I met the Caldwell coaches in person for the first time at an indoor track meet at Clemson University. Mike had on his ASICS GTC-Elite cap, and I decided to introduce myself as we waited for our athletes to line up for the 5k.
A few weeks before that, I had joined a phone call with the Women’s Running Coaches Collective to discuss hosting their rich archive of newsletters on School of Track’s website. Laura Caldwell was on the call as a founding member of the WRCC. That morning at Clemson, I hoped that Mike would be able to make the introduction. He obliged with incredible warmth.
Later, they generously agreed to talk with me further about their journey into professional coaching. Although the pair is officially retired, they show no signs of slowing down: together, they founded Asics GTC-elite in 2012, a professional group located in Greenville, South Carolina that Laura and Mike coach full-time.
Laura Caldwell’s competitive running career didn’t start until she was at Florida State University, but she certainly made up for lost time, earning her spot as the school record holder over 800m for a year. Not only a successful runner, Laura found herself to be an inspiring coach as well; after graduating, she took on the GA position at FSU, where she studied social work and counseling. “I enjoyed working with people through that position,” she remembered. “Coaching was a culmination of that counseling education melded with my athletic background.”
Michael Caldwell, in contrast, was a serious runner in high school. He won a state championship and earned a scholarship at Furman University. As a graduate student at the University of Florida, he also competed with the prolific Florida Track Club. He placed as high as 3rd at Atlanta Track Club’s Peachtree Road Race.
“At first, I was more interested in coaching myself,” Mike shared. He studied exercise physiology and the science background allowed him to practice new theories with himself.
The pair met when Mike was a doctoral candidate at Florida State University. He felt ready to move into coaching, and decided to create his own post-collegiate group that was sponsored by “Racing South” running magazine. He had over twenty elite athletes who were competitive at the national scene, including a World Championship Qualifier and several 1988 Olympic Marathon Trails Qualifiers. Throughout this time, he kept up a 30 year daily running streak!
Mike embarked on an incredibly successful career at ASICS, where he held many impactful positions, including as the lead designer and product-line manager for the ASICS Gel-Lyte shoe.
Eventually, he transitioned into work with Nike, where he had the opportunity to observe both Alberto Salazar and Jerry Schumacher in action. “I was fortunate to watch Salazar coach at Nike, and to have discussions with him. He shared information with me. I thought that this is what I would do when I retired.”
Laura continued to compete well into her mid-40’s, qualifying twice to the Olympic Trials in the marathon. At age 44, she ran 1:15 in the half marathon; an incredibly impressive performance that Mike proudly reminded her to share with me. While Mike worked at Nike in Oregon, Laura began coaching at a local high school, as well as doing personal coaching for her friends on the side. “We just like that lifestyle – reading and studying every day and passing on the information that we learned,” Mike shared.
After retiring from the shoe & apparel industry in 2009, the pair moved to Greenville. Mike coached at Furman University for a few years before deciding to start an Olympic Development group. “When I was working in corporate, I didn’t have enough time to coach. My philosophy is that you really need to be around the athlete, not just see their training online.”
“When I was working in corporate, I didn’t have enough time to coach. My philosophy is that you really need to be around the athlete, not just see their training online.”
Vision for GTC-Elite
“What we found when we coached college was that there were a good number of students graduating with nowhere to go run,” Mike explains on their decision to start GTC-Elite. “They weren’t good enough to get a shoe contract, so their career was basically done. We wanted to provide an opportunity.”
At that time, Mike estimates that there were about 10-11 post-collegiate clubs for serious distance runners. Plus, there were very few opportunities for women to run competitively. Now, he guesses that there are closer to 30 groups.
“We went to the board of directors at Greenville Track Club with a goal: we want to have people qualify for the Olympic Trials.” Now, Mike serves on the Board, although he steps out if a vote is taken on anything regarding his elite team. Already, that goal has begun to be fulfilled; in 2016, the group had four athletes at the Olympic Trials marathon.
The president of the board has been very good at going into the community and soliciting contributions to support the club’s athletes. Revenue can be a significant challenge for clubs like GTC-Elite.
“We are retired and we’re at a place where we don’t need the money,” Laura explained on their coaching. “It’s more of a volunteer opportunity for us. We are a nonprofit so we go out and talk to people and get the community involved. We have sponsors who have worked with us since we started. ASICS has been very helpful to us, and we couldn’t have done it without them because equipment is so important.”
Mike credited Atlanta Track Club as “the best of the best at what they do.” Like Atlanta Track Club, Greenville Track Club recently started a youth program. “Our elite athletes are running that program, so they’re giving back to the community.” This helps the elite team gain support.
Unique challenges to professional coaching
“In college, we pretty much knew what was going on – if something happened the night before – whether we wanted to or not,” Mike joked after I asked him how coaching a post-collegiate group differs from his experience at Furman.
“The hardest thing is to keep them engaged and communicating,” Laura agreed. “You really need to know what’s going on in their lives so you can adapt to that. A lot of times they look at it as ‘Well I’m an adult, why do I have to tell you all that?’ But I just need to know all the pieces that go into the puzzle.”
Their group uses FinalSurge, which allows them to see their athletes workout data as soon as their watches sync to the computer. Then, both athletes and coaches are able to add comments. “One young lady, one hour after that workout, she would be done logging,” Laura said. “That’s one way to tell that they are really engaged and ready to do the workout. If it takes a few days to finish logging, maybe it’s not that important in your life. Running – being an athlete – it takes a lot of your time.”
GTC is very open with their training philosophy – even going so far as to share their training plans. Mike explains that there isn’t really a secret to running. “These people are always looking for the magic workout. We just look for consistency. You can get from A to B in myriad different ways, but if you apply it in the wrong way, it won’t work.”
“Anyone can get a workout book and follow the schedule, but it’s really about the timing,” Mike said. With Mike’s science background and Laura’s athletic background, the two have learned about moving beyond what’s on the page. “The artist has to come out of every coach.”
Advice for the journey
“If you’ve got a coaching position, grow where you’re planted,” offered Mike. “Don’t always be looking to go somewhere else. Opportunities will come up. Most people are looking for opportunities before they’ve had success.”
Laura laughed, “We’ve been married for 30-something years, so we pretty much think alike! I love that advice. Grow where you’re planted. I understand wanting to get ahead, but take some time to learn before you move on to the next big thing.”
Both coaches cited athlete development as an incredibly compelling reason to be a coach. Mike shared a story about one of his all-favorite athletes: a walk-on at Furman University. “His father dropped him off at my office and said ‘make something of him!’ By the end of the year – he must have been in the 3rd or 4th heat of the 5000 – but he had taken a minute off of his PR. He came afterwards and gave me a huge hug. He didn’t go on to run after college, but his desire has stayed with us. We still talk.”
“It’s really rewarding in itself to be able to work with someone and see them improve,” Laura adds. “To come up with goals that they want to go for, accomplish them, and move to the next. That’s very rewarding for me.”
FinalSurge also has some awesome podcasts for coaches and athletes!