Runner's World Magazine Staff once called him the World's Best Running Coach. There are many good reasons why Dr. Jack Daniels earned such a prestigious title.
A short blog post can never capture the essence of this great coach and even better man, but I'll share some highlights of Dr. Jack Daniel's story, including how his wife, Nancy Jo, contributed to their fantastic coaching and life partnership.
The Daniels became one of the best husband and running wife-coaching teams from the beginning of their marriage.
Dr. Daniels led SUNY Cortland cross-country runners to eight NCAA Division III National Championships, 31 individual national titles, and more than 130 All-America awards. He was honored as the NCAA Division III Women's Cross Country Coach of the Century 2000.
One of his cross-country teams from Suny Cortland holds the record for the lowest score in Division III history with 18 points. In cross-country, the lowest score wins, and a perfect score is 15 points.
Dr. Daniels is a world-renowned coach and advisor who has trained many Olympic Trials runners and Olympians. He has conducted pioneering research in physiology for runners, and runners and coaches worldwide widely use his work. Additionally, he is the author of one of the best-selling running coaching books of all time, Daniels Running Formula.
After spending many hours in his coaching classes, implementing his training principles for years, and interviewing him and his wife, Nancy Jo, I can see why this man was given such a prestigious title.
I don't think even the World's Best Running Coach metaphor is enough to describe how much this incredible man and his wife, Nancy Jo, have touched the lives of so many on and off the track.
I will share examples of how Coach Daniels and his wife, Nancy Jo, have impacted many people in my post, becoming one of the best coaching teams. Where should I start? There's so much to tell.
The Luck Of The Draw
Unfortunately, I can't repeat Dr. Daniel's history in one short post. If you want to learn more about his life, I highly recommend reading his autobiography, The Luck Of The Draw, which is available on Amazon. Coach Daniel's autobiography is a humble account of his life that gives credit to others and offers valuable insights and lessons.
Here are a few stories about the world's top running coach that stood out in my conversation with Coach Daniels and his wife, Nancy Jo.
Big Sky Country Sets The Stage
In his autobiography, Coach Daniels gives a lot of credit to his high school years in California for providing a strong foundation for his athletic career.
However, his college years offered additional insights and life lessons too that served him well during his career as an athlete and coach.
Dr. Daniels and I attended the University of Montana, although I went there many years after him. While he wasn't part of the competitive running team at Montana, Coach Daniels was a dedicated member of the Grizzly swim team. We had a wonderful conversation about how his time in Missoula influenced his life in the following years.
Memories of Fishing and Hunting
Dr. Daniels cherishes the memories of his time in Montana. His favorite activities there were fishing and hunting in the Big Sky country.
While living in Montana, fishing and hunting were two activities he appreciated. However, these were not just recreational activities, as they also served as a means of survival. As a young man, Dr. Daniels sometimes relied on fishing and hunting to obtain food.
Speaking of survival, Coach Daniels survived with other limited resources when he attended the University of Montana.
During our conversation, Dr. Daniels mentioned that the refrigerator was the warmest place in the Shack, where he stayed as a student in Missoula in the winter! He had no other heat source in his small house except for the wood he could chop for the stove.
His old refrigeration system was the only place in the Shack where it did not freeze because the temperature was about the mid-30s!
Coach Daniels said he had to get up in the middle of the night to keep the stove going. He also walked daily to the university to use the bathroom and shower facilities because his little Shack did not have any of these conveniences.
On a personal level, what was incredibly cool in the interview was swapping stories about our time in Missoula. Some of those stories are beyond the Scope of this post, but suffice it to say, it was fun for both of us to reminisce.
True Grit Before The Word Was Engrained In Our Culture
Dr. Daniels was also involved in an ROTC program at Montana that provided many opportunities to work hard in various ways in the challenging Montana landscape. Coach Daniels even tried his hand at smoke jumping, putting out fires in Montana as a summer job.
Hard work is the backbone and foundation of this man's life. Coach Daniel's time in Montana has provided many lessons and insights into hard work, perseverance, and going the extra mile. These virtues are at the core of this man.
Swimming on the college team, living in a house without traditional heat sources, hunting and fishing, smoke jumping, and life in ROTC helped build a strong foundation for what was to come.
Coach Daniels lived the word grit even before it was widely used in our culture.
After working hard in college, Dr. Daniels's elite athletic career began. He accomplished some incredible things in his career as a world-class athlete.
Post College: Military Service And The Modern Pentathlon
I don't have time to discuss the details of Dr. Daniels's four years of military service or his great years as an athlete in the Modern Pentathlon. However, he learned the sport of the modern pentathlon while stationed in Korea, eventually leading to Olympic Stardom in the event.
During this time, Dr. Daniel could also study at a Sports Institute in Sweden, which was the beginning of his many years of studying Human Physiology.
Dr. Daniels had an incredibly successful athletic career, including Olympic medals in the modern pentathlon at the 1956 and 1960 Summer Olympics.
Having been an Olympian, he acquired numerous valuable life lessons about world-class competitions, gained insightful knowledge about human physiology, and established connections with top exercise science specialists of his day, which he later applied as a coach in the subsequent chapters of his life.
Again, read his autobiography, "The Luck Of The Draw," for a detailed look into Coach Daniels's world-class athletic career and lessons learned during those chapters of his life.
After retiring from competition, he turned to coaching others.
A Chance Meeting In Oklahoma City Changes Endurance Running Training
In 1961, Coach Daniels began coaching at Oklahoma City University. This was a significant moment in mid- and long-distance running history.
While coaching there, he coached a runner named Jimmy Gilbert. Coach Daniel and Gilbert became lifelong friends.
Jimmy Gilbert helped coach Daniels develop his famous VDOT training tables. From what I understand, Mr. Gilbert is a mathematical genius who went on to create computer programs for the lunar module landing on the moon—an excellent guy to have on your team.
Coach Daniels and Jimmy Gilbert collaborated to help runners and coaches train more scientifically. During our interview, Coach Daniels's wife, Nancy Jo, also emphasized the importance of Mr. Gilbert's work on the VDOT programs.
Paraphrasing the great running author Amy Burfoot, Daniels brought more science to endurance running. Jimmy Gilbert was a significant part of Dr. Daniel's scientific coaching journey.
The basic VDOT tables created in the early 1970's are still in place today. Gilbert was a genius, indeed.
As a side note, Jimmy Gilbert still runs today. According to coach Daniels, he averaged 28 miles a week for 50 years. Not many people can claim that in life.
Dr. Daniels' detailed research of human physiology and work on VDOT tables has benefited athletes worldwide, earning him the title of World's Best Running Coach.
Dr. Daniel's impact has also extended beyond a single school, country, or runner category. His work has benefited youth runners, high school runners, college runners, master's runners, and professional runners.
The impact of his work has spanned across the globe, reaching thousands of individuals. He has mentored others in various capacities through informal and formal coaching, books, college courses, research, and seminars.
Summary of Other Coaching
I can only briefly overview Dr. Daniel's remaining career due to limited space. However, I can share some important lessons and insights that he and Nancy Jo shared with me during their journey and memorable moments that stood out to them.
High Altitude Research
Dr. Daniels conducted pioneering research on human physiology at high altitudes. During this research, he worked with renowned athletes like Jim Ryan, who held the world record in the mile then, and other Olympic Games finalists like Tom Von Ruden. He first met Von Ruden during his time in Oklahoma. Jim Ryan's story is more widely known. I won't repeat it here.
Coach Daniels asked me to remind high school runners about Von Ruden. In high school, Von Ruden ran a decent mile time of 4:34, but it was not considered a national class time. However, as a post-collegiate runner, he became an Olympic Finalist in the 1500 meters. Coach Daniels wants to make the point that distance runners tend to peak in their late 20s or 30s, so it's essential to keep running as long as possible to achieve great results.
Nike and Joan Benoit
It is well-known that Coach Daniels worked for Nike and was part of the first pro-running team, Athletics West. Many might not know that during his tenure at Nike, Nancy Jo, and Olympic marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson assisted him in his exercise physiology research as a lab assistant.
Daniels helped Joan Benoit prepare for the first-ever U.S. Olympic Trials for women in Olympia, Washington. He did so 17 days after her orthoscopic surgery while working at Nike.
He developed a hand cycle process using a bike to help Joan Benoit maintain her fitness before the trials. Due to her inability to run for a period of time, this device allowed her to pedal with her hands to keep her aerobic fitness. This demonstrates the creativity and innovation of this man.
As mentioned above, Benoit (Benoit-Samuelson now) won the first gold medal for women in the Olympic Marathon in 1984.
Daniels was also the lead researcher for Nike and worked with many world-class runners during his tenure with Nike.
We've already talked about his days at Suny Cortland, where he was honored to be named the NCAA Division III Women's Cross Country Coach of the Century in 2000.
Coach Daniels also spent many years in Flagstaff, Arizona, working with some of the world's greatest runners. His work there was instrumental in the lives of many runners in Flagstaff.
Center For High Altitude Training
Daniels was the head distance coach at the Center for High Altitude Training on the Northern Arizona University campus. He wrote his famous book on running, "The Daniels Running Formula," while working in Arizona. The book provides the details of his VDOT formula.
He also helped form one of the world's top online running coaching businesses, the Run Smart Project, now called VDOT Products | V.O2 (vdoto2.com).
A Few Memories That Stand The Test Of Time
When I asked Dr. Daniels and his wife, Nancy Jo, about the details of their athletic and coaching memories, they had much to say. You could write a book on this fabulous couple and the adventures in their journey together.
Here are just a few memories that stood out in our interview.
The Most Meaningful Award During His Athletic Career
I was surprised by Dr. Daniel's answer to my question about his best athletic memories. I expected his Olympic experiences and medals to take the top spot.
Coach Daniels didn't hesitate to answer my question about his memories. His favorite memory of winning any event in his athletic career was in Sweden.
Let Dr. Daniels tell you about this experience in his own words. Here's an excerpt from his autobiography, Luck of the Draw, about one of his fondest memories as an athlete:
“The others (American Modern Pentathletes), with
whom I had competed in Melbourne (1956 Olympics), left the sport, and I became
US National Champion the next two years. In fact, I was the first foreigner to win the Swedish National Championships, a great performance
for me, just one year after Melbourne.”
“That trip and that win was one of my most memorable moments as I cherish the picture I have of a 10-year old Swedish girl giving me a bouquet of hand-picked flowers, more than my Olympic medals. The gold medal I won in Sweden will forever be with my father, Bob.
The young girl giving flowers to Coach Daniels was an unscripted gesture straight from the heart. This heartfelt act moved coach Daniels more than receiving his medals in the Olympic Pentathlon; very cool indeed.
Please look at the picture below of the beautiful image of this young girl presenting her heartfelt bouquet to Coach. I can see why this is his favorite award.
Races, Places, And People That Stand Out
From Last, To First
Coach Daniels mentioned a race that stood out in his career. One of his teams at SUNY Cortland took an unconventional path to win a national championship.
All seven of his runners were in last place at the national championship race at 400 meters into the race and beyond.
His team always retained composure. They went from last to first, winning yet another national cross-country championship.
Dr. Daniel often advised his team to start the race at a threshold pace to avoid going too fast and experiencing oxygen debt. This is a valuable piece of advice for all coaches out there.
Coach Daniels also mentioned that one of his career highlights was helping his athletes peak at the right time during important races at the end of the season.
Peaking is part art and part science. Coach Daniels was a master at helping his athletes peak at the right time when it mattered most.
Flagstaff, Arizona, The Best Place To Train
Dr. Daniels told me that he thinks Flagstaff, Arizona, is the ultimate place for distance runners to train in America and possibly the world. This is because of its high altitude, mild climate (with summer highs around 85 degrees), and the availability of training options at lower elevations nearby.
When Coach Daniels lived in Flagstaff to work at the high-altitude training center, he was impressed by the place in many ways. He noted that during winter, the snow clears often in Flagstaff because the temperatures usually reach around 55 degrees, which allows runners to resume training on the roads.
Flagstaff also has a supportive and knowledgeable community for distance running and an indoor track for training.
One Of The Greatest Coaching Husband and Wife Teams Ever
Coach Daniels quickly acknowledges his wife, Nancy Jo's impact on their journey. She has helped in many ways behind the scenes. And Nancy Jo is just as quick to credit her husband for his incredible thirst for knowledge and trust in his athletes that led to helping so many people over their lifetimes.
As Nancy Jo said, "Jack's athletes greatly trusted him and his knowledge and desire to help them."
Dr. Daniels brought an unrelenting passion to his work, always wanting to find new ways to help others succeed and do their best, like the hand cycle mentioned in Joan Benoit Samuelson's case above. His work ethic and innovative thinking were second to none.
Nancy Jo played a crucial role in this coaching partnership. She dedicated her efforts to nurturing the relationships and interpersonal skills of the athletes they trained. In essence, Nancy Jo acted as a mother figure to the team, taking great care to foster a strong sense of camaraderie among the members, treating them as if they were a part of her own family.
She always aimed to build a supportive community where athletes could thrive on and off the track.
I can relate to Nancy Jo's role in her husband's career, as my wife, Julie Weber, has played a similarly positive role in my coaching career. The contribution of Nancy Jo to this coaching duo cannot be overstated.
You can feel the mutual admiration that Dr. Daniels and Nancy Jo have for each other when they speak. It's heartwarming to witness such love in action.
In Coach Daniels's autobiography, Nancy Jo said, "Tupper (her nickname for Dr. Daniels) is the love of my life, my best friend, my comrade in parenting, and a window of God's patience and forgiveness… I love you, Tup, and I always will."
Dr. Daniels had just as many nice things to say about Nancy Jo and his daughters, "Nancy Jo Daniels has made my life complete and continues to do so every day, whether together or miles apart. Nancy brought our two daughters into this world, and if anyone ever has doubted the luck I have had in my life, they need to get to know Nancy, Audra, and Sarah. I have to be among the luckiest people in the world… God bless Nancy Jo, Audra Marie and Sarah Tupper".
Where They Are Today
Dr. Daniels injured his hip while working outside a few months ago. However, he is now recovering well after undergoing hip surgery with the help of Nancy Jo and others.
I couldn't help chuckling about Nancy Jo's and Coach Daniel's differing perceptions of his recovery situation.
When I inquired about his recovery, Dr. Daniels said it was slow.
Nancy Jo interrupted and said, "Jack, you've been out shoveling snow already!".
In his usual, understated manner, Coach Daniels thought shoveling snow was no big deal after breaking his hip, having surgery, and going through physical therapy at 90!
Many of us think otherwise.
Like everything else he has done, this man rises to the challenge, shows the grit of his early young adult days in Montana, and demonstrates why Runners World Magazine staff called him the "World's Best Running Coach."
I want to add one final note to the remarkable life journey of this duo. Perhaps Coach Daniels and Nancy Jo are "the world's best running coaching team."
Jack Daniels was a swimmer at the University of Montana.
Yes, that is Dr. Daniels in his younger days smoke jumping in Montana.
One of Coach Daniels's Favorite Memories is a young girl in Sweden bringing him flowers after winning a pentathlon event.
The Daniels family before departing from Cortland for new adventures.
Dr. Daniels shoveling snow at his home in Cortland, New York.
Coach Daniels is working out again after recovering from hip surgery due to a fall at age 90.
Coach Daniels and the author at one of his many running coach seminars