Photo by Sam Chandler
Spain Park Class of 2016 graduate Daniel Nixon grinds through a tough, midday workout at his alma mater's track on Wednesday, June 8, 2016.
It was approaching noon on a sizzling June day, and Daniel Nixon felt the heat.
Having just finished a grueling workout, he squatted down on the spongy, red track at Spain Park High School attempting to catch his breath.
It brought little relief.
For the recent Jaguar graduate, the discomfort of lactic acid building in his legs coupled with the weight of milk churning in his stomach proved a difficult combination to appease.
Visibly suffering, Alabama’s top high school mid-distance runner sought refuge in nearby shade.
“I know everybody else is putting in hard work, so I’ve got to go twice as hard," Nixon said after cooling off. “Doing that type of workout before a big meet definitely prepares you mentally and physically."
That’s exactly why his coach put him through it.
By asking Nixon to click off a descending 600, 400, 200-meter ladder session, Jags head track and field coach Michael Zelwak said he hoped to instill a boost of confidence in his star 800-meter runner.
With the biggest race of Nixon’s life rapidly approaching, a fresh influx of momentum could only help.
On Saturday, June 18, Nixon will toe the starting line against an invite-only field at the Brooks PR Invitational in Renton, Washington. Started in 2011 by Seattle-based Brooks Running, the meet draws a contingent of the nation's top track athletes.
“Just making it to that meet in that event is something special and that’s a tremendous honor by itself,” Zelwak said. “It speaks volumes for him and the work he’s put in.”
When Zelwak and Nixon first discussed the potential of earning a Brooks bid at the season’s outset, Zelwak said he was certain of one thing: If Nixon wanted to clinch a spot, it would take a special performance.
As the outdoor track and field season unfolded, Zelwak said, the ingredients for such a high-caliber mark began to fall in place.
After garnering All-America honors at New Balance Nationals Indoor, Nixon rocketed out of the gates to start the spring season. He broke the 1 minute, 55 second barrier in each of his first five meets.
But despite the swift times, Nixon still suffered a pair of mid-April defeats at the Mountain Brook Invitational and Hewitt-Trussville Invitational.
Nevertheless, he resiliently bounced back at the AHSAA Class 4A-7A meet in early May. Holding off Hoover High School’s Tommy McDonough, Nixon crossed the line in 1:53.11 to capture his third individual 800 state title.
“Being pushed at state and being able to respond really did kind of confirm that the growth that I’ve seen since the Mountain Brook Invitational has been really legitimate,” Zelwak said.
Spain Park head track and field coach Michael Zelwak talks training strategy with Daniel Nixon in preparation for the Brooks PR Invitational.
Three weeks later, Nixon showed further improvement.
At Flo Golden South—a Brooks automatic-qualifying meet—he delivered the pivotal performance his coach had spoken about.
“I told myself that I had to win it. My family and I traveled eight hours to get down there, and I knew what was on the line,” Nixon said. “That kind of pushed me mentally, and I knew no matter how my legs felt or what I was thinking throughout that race, I had to win.”
With only race champions receiving Brooks bids, Nixon rose to the occasion in a boom-or-bust situation.
On May 28 in Clermont, Florida, he throttled down like never before.
Donning a pair of his signature compression sleeves and a Mississippi State headband, Nixon dusted the field.
“It was a feeling like no other because I haven’t ran a race where there’s been a banner beyond the finish line," Nixon said, "so that just made me run though the finish line even faster.'
It showed in the results.
In addition to sealing a trip to Brooks—signified by the awarding of a coveted golden ticket—Nixon clocked a blistering personal-best 1:51.64.
“Danny has always been a great racer. I mean that is his natural ability,” Zelwak said. “He has great race instincts, and we had to adjust those after we lost a few, which is good for you to happen in the middle of the season, but I knew that in a good field—if he’s put in a position—he’s fit enough that he could win.”
Ready to roll
Now, Nixon will test his grit one last time on the high school stage.
One of 13 athletes to clinch a qualifying spot in the Brooks PR 800, he will go head to head against a flurry of the nation’s best mid-distance runners.
The competition does not faze Nixon. Rather, the Mississippi State signee excels when underestimated.
At Flo Golden South, he stunned incredulous pundits--none of whom had picked him to win--with a decisive victory.
This time, he plans to prove them wrong again.
Aiming to become the first male in Alabama prep history to break 1:50, Nixon said he’ll approach the starting line with his typical tenacity.
“I’m going out there with the same mindset that I go into any race,” he said, “knowing that I’m going to leave it all on the track and run to the best of my ability no matter who’s in the race, no matter what time anybody has, no matter weather conditions, just going out there and making sure that I leave it all on the track.”
Start time for the Brooks PR Invitational 800 is scheduled for 2:55 p.m. PST (4:55 p.m. CDT) on Saturday. Flotrack.org will be live streaming the event beginning at 3:30 p.m. CDT.
This article was updated at 12:30 p.m. on June 15. Michael Slagowski, a mid-distance runner from Idaho who was previously mentioned in the story, announced that he will not compete at the Brooks PR Invitational due to injury. Additionally, Flotrack will be offering free live streaming of the event.