Seattle-based training group the Brooks Beasts is a close-knit track club. This weekend’s US national champs in Eugene will provide a litmus test for the team as their eyes begin to turn towards contending at major championships.
When Nick Symmonds signed up to the Brooks Beasts he took a risk. The Beasts were only a year old, headed up by coach Danny Mackey, a scholar of sports science and a track and field devotee, but a man with little prior coaching experience.
The group featured high caliber runners, but Symmonds – 2013 world champs 800m silver medallist – would be their biggest name. His first concern was the weather in Seattle, where the Beasts are based.
“I told the Brooks crew when I moved that I wasn’t sure about winters up here,” he admits.
The two-time Olympian was told he was free to follow his own warm weather training programme if he wanted, and this winter he trained in Santa Monica for three months. The 31-year-old says being detached from the rest of the Beasts – a close-knit group containing athletes that live and train together – was harder than he anticipated.
“It was really, really tough. It was the first time I had been away from the team atmosphere.
“I drove up to Flagstaff [Arizona, where the rest of the Beasts trained through winter] and the next day I did a work out with the guys it was like night and day. It was just so comforting to be around the team.
“My energy levels were back to normal and I just looked forward to practice so much more.”
Brooks Beasts on altitude camp
The Beasts is still a relatively young project. Its fourteen athletes are all under the guidance of Coach Mackey, and this weekend’s US championships will be a stern test of where many of them are at. It will also provide a barometer reading of how well the Beasts set-up is working.
Beasts athletes compete over distances from 800m to 5000m – ultra competitive fields in the US. Yet Symmonds is adamant that they are not going to champs just to make up the numbers and enjoy the experience. He wants to make the US team, and so do the rest of the Beasts.
“I know we all have varying levels of experience and are setting our long-term and short-term goals, but I think at this point we’re all talented enough that we can go into the US championships with the goal to make the team. That’s why we’re here.”
Moving forward, Symmonds says the aim is to go a step further.
“Eventually we’ll get to the level where we’ll go in to a season trying to win [global] medals. That’s the natural progression.”
Coach Danny Mackey is in charge of all 14 athletes that form the Beasts
The signs are good. Casimir Loxsom, a Beast since 2013, broke the American indoor 600m record twice this year. The second time was on the way to picking up the US national title, and behind him was fellow Beast Mark Wieczorek.
“It was a lot of fun just crossing the line and realising that my best friend came second behind me,” Loxsom says. “That was a really special moment.”
Like Symmonds, Loxsom speaks highly of the atmosphere harboured by the Beasts.
“I think that we have a good collection of people here, people that are generally light-hearted and well-spirited and have a good time just joking around with each other at practice.”
The 2010 800m world junior silver medallist is also appreciative of having someone like Symmonds on the team.
“It’s been great having Nick to talk to about what it takes and make all of those goals seem attainable,” he says.
“I’ve always had confidence in my ability, but being able to talk to him and have him around for workouts and be actually doing things with him makes it a little bit more believable.”
Symmonds on Loxsom: "He's my teammate but I've got to kick his ass!"
Megan Malasarte, 23-year-old 800m runner who joined the Beasts in January after graduating from the University of Georgia, believes the group has eased her transition from collegiate to professional athlete.
“This team are all so positive and great to be around,” she says. “I’m just inspired every day by my teammates because of how long they’ve been doing this and how successful they’ve been in the past years.
“I want to get there. I don’t think that I could have done this professional running career alone.”
This community outlook extends beyond the elite group; the Beasts play a visible part in Brooks’ social projects. They were trackside at the PR Invitational meet last weekend, for instance, and are involved in coaching athletics at high schools in Washington state.
The athletes are also regulars at Brooks’ ultra-modern, energy-efficient Seattle headquarters, where they play a key role in product development and pitch in with marketing efforts.
As involved as they are with their sponsors, the Beasts are not micro-managed by brand consultants and PR people. Symmonds, for example, is not one to hold his tongue, no less so on the state of track and field. Though that might create the occasional headache in HQ, his passion is a valuable tool in the modus operandi of the Brooks Beasts project, which Coach Mackey sums up simply as “to grow the sport”.
The team model is the method Brooks have decided is the best way to achieve success, and thereby inspire others to get involved in athletics. Coach Mackey has proved himself more than capable in the role; his athletes speak highly of him and results reflect the effectiveness of the programme he runs.
Katie Mackey (left) has run PBs in the 800m and 1500m already this year
So far, the trend has been one of improvement; last year’s champs results were positive. The 2015 indoor season was also fruitful (Loxsom’s records providing notable high-points). Outdoors this year, Beast Katie Mackey has set PBs in both the 800m and 1500m (she will compete over 5000m at the USAs); earlier this month Symmonds ran his first sub four-minute outdoor mile.
The national champs will provide a further gauge. Symmonds has made national teams for the last four world champs. Though he appreciates what his experience brings to the Beasts, he insists it is ultimately about him and his teammates achieving global success.
“If there’s anything that I can bring [to the group] I want everyone to believe in themselves as being team-makers,” he says.
“The goal is to make teams and to represent our country at the highest level of competition. If I didn’t believe I could make a team, I wouldn’t be doing this job anymore. And I want all of my teammates to really believe that they have a realistic shot of making the team, because I do. That’s what we’re here for.”
He says having high quality event training partners within a larger group of elite middle distance runners helps drive him daily, and especially going into champs.
“[Loxsom] has been my teammate for a year and I’ve got to kick his ass this week! That’s the reality! I love Cas and I love Wizzo [Wieczorek] but [at champs] they’re not my teammates. After I cross the finish line in the finals, they’re my teammates again.
“There’s no one I would like to see take second and third more than those two guys!”
Photography: John Jefferson
Photography: John Jefferson