COLUMBIA — Neville Miller stands ahead of Marcus Mayes on the track. Miller has one hand on his watch, waiting to press the button and start the timer.
It’s 10:45 a.m., but temperatures are climbing into the 60’s. Miller’s gray t-shirt, with the sleeves missing and “Missouri 2002 Cross Country” printed across the front, has sweat lining the collar.
Miller presses the button on his watch and both runners take that first hard step, exploding out of their stances. They start rounding the first curve of the track. Eight seconds. Miller yells at Mayes, but the crunching of the track beneath their black and gold Nike spikes makes it hard to hear. They exit the curve and enter the straightaway. Sixteen seconds. Mayes has caught up with Miller and they are running side-by-side. They cross the 200-meter mark and slow down to a jog. Twenty-eight seconds.
Miller and Mayes slowly jog around the track back to the starting point to repeat the scene six more times.
“I’m out here for the same reason he is,” Mayes says later while stretching, nodding towards Miller, whose 5-foot-11-inch and 160-pound frame rests on the ground.
They are chasing Olympic dreams.
Go back seven years and Miller has no Olympic dreams. Well, they are there, like any other child imagining what it would be like to represent their country. But they are far-off dreams. Miller is more worried about just making it on Missouri’s track team as a walk-on.
It was the first day of practices, and Miller knew something was wrong.
He went to bed at 1 a.m. and did not sleep well. His dorm room lacked air conditioning and it was August.
Miller dragged himself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and headed to the track, but the 5-foot-8-inch freshman who weighs 120 pounds was alone. Miller was at the track at Stankowski Field, which was the wrong facility. Nobody else was there at 6 a.m.
When he finally located the rest of the track team over at the correct track, it was in the midst of a hard workout. Harder than anything he had ever experienced.
Miller specializes in the 800 meters, and his best time in high school was 1 minute, 56.6 seconds, which was not good enough to earn a scholarship at Missouri. He needed to run 4 or 5 seconds faster.
However, his coach at Vianney High School contacted Jared Wilmes, who coaches the middle-distance runners at Missouri, and asked him to take a chance on Miller. Wilmes watched Miller at the state meet and decided to let him walk-on.
“He was a true walk-on in all senses,” Wilmes said.
After hurting his foot at the end of his high school career, Miller took the summer off.
“I’m not running,” Miller remembers saying at the time. “I don’t need to. I’ll just come in and train like high school.”
Once he realized that the practices were on a different level than in high school, Miller tried to quit.
He confronted Wilmes at Missouri’s indoor facility.
“I don’t think I can make it,” Wilmes remembers Miller saying to him.
The guys Miller was competing against had times closer to 1:52 or 1:51, and they had trained harder.
Wilmes would not listen to Miller’s pleas.
“After I saw him for two days, I knew he was good,” Wilmes said.
Wilmes told Miller to stay a month because it would get easier. He also saw Miller’s smooth running style and knew that Miller had the qualities of a great 800-meter runner.
Miller decided to stay. Track was the sport he had excelled at and enjoyed.
“I played basketball, but I wasn’t very good, so that sucked,” Miller said. “I played baseball, but I hated getting hit by pitches, so that sucked too. And I played football, which was cool, but it sucked getting beat up every day.”
After a month, Miller began making friends with the other athletes on the team. Practices were also getting easier, just like Wilmes said.
Miller also started to grow, gaining three inches and 40 pounds, almost all of it muscle, from his freshman year in 2001 until now. With the added strength and his burgeoning work ethic, Miller began shaving seconds off his 800-meter time.
He cut it to 1:52 in his freshman year, which was 4 seconds faster than in high school. Two more seconds came off in his sophomore year, and then another second in his junior year. In late June after his junior year, Miller ran a personal best of 1:48.64 at an Olympic qualifier.
“I felt so good, I thought with a few more years training I could drop some more seconds,” Miller said.
At this point, Miller was flirting with the requirements to make the Olympic Trials. Athletes can automatically earn a spot in the field of 30 by running an ‘A’ time, which this year is 1:46.5. Runners who have a ‘B’ time of 1:48.5 or better fill the rest of the spots.
Miller’s time of 1:47.08 at the USA Track and Field Championships last summer falls well under the ‘B’ time.
“There’s probably like 14 guys who hit ‘A’ and a lot of guys between the ‘A’ and where I sit,” Miller said. “My time’s a pretty good time. I should make it.”
Miller said that Khadevis Robinson, who has a best of 1:43.68, and Nick Symmonds, who has a best of 1:44.54, are favored to finish first and second at the trials. The third and final spot for the Olympics is wide open.
“If I’m there, there is no point in thinking I don’t have a chance, because I’d be wasting my time right now, ” Miller said.
“He has a legitimate shot of making the team,” Wilmes said, citing Miller’s ninth-place finish at the 2007 USATF Championships.
Of course, Miller is still trying to lower that time before the trials, which begin on June 27 in Eugene, Ore. As a volunteer assistant coach with the Missouri track team, he will travel with it and compete at the Drake Relays, running unattached. After that, he is not sure what meets he will run in. That is part of the change that comes with competing after college.
“(In college) You go to practice, get on the bus, run the races they tell you to run and that’s it,” Miller said.
Now Miller finds his own meets, arranges where he will stay, how he will get there and is responsible for everything once he gets there.
“You don’t have 40-something friends with you,” Miller said. “You’re by yourself or maybe one or two of your teammates.”
For Miller, who is constantly talking and laughing his loud, infectious laugh, it has been tough adjusting to the more business-like nature of post-collegiate competitions. He prefers the environment of college meets, where he can goof off with his friends and then go run.
He said the friendships he formed with former MU runners like Mayes, Timothy Dunn and 2004 Olympian Derrick Peterson is what helped him improve the most. All four came to Missouri around the same time and still train together almost every day.
On Mondays and Wednesdays they will go for a medium run of 5 or 6 miles. Tuesdays are hard workouts consisting of sprints and weights. Thursdays are lighter workouts consisting of fewer sprints. On Fridays they go on short runs, maybe three miles. Finally, on Saturdays they either compete or go for a long run of up to 13 miles.
Mayes met Miller at a Super Bowl party in 2003 and was immediately drawn to him. Mayes saw someone who was friendly and open but did not sugarcoat any details. A guy who could become a mentor and training partner.
“He is one of the hardest working people that I’ve ever met, on or off the track,” Mayes said.
It is this same work ethic and approachable personality that has helped Miller with his other love, meteorology. Miller is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Atmospheric Science, and also fills the weekend meteorologist position at KMIZ/Channel 17, an ABC-affiliate in mid-Missouri. Miller always knew that he wanted to be on TV, but he didn’t want to be an actor or a news anchor. However, he thought the weatherman always had fun, which fit his personality.
Like a meteorologist predicting the weather, Miller leaves a little room for error when asked if he is the fastest meteorologist in the United States.
“I would say likely, just like I do in my weather forecasts,” he said. “Sixty percent chance, I’ll say that.”
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Miller and Mayes have finished their workout and their spikes are off. They jog for 10 minutes around the soccer field at Walton Stadium, letting the blades of grass gently massage their feet. Like always, Miller and Mayes constantly talk throughout the cool down.
Miller has come a long way from the freshman standing alone on Stankowski Field. He no longer has to worry about just making it through practice.