Q&A with Dave Milner, Who Spent Thousands Out of His Own Pocket to Put on a Pro Track Meet in South Carolina
By Jonathan Gault
July 30, 2018
In June, Dave Milner had the idea to stage a new track meet in the U.S., one that could serve as an alternative for athletes who wanted to extend their seasons but were unable to travel to travel all the way to Europe. Just three weeks later, with the help of TimingInc’s Jimmy Stevens, Milner, as meet director, staged the South Carolina Trackfest in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on July 14, just east of Charleston. The meet wasn’t huge — it featured just four professional events, as well as an all-comers 5k — but there were some very solid races, including a 1:45.04 Mexican national record by Jesus Lopez in the men’s 800, a 3:56.21 win by Cristian Soratos in the men’s mile, and a three-way kick between Katie Mackey, Stephanie Brown, and Shannon Osika in the women’s 1500, won by Mackey in 4:09.45.
When we at LetsRun.com heard about the meet, we were intrigued. What inspires anyone to start a new professional track meet in 2018, much less one in Mount Pleasant, S.C.? And what exactly does it take to go from idea to staging a meet in three weeks? I called up Milner a couple weeks ago to find out.
A little background on Milner, 47. A native of Newbury, England, he came to the U.S. for college, where he ran for the legendary Jack Daniels at SUNY Cortland, graduating in 2000. “I was pretty good at drinking and chasing women but not very good at running,” Milner jokes. In 2002, he moved to Nashville, where he has served as meet director for the Music City Distance Carnival since 2003 alongside coaching stints at Brentwood High School and Belmont University. Now a private coach after leaving his job as a sales representative in the running industry, Milner’s clients include Quamel Prince (1:46.30 800m pb), who finished fifth at USA Indoors in the 800 this year and missed the U.S. outdoor final by .04 in June. He also emcees numerous track meets, and the past two years served as a stats man for ESPN’s coverage of the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, feeding numbers to the commentary team in the booth.
JG: With regards to the South Carolina Trackfest, pretty simply, why start this meet?
DM: When I was planning Quamel’s season for after USAs, we were going to go to Europe for a while. And just calculating how much that was going to cost, it was going to cost thousands. And then it occurred to me, well there are lots of other people that are in the same boat as he and I who probably either don’t want to spend that money or just simply can’t afford it. And with the TrackTown series that had taken place the previous year not going on this year, it seemed like there was just a dearth of opportunities domestically for these runners. Unless you have a big-time sponsor, your season was basically over after USAs, right? Unless you could just borrow the money or find the money somehow to go to Europe.
So I sent an email to most of the people that did the Music City Distance Carnival and basically said, hey would you be interested in a meet [in] early July, either the 7th or the 14th of July? And initially, my plan was just to do a mini Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville. And a lot of people wrote back like, yeah, that would be awesome, I’d totally be down for that.
My timing guy for MCDC (Jimmy Stevens) lives in Charlotte and the track that we ended up doing it at in Mount Pleasant, he helped get that track constructed and was the co-founder of Mount Pleasant Track Club. So he said to me, would you consider doing it somewhere other than Nashville?
I was like, why? He said, ‘Well if you did it here, I think I can get the track for free, we’d get the local track club involved. And I think we can get some sponsors on board, if not this year, then definitely for next year because they’ve never had anything like that down there before. I think they would be really excited about it.’
So that was the reason it was in South Carolina. Plus I’d never been to Charleston before and kind of had this ulterior motive to go down and check it out. But then my other consideration was, people might get really excited about this, if not this year, then maybe next year because there’s no pro sports down there, they had never had an event like this before, the area had never even seen a sub-4:00 mile. This could be a really big deal for them. Where in Nashville, it’s taken me a long time to get people to catch to the Music City Distance Carnival because there’s just so much other stuff going on. We have NHL, we have NFL, we have an MLS team coming and a semi-pro soccer team that has a very big following already. And that’s not including all the musical events that are going on.
So the South Carolina Trackfest was basically thrown together in three weeks, knowing that we would lose money on it this year, but knowing the calendar for next year was going to be vastly different, wherein this meet will essentially be a last-chance qualifier for USAs. I don’t know if you’re aware, the US champs are the last weekend in July next year.
We had a hard time getting fields together. We had a lot of female 1500-meter runners and male 800-meter runners that showed some interest, and then beyond that, we had some decent fields assembled and people just started dropping like flies: either they were just done for the season or they decided to go to Europe or they got injured. And then the fields started to dwindle a bit. So we ended up kind of consolidating some races. Like, we killed off the men’s steeplechase and I told those guys, like three of the steeplechasers all were sub-4:00 milers, I convinced them to run the mile instead rather than have a crappy steeplechase with like, four people in it. Like let’s just consolidate this mile, get this meet off to a good kickstart.
We ended up killing off the women’s steeple because there just weren’t enough people in it. So a lot of people said hey, I’m gonna do it, and then like, two or three weeks later, people just kind of run out of steam toward the end of the season. Or they look for better racing opportunities in Europe. In hindsight, some of those racing opportunities were not better. But I get it. It’s exciting to go over to Europe when you’re 24, 25 years old.
You said you only put this thing together about three weeks before the meet. Can you walk me through the process of what it takes as a meet director to go from the idea of a meet to actually staging a meet, what sort of boxes do you have to check, what do you have to do to stage the meet?
I guess securing the venue is the biggest part, and honestly we didn’t get anything in writing until, like, the week before. We had a sort of verbal agreement, but that made me nervous because I was booking some flights for people and we didn’t even have a meet contract yet. But that’s probably the first box to check, is getting the venue. And that’s not always easy the first time you do an event because people just don’t get it. Maybe they want to charge you a nominal [fee], thinking that you’re making a ton of money. We had to convince them that we weren’t going to make money on this.
The second box to check is getting a USATF sanction, just to make sure if somebody does run really fast, all the times count. Like for instance, you can’t set a U.S. record or a national record unless it’s a sanctioned meet.
And then I guess really, the other thing is we already had the timer in place because that was the guy I was partnering with. And other than that, it’s really just recruiting athletes. Fortunately, through directing the Music City Distance Carnival over these years, I have a pretty good list of athletes who I can contact either by cell phone or email. I just call up; I had already emailed them after MCDC.
And then probably the hardest part, most stressful thing for me, is getting rabbits, rabbits that can actually do the job and get it done and are reliable. That is such a pain in my ass. The men’s rabbits did a good job. The women’s rabbits was a bit of a struggle this year.
And then booking hotel rooms without trying to spend too much, knowing that we were just bleeding money on this meet.
Jimmy, my timing guy, was basically like, I’ll do all the logistics stuff, I’ll take care of the timing, I’ll set up the meet. All you’ve gotta do is take care of the elite athletes. So basically you end up being meet director/travel agent/Uber driver to the airport and back.
How many drives between the airport and the hotel did you have to make?
I think I probably did like eight or nine in a 36-hour period, 24-hour period, something like that, including a 4:00 a.m. pickup.
Yeah, that was tough. And then Jesus [Lopez of Mexico], the guy that won the 800 in 1:45-flat, [I was] basically speaking to him through Google Translate because he didn’t speak any English. [laughs]
How did you go about getting him in the meet? How did you know him?
That’s a good question. That came about through Leo Manzano. Leo and I sort of bonded a little bit when he came and ran MCDC back in June. We went out and just were brainstorming about stuff and then he contacted me right after USAs about Jesus and said, hey, would you be interested about him coming to your meet?
I knew who he was because I saw him win Mt. SAC. He was kind of on my radar already. [So I said] yeah, that would be awesome. He was going to pay his own way there. All I had to do was present an invitation letter so he could get a visa. So he actually paid for his own flight. Interesting story, his connecting flight was canceled by American Airlines. So Thursday night (two nights before the race), he and his coach, neither of whom can speak any English, spent the night in the Philadelphia airport.
In terms of travel, are you/the meet covering everyone’s travel? Or are some athletes coming in on their own dime? How does that break down?
Since we knew we had a very limited budget to work with, I covered the travel for maybe half a dozen athletes, and then did hotels for maybe 10 athletes. The earlier somebody committed to running in the meet, then the better chance they had of getting their travel or accommodation covered.
You mentioned that getting rabbits is a pain in your ass. What is so difficult about getting them for the meet?
Because usually if they’re good enough to rabbit, then they usually want to race. So we were fortunate, like in this 800, Curtis Beach lives not too far away. So he was able to drive, so he paced the 800 and did a really good job. And then for the mile, we had Ryan Martin pace the first 800, who was already there because he had raced the 800. And so I think he paced 800 and Quamel was supposed to go another 200 or 300, but I think [Quamel] was kind of struggling a bit. I think he went an extra maybe 150 or 200, to 1000 meters.
So that was good, those guys did a really good job. It’s really hard to find female pacers. I want to be careful how this is worded, because I don’t want this to come off too negative for Ericka [Charles], because she’s really nice. She paced the women’s 800 meters, but I think she was nervous and got out way too fast and never looked behind. So she towed them through a little bit too fast. I think she came through in close to her pb probably. She was maybe 56-high. I think I had asked for 58.
But again, that was a good situation. She was in Raleigh, so it was not too far of a drive, so I didn’t have to fly her in.
Even the Diamond League these days, you watch some of these races, their rabbits can’t always get it right either.
Yeah. It’s tough. At MCDC, I’m a little more of a control freak about it. I get them together before and say, hey, listen for my cues on the mic — because I’m usually emceeing the meet too — and look behind at 150 to make sure they’re in contact. But I think Ericka was just a bit scared, nervous. She just was afraid of not going fast enough and she kind of overcooked it a little bit.
And then in the 1500 meters, initially Agnes Abu, who raced the 800, was supposed to rabbit and she was sort of toast after her 800, but she still wanted to race because she wanted to try to break her Ghanaian record. And then Hannah Fields was going to be a rabbit as well, and she was also struggling after her 800. I ended up pulling Ericka in at the last minute to pace again and she was fresher because she didn’t race at all. And she did a much better job in the 1500, but I think she only went 700 meters. She was right on, but she was struggling the second lap. So that’s why if you look at the splits, I think they went 66, and then 69, and then another 69 and then they lit it up on the last lap.
(Note: At the conclusion of the interview, Milner stressed to me that he was grateful for all of the athletes who helped pace races at the meet)
Apart from Jimmy, who were you working with to put the meet on?
It was just Jimmy Stevens [and me].
What’s the verdict? How do you think the meet went? What were the highlights of the meet, both on and off the track?
I’d say the highlight was probably the Mexican guy running a national record. I mean that was pretty cool, he was super excited. And that race was decent all the way through, it had good depth. And then Cristian’s [Soratos] 3:56 mile was pretty exciting to watch. And then the women’s 1500 meters, it wasn’t the time those girls were looking for, but it was pretty cool watching three girls just kicking together side by side off the turn. You don’t usually see that domestically, it’s usually just one person sort of dominating the race, but [Shannon] Osika, [Stephanie] Brown, and [Katie] Mackey were all side by side with like 120 left. So that was really fun to watch. (Video here: the race starts at the 5:10 mark)
I’d give it a B if I was to grade it. There were definitely some logistical issues that we could improve upon. And some of the races, the 800-meter race only had four women in it.
But like I said, for having thrown it together so quickly, I was pretty happy with how it turned out. It was cool to see, we had a lot of people gather at the pub afterwards down the road to grab a beer and a bite to eat. I’m excited about next year. Because if we can do that in three weeks, what can we do in 12 months? We’re gonna get some sponsors on board.
I was a little disappointed at how few people came out to watch. Even despite the whole three-week notice, we [couldn’t] have had more than 80 spectators. We brought everybody out to lane 4 just so they would be a little bit louder and have a little bit more atmosphere.
But what I was most impressed by was when the athletes showed up. And I kind of gave them a heads up, I was like, you know, this is going to be a bit bare-bones and have more of an all-comers type feel, just the first year. And I thanked everybody for taking a chance on this meet. But nobody seemed disappointed at the small crowd and not having a fancy setup. Everybody was pretty up for going for it and I think one of the good things about having a meet with a small field like that — and even the same is true of Music City Distance Carnival, even though that’s a fairly established meet with a lot of people there — it’s a pretty chill atmosphere. You’re not penned-in to the clerking area for 15 minutes before your race. You’re free to do strides and stuff right up to the race, right up until the gun goes off. And I’m sort of mixing with the runners and cracking jokes. And I think just keeping it light like makes people a little more relaxed, and people run faster when they’re relaxed.
How did you fund the meet?
From using my son’s school tuition money [laughs]. Basically, it was self-funded. Jimmy and I knew we were going to lose money on the first year. So we did charge an entry fee, we charged spectators $5. But basically, we both went into the hole this year, knowing that this could be a big deal next year. But it was almost like you had to do it, get it on the map, and show that we could pull it off in order to solicit sponsorship for next year.
So did you get any sponsors for this year?
We had one $500 donation. That was it.
So how much — I don’t know if you’re comfortable sharing or not — but how much did you spend on the meet, how much did you end up losing on it?
I’d say the overall budget for the meet was probably $10,000.
Not insignificant, no. and that includes prize money. We paid out $600, $300, and $150 [for first, second, and third].
I was just impressed, because that’s a lot to put up of your own money.
Yeah it’s a lot. And it’s not like I make a ton of money. So yeah, that is a pretty significant amount of money. But I think if we’re going to try and do this big next year, and solicit sponsors and shit, it was important — to me, at least, and I think Jimmy agrees on this — it was important that we could show that we could do it and that we were serious about it and bringing in this caliber of runners. We both decided, yes we’re going to lose money on it first year, but yeah, I think it’s worth it so that we can do really well next year.
Yeah, because what I was going to ask, and basically the whole reason for this interview, was we were impressed by your passion for the sport and the fact that you would put on a meet that you knew would likely be a losing proposition. And I guess I’m wondering, was that a difficult choice for you to say hey, you know, this isn’t going to be profitable this year. We hope it might be profitable next year but we don’t know. What drives you to do that? Is it the love of the sport? Is it something else?
I guess when I first started doing Music City Distance Carnival, part of it was because 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 fuck is going on. And I’m talking maybe 10 years ago. Now things are a little bit better. But nobody got heat sheets. If you’re there to watch maybe your son or daughter, quite often you wouldn’t know what heat they were in until they lined up on the track. Now it’s a little bit different, a lot of companies have live results. But still, there’s no rich data. You might see a name listed and maybe what their seed time is. But there’s no information about what their pb is, where they’re from, what their season’s best is, what they’ve accomplished in the past.
And usually most meets, with the exception of meets like mine or Portland Track Festival or [Sir Walter Miler], where you’ve got an emcee giving that information, 90% of meets don’t have any of that kind of information for the crowd.
I see this huge disconnect between the spectators and the athletes and there’s very little emotional attachment. A lot of these meets just drag on and on and on. Like, college track meets go on forever. There’s 17 heats of the men’s 200 meters or nine heats of the women’s 400-meter hurdles. Whatever. So the meets constantly take forever, and I feel like in order for track to survive, the meets need to be compressed to an hour and a half or two hours. So initially when I first did the Distance Carnival, it’s like, all right, I’m just going to deal with the part of the sport that I know best and have a distance-only meet and pack all the elite races into a two-hour period so that people would not get bored.
I guess, I don’t know, I just kind of want to help save the sport from itself. There have been a couple years where the Music City Distance Carnival has broken even, maybe even made a grand, but I feel like that meet is now at the position where it could be really big next year. Last year, Jenny Simpson came and helped put the meet on the map, this year we had really, really good results. I lost money on the meet, but that was mostly my own fault because I didn’t have time to go out and get sponsorship beforehand. This year will be a little bit different now that I’ve quit my job and am coaching full-time. I’ll have more time to get sponsors.
Some of it is, having now coached an athlete at that level, I see even more so that there’s a serious need to have more domestic meets. Especially next year, because I don’t see a bunch of people going over to Europe before the U.S. championships next year. So when we were in Des Moines, a few interested parties met together over beers and burgers and we sort of formulated a Southeast track series, if you will. So next year, there will be seven to eight meets in May, June, and July that we’ve already penciled in dates. So hopefully people won’t have to go to Belgium or Ireland or Sweden and live out of a suitcase for two to three weeks to chase times.
The real theme is, why does this guy do this? I wish I had a better reason to give to my girlfriend. She thinks I’m nuts. I don’t know. I sort of feel this ridiculous duty to the sport to help out.
You said some years you’ve broken even with the Music City Distance Carnival, sometimes you’ve profited, but this year you lost money. Is there a road to consistent profitability for meets like this? The TrackTown Summer Series, they tried hard but in the end it failed because it just wasn’t profitable. Do you feel like, in order stage these sort of meets, does it have to come down to committed individuals like you or the benefactors behind the TrackTown Summer Series that are just willing to take a loss for the good of the sport? Or do you think it can actually grow to the point where people are making money and this is a profitable venture?
I think if I had time to go out and solicit sponsors, I think this could be a profitable venture. It’s not something I’m going to get rich off of and I never really envisaged that, but I’d love to see some of the companies headquartered here like Nissan and Bridgestone. I appreciate that this isn’t a huge platform for them, but Nissan and Bridgestone are headquartered here, they both sponsor running events or track events currently. If you look at Diamond League meets, there are Bridgestone/Firestone signage all the way down the track, every Diamond League meet. Nissan sponsors the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon here in town. Blue Cross Blue Shield, they sponsor the state track meet. So really, it takes me making those connections and trying to get donations. Now the Distance Carnival will be set up under a nonprofit banner, which will make it a lot easier. But I think some of the other meets have a team of people that help solicit sponsorship, or maybe they have a board. Distance Carnival has always been sort of a one-man show, mostly because I don’t like asking for help unless I can pay people. And there probably would be people who are willing to help for free. I’m terrible about asking for help.
Any other funny anecdotes to share or anything you felt that happened during the staging of the meet or the meet itself that you thought was interesting or noteworthy?
Shit happens. A kid running on the infield tripped over a wire. We had clocks set up every 100 meters, so for the women’s 1500-meter race, right before the race, some kid tripped over the wire and unplugged them. If you unplug one, they’re all wired to each other. So I’m literally on the mic calling the race when I suddenly realize the clocks haven’t started. And because we thought the digital clocks were going to be working, we didn’t have anybody assigned to calling splits. So I’m literally, Jeff Caron of ElliptiGO and I are running around the track calling splits while I’m calling the meet on the mic.
Which was kind of ridiculous, especially given what I was wearing. I had this ridiculous outfit from Chubbies. They make sort of out-there swimwear. Chubbies actually has a store in Charleston that I stumbled across the day before the meet and I got the most ridiculous pair of shorts, and then I realized there was a shirt that matched. It was basically neon yellow and green with pineapples all over it.
So I emcee a lot of meets. Even outside of Music City Distance Carnival, I usually try to wear something fairly ridiculous, a) so people can find me if they need to, and b) just to give the crowd a laugh. So at the Music City Distance Carnival, I wear a jacket that I stole from my mom’s closet that’s black and gold and glittery and even has women’s shoulder pads in it. It looks ridiculous, but people love that shit.
Note: This interview has been condensed for clarity.