggest mentors along the way? You mentioned Keith and Kevin Hanson earlier in our conversation. Who have you learned the most from and who do you go to when you have questions or want to bounce ideas off someone?

Aside of reading the books that every coach reads — Arthur Lydiard’s books, Jack Daniels’ books — I’ve watched a lot of interviews by John Cook, who has since retired. I think everybody does that, I would imagine. My actual big influencers were my high school coach, Joe Mortimer. He was elected to the hall of fame. He was a Lydiard disciple but his hardy harsh style was something I’ve adopted. He was a math teacher and he was very thorough at explaining why. He used to have a meeting every year with these big posters saying, “here’s what we’re going to do for the next 12 weeks training-wise, and here’s why we do it, because these people did it and we’ve done it for 20 years, and here are the trajectories, and here’s how people perform.” I have a very educational style with athletes, so I learned that from him.

My college coach, John McInerney from Eastern Illinois, he was one of the head people for Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He used to do a sermon. His programming was something I didn’t adopt, but his inter-relational skills and how he cared about the athletes was something that kept me in the sport. And it’s not an intentional thing, but I think that style has a big influence in high performance. So those two guys were two big influencers.

And now that I’m actually in the role, I talk to my old teammates who are really successful coaches in Illinois, like John Simple, Jeff Schneider, Andy Dirks — they have phenomenal programs — I talk to them all the time. If I were to give a mentor, I would say Dan Pfaff is a mentor. I talk to him quite a bit and we actually co-coach an athlete right now. He works with Stu McMillan who, if I have a problem or something I don’t know, I call Dan Pfaff and then I call Stu McMillan.

“We are very intentional and active with trying to support good meets and good meet directors that are doing it for the right reasons, because that’s the only way I think that we help the sport grow,” Mackey says. “If we have our head in the sand and just keep doing the same stuff then it’s boring, the opportunities will go away.” Photo: Courtesy of Brooks Running

In your current role, how how important is it to have Brooks’ support, not only for you as a coach, but for the athletes they’re investing in who are trying to make U.S. teams and become some of the best athletes in the world?

Yeah, the Brooks support is essential. I was just having a conversation with someone who works in the sport, and we were talking about this arrogant coach out there, and I said, “You know, it’s really frustrating because I don’t exist if I don’t have A. Really talented athletes to work with, and B. If I don’t have the forum.” It does not matter how good of a coach you are. And you could flip-flop those.

I would say that without the core, so without Brooks saying, “We’re a running company, we want to be authentic, we want to push the envelope in running apparel and running footwear, and we want to give back to the sport and create this environment in Seattle to be the running hub.” Without them saying we’re going to do that, without them putting a number on that, a dollar figure on that, then I can’t recruit talented athletes. So it’s essential. If Brooks were to adjust something or take that away, it would be gone, I think, in a heartbeat. The Beasts, we owe everything to Brooks in terms of opportunity. This is the first year, right now in 2017 for the athletes that were recruited last year, that was the first class with athletes that had other offers from other companies. For the first three years of the team, the offers that we were making — those are athletes that didn’t have other offers on the table. There were like 17 athletes that come through and had a pro career, and some of them are still running now for other teams. That wouldn’t have happened if Brooks didn’t invest in the Beasts.

Sort of building off of that, your current crop of athletes, they’re getting multiple offers, they’re competing in high-profile events, but there are a lot of smaller grassroots meets like Portland Track Festival, Oxy, etc., that have provided great opportunities for athletes not only to tuneup for bigger races, but also to make breakthroughs in their career. Can you discuss how some of those events have been important to the Beasts in the last few years, and just how they’re important to the overall vitality of the sport here in the U.S.?

The thing I like about those particular grassroots meets is that they’re not politically driven. What happens is the important meet directors end up working so much on getting the athletes there, making sure they’re taken care of, putting on that part of the event, that they actually can’t market the event. Portland Track Festival, I think they do a really good job. They have a staff around that and it shows because they get a lot of fans there. I mean Oxy, when Flotrack was there doing it two years ago, supposedly the stands were packed. It’s a very small venue, but the performances are insanely good. I think those meets are essential. If I take a step back, what would our season look like if the Portland Track Festival wasn’t around, if Oxy wasn’t around — what would we do? I mean we can’t get anybody into Pre. We’d have like two races a year, we’d be doing time trials, I don’t even know what we would do. I mean the indoor season has a few more options because of the college meets, but yeah we’d have to jump in college meets. It would really take away from the competition because you’d have a couple pros in this college meet and a couple pros in another [college meet] and they wouldn’t even be racing each other. Those little grass roots things that are passion projects for meet directors are — actually now that I’m thinking about it — they’re scarily essential. I mean it wouldn’t be as fun for sure. It was really cool a couple years ago when Hoka invested in Oxy and Martinez. Portland Track Festival has been getting more and more organized. They have three events that they’re putting on this year, so those are really important. From the Brooks Beasts standpoint, we try to support those events.

Last week Atlanta had that meet of champions, which is the second year they’re putting it on. They actually had the money, and the meet director reached out and he’s like, “Hey we’re doing this event” and Shaquille Walker and Drew Windle were like, “yeah we want to support that. We’re going to go there and see if this meet’s any good and give up the weekend to go there and race.” It turned out to be awesome. There’s a meet in Canada in the indoor season, a pursuit 1200, which is a bit of an odd format, but we went and raced it. We are very intentional and active with trying to support good meets and good meet directors that are doing it for the right reasons, because that’s the only way I think that we help the sport grow. If we have our head in the sand and just keep doing the same stuff then it’s boring, the opportunities will go away.

I have two more questions for you. Building off what you just said, in your opinion, what is the sport of track and field struggling with the most right now, and what more can be done to help turn it around and fix those things?

I think there’s two things. One is the people that are putting on the meets are doing it as passion projects on top of a full-time job, so it’s really hard to check every box to put on a premier event, so something will suffer. There isn’t the level of investment there should be to allow meet directors to check all the boxes that meet directors want to check. It’s usually just bad engagement, like getting the fans to know there’s a meet going on. I don’t even think that many people knew Oxy was going on in their backyard. It kind of gives an unprofessional flare to it — the standard’s lower. Athletes will just race for free, they’ll spend their own money to get to the meet. That’s not really professional if you’re losing money to compete. I think the second problem is the lack of allowing other sponsors into the sport. If Brooks could partner with Starbucks, for example, you could have another company going, “That’s great, we’re both going to hit it for marketing, we’re going to have two bucks thrown at the Beasts and it’ll be that much bigger.” I think of how the Sounders are in Seattle, they have other sponsors. The way the sport’s set up, [the biggest stakeholders] want to keep the pie really small and that limits everyone. I think those are the two biggest issues with it. The pond could be a lot bigger because it is a very popular sport from a participation standpoint and it’s a really exciting sport, but there’s not opportunities. What’s the incentive for Starbucks to put two million [dollars] into the sport? They can’t have a logo ad at the U.S. championships or Olympics.

Last question, going back to what we were talking about earlier in terms of the trajectory of your own coaching career. What advice would you give to other young coaches who would like to make a career out of it — whether it’s as a collegiate coach or a professional coach or a personal coach — who are coming up through the ranks right now? What’s your best advice for them?

I get asked that a lot, and people just give me a weird look when the first thing I say is don’t be too emotionally tied to what you’re trying to do. And what I mean when I say that is, if I looked at my resume — and I did when I was 25, 26 — I had these accolades academically. In my mind, I’m very linear thinking, and I think most coaches are analytical: “OK, I’ve got to graduate number one in my class, I’ve got to get straight A’s, I’ve got to volunteer, I have to publish a research article. If I do these things and I check all these boxes, I’ll get a job.” When you invest all this time — and for me, I invested eight years of my life — and to get told no 209 times, that you’re not good enough to do this, we don’t think you’re good, we’re not even going to talk to you, your resume’s not even worth 10 minutes of our time — that can really hurt your self esteem. It could make you feel like you wasted your time.

So, not being emotionally invested in it is important because it’s going to be a struggle. You’ve almost got to be mechanical and be like, “this is going to take 10 years potentially.” If you’re emotionally invested, you’re going to be riding up and down with each resume you send out, and that’s exactly what I was doing. I would get super excited. I wrote 209 cover letters — I mean think about that — individually for universities. “This is the one, I’m the perfect fit, I’m super excited,” and then I’d get no response and it’s heartbreaking. I’d wait, and then I’d call the school. “Did you look at this?” I’d say. “Yeah, we’re still reviewing,” they’d respond. And then a week later I’d find out they hired somebody. They didn’t even call me back and tell me they were looking at resumes. It’s just a roller coaster. You’ve almost got to table it and say, “this is going to be frustrating, I’m deciding not to allow myself to get that much involved with it.”

The other part is, I just ask people, “Well, why do you want to coach?” I wanted to coach for a very specific reason. The reality is I didn’t need to get paid for those reasons, and I didn’t need to coach a certain level of athlete. Those are my core values for coaching. Once you know what those are, you can create an environment yourself. Like I said, Nike, they’re big into running, so the opportunity was there to do the Bowerman Athletic Club. And then Portland didn’t have a big club system, so creating Run Portland, we had to do a lot of leg work on the business side and create a 5013C and do all this extra leg work to do it, but you gotta do it yourself.

So I tell people, don’t be emotionally invested in it. If no one’s going to hire you and you know you’re going to be good at what you do, just do it yourself. And then wait, and maybe somebody will come along and pay you for it. If not, you can still coach and still feel fulfilled on that side. For me, I had such interesting jobs that were with great companies, and I was so bored. The one thing that was the key thing—that I like about coaching—is that it’s so hard and there’s so much on the line. It kind of scratches an itch that keeps me a little bit settled. Coaching helps me because there’s so much going on all the time. It’s intense, and humans are really unpredictable. We could do the same workout, the same time of year, three years in a row and then the fourth year it doesn’t get a response. Then you’ve got to figure out why. What caused it to be different? I love that. I love that there’s stuff on the line. That’s why I wanted to coach, so I was able to do a corporate job and carve out some time in the day to do that, and it would keep me going.

“Without [Brooks] saying we’re going to do that, without them putting a number on that, a dollar figure on that, then I can’t recruit talented athletes,” Mackey explains. “So it’s essential. If Brooks were to adjust something or take that away, it would be gone, I think, in a heartbeat. The Beasts, we owe everything to Brooks in terms of opportunity.” Photo: Courtesy of Brooks Running

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