Competing for a spot on the United States’ men’s 800 meter team is a brutal business right now.
Five of the 15 fastest indoor times in the world this year have been run by Americans and the same was the case for the 2017 outdoor season. This weekend’s U.S. Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico, will feature four men on both the annual lists— Donavan Brazier, Drew Windle, Clayton Murphy and Erik Sowinski. Each one of those men is fighting for one of the two spots on the national team for the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham. If you’re not one of those four guys, well, good luck.
It’s an especially daunting field for an unsponsored first-year professional to take on and Quamel Prince admits that his goal is simply to make the final. For a 23-year-old, who never qualified for NCAAs and has broken 1:48 a grand total of once in his life, the odds of even doing that look slim from the outside.
But to make that claim would be to ignore Prince’s immense talent – one that he may just be starting to realize. Dig a little a deeper into Prince’s story and you just might see a man who is about to make his name known even in an event as unforgiving as his.
“He’s really flying below the radar (this season) because he’s a different runner than he was last year,” Prince’s coach Dave Milner says.
Born in the tiny South American country of Guyana, Prince came to the U.S. as a 10-year-old and by high school was turning heads as a superstar mid-distance runner at Antioch High outside of Nashville, Tennessee. As a sophomore in 2010, Prince set an AAU age-group national record of 1:51.68 and two years later his 1:50.71 as a senior was the 20th fastest prep time in the country.
Prince chose to stay close to home for college by attending Tennessee State, where he won six Ohio Valley Conference individual titles. But with a 1:48.21 PR upon graduation, Prince had been surpassed by his elite peers and the superstar label that followed him in high school didn’t quite fit anymore.
Despite that, he wanted to keep going. Although he hadn’t earned All-American honors or even made nationals, Prince won a lot of races at Tennessee State and he didn’t want to give up that feeling. Still though, he didn’t have a coach or an exact plan to help keep his career afloat.
That’s when Milner, a Nashville-based coach with deep roots in the Tennessee running community, saw an opportunity. A text conversation led to a meeting at a local Waffle House and then led to Prince agreeing to take on Milner as a coach.
“He broke everything down to me and I was like, ‘He sounds like he knows what he’s doing so I’m just going to give him a shot,’” Prince says.
Milner had seen Prince win multiple 800 meter state titles in high school and knew that there was more to the athlete than the times he ran in college at Tennessee State. Prince ran 1:48 on numerous occasions, but couldn’t seem to get over the hump.
“He had such basic speed that he could run a 1:48 in his sleep but he couldn’t come back the next day and run another one. And qualify for nationals. He could never get out of regionals because he didn’t have the aerobic strength,” Milner says.
Two weeks after their Waffle House rendezvous, with Prince’s overabundance of short sprint work now cut down and recovery runs surrounding his hard workouts, Prince popped a 1:46 at the Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville on June 10. It was a watershed moment for the athlete and his coach.
“It was a shocker but at the same time a lot of people who believed in me were like, ‘Man you should’ve been running that a long time ago,’” Prince says. “It was a huge relief.”
Milner, who is the meet director at Music City, saw Prince compete at his event many times throughout the years and echoed the sentiment.
“All I did was take out half the workouts he was doing and replace them with easy runs and he went and popped a 1:46 at my meet…I think that was in there the whole time.”
The 1:46 sent Prince to the U.S. Outdoor Championships in Sacramento last summer and although he missed making the semi-final, the progress that he and Milner saw in just the short time working together pumped them up for 2018.
Fast forward from last summer to now and Prince is running nearly 50 miles a week, including a recent 12 mile run— the farthest of his life— that reportedly felt easy. That’s quite a stark contrast from his nearly everyday spiked-up, on-the-track routine just a year ago. Milner has more than doubled Prince’s mileage since his TSU days.
“Now I’m just adding the base that I’ve needed all along,” Prince says. “So far I can feel the difference.”
This new approach—a switch from a sprinter’s routine to one of a true half-miler— has made Prince much stronger and has lit the fire for both coach and pupil. It’s enough for the pair to go all-in for this dream— running 1:45 in 2018, a shoe contract, Olympics and World Championships, all of it— despite Prince working a full-time job and owning a mediocre running resume compared to the accomplished men he’s trying to beat.
“This is life right now,” Prince says. “I’m just trying to do my part and hopefully it pays off in the long run.”
That mindset has helped him stay focused on training even though his job keeps away from the track and home nearly 35 hours a week. Prince works as a valet at Hotel Indigo in Nashville to pay the bills while pursuing his track dreams in between shifts, and the cost of traveling to meets means that money is very tight. Milner has helped in that department by setting up a GoFundMe to help offset the cost of travel and hotels for events, and the page has collected $1,070 so far. Every dollar still must be stretched, but it’s a start, and Prince is using the support to fuel his drive.
“I go out there everyday and give it my all and try not to let people down and just prove that I’m actually worth the money,” Prince says.
All signs point to Prince entering USAs this weekend a totally transformed runner from his college days and likely in the best shape of his life. A 1,200-meter time trial with high school sensation Brodey Hasty on January 4 in Nashville saw Prince run 2:57 and finished just ahead of the eventual 4:00 miler. The pair had negative split the trial, going 60-59-58, and it blew away both athlete and coach.
“That’s when I knew, ‘Holy shit, he’s really strong,’” Milner says.
“I just thought he was going to start pulling away from me, but I was just surprised that I was ahead of this guy,” Prince said of Hasty.
Three weeks later on January 27, Prince ran the second-fastest time of his life at the Dr. Sander Invitational in New York City. His 1:48.01 indoor PR gave him an easy win in the “B” section of the 800m and although he didn’t get in the fast section, Prince’s time was faster than all but Erik Sowinski’s on the day and ahead of studs like Murphy and Robby Andrews.
Especially promising is that Prince’s speed— which saw him run a 21.74 200m in college and has always been the easiest sign of his natural talent— has not been sacrificed in the least despite the change in training. In a 400m rep earlier this week, Prince felt that he had run a 52-mid rep when in fact Milner’s watch read 50.2.
“That in itself wasn’t so impressive, what was good was that he thought he ran 52-mid. So that was really encouraging,” Milner says.
Prince will draw confidence from those experiences as he toes the line in Albuquerque on Saturday. His performances thus far pale in comparison to those of the massively talented men on top of the U.S. 800m rankings, but Prince believes that his new training plan gives him a shot to reach their level, if not this weekend then in the years to come. Prince could decide in the coming years to represent Guyana internationally if he wants, but for now the focus is improving each day and hopefully making a US team.
“The ultimate goal would be to run for the US,” Prince says. “That would be huge. But down the road, that’s possible [running for Guyana], but just right now my focus is just to run for the US and see how that goes.”
If nothing else, Prince and Milner will have known that they squeezed everything out of the talent that once looked doomed to fizzle. That pursuit makes all of this so worth it.
“It’s a duty to the sport— not to let somebody that talented slip through the cracks,” said Milner.
Says Prince: “I’m not peaking yet, I still have so much more in me. Just keep chipping away at it and eventually something great is going to come out of it.”