Q&A: Atlanta Track Club coach Amy Begley

Amy Begley and her little red car travelled a circuitous path to end up in Atlanta as the first full-time coach with the Atlanta Track Club.

She and her husband lived in Atlanta in 2006 before leaving and taking the “southern route” from Atlanta to Oregon for new challenges. They left there and took the “northern route” to Connecticut for more challenges, before taking the car once again along the “eastern route” from Connecticut back to Atlanta.

She said she laughed earlier this month when she drove by the Atlanta dealership from which she bought the car some 114,000 miles ago.

Begley is skilled at more than just driving long distances. A former Olympic athlete, she also good at running long distances and coaching others in numerous disciplines, which is one of the reasons that executive director Rich Kenah and the Atlanta Track Club hired her to help each of its 22,000 members accomplish whatever goals they may have, from running a first 5k to competing in the 2020 Olympics.

Begley sat down for a long interview in the club’s offices earlier this month in which she covered everything from why she took the job to how she hopes to help turn the ATC into a full track and field organization.

Q: How did this come together?

A: Rich put out a job description to the running community and posted it online. I had a couple of people forward it to me saying this might be something good for you to apply for. I looked at the job description and it’s a lot. It’s becoming a coach for the Atlanta Track Club. It’s redesigning programs for a lot of groups — the 5k women, the marathon and half-marathon for the spring and the fall. It’s also developing a competitive elite team, it’s starting a youth track and field team and it’s putting together new youth camps and clinics.

There are a lot of different components to the job. But what I loved the most is it’s stuff I’ve done my whole life. I started kids camps for cross country and track. I’ve done kids speed and track and field days for YMCAs and schools. I started a non-profit for every body type to teach kids about track and field when they are really little to try to get them to track and field and maybe not to soccer. We do say soccer players make some of the best runners.

I started a women’s local running club in Portland for women who either wanted to qualify for Boston or run their first 5k or 10k. These are women who had never done a training program before so it was their first time doing that.

I coached the distance divas in Oregon and Connecticut, which is a post-collegiate group for kids graduating college and trying to make the next level. I worked with all these different groups but it’s always been an outreach of my main job, which in Connecticut was as a college coach. I was doing all these things when I had time.

Now all these things I love to do is under one job title. It’s an amazing job to have when everything you love is under one roof.

That’s what really drew me to the job is working with all the different ages and populations in running.

Q: How do you judge success?

A: That’s hard to do because a lot of people think, “Well she was a fast runner so she expects everyone to hit a certain level.” Not everybody can win, not everybody can make the Olympic teams. There has to be a level of success for everybody. Sometimes it depends upon time you can spend on it; sometimes it depends upon what your goals are. For some people it’s to qualify for the Boston Marathon. For some people it’s just to literally run their first 5k without walking. So whatever their goal is, if we hit that then that’s success.

It’s all about benchmarks. If you don’t sometimes it’s hard to get started if you don’t have those. If we can make those goals and then match people’s commitment level and incentive then I think that’s success.

Also, trying to get more people involved in running from every age group. Trying to get more little kids involved in track and field. Teaching them about the field events they may not know about, there’s the triple jump. All these things kids can get into as they get older.

Teaching them running isn’t just a sport it’s a lifestyle that anybody can start and anybody can begin at any point in your life.

Q: Why running for you?

A: When I was a little I did everything: swimming and softball. We would walk our dog around this park called Bixler Lake. Every time we would walk the dog there there would be this woman running around the lake. Every day. After seeing her many times I told my parents, “That looks like fun, I want to run.”

My parents said, “No, not until you are 10.” I was 8 at the time. I think it was because they didn’t want to drive me to one more thing. They were already sitting through swimming. They were already sitting through softball games.

I turned 10, my birthday is in January. It’s snowy and wintery. May comes around and I see the woman running around the park again. I say, “I’m 10, you said I can run.”

There’s this Mother’s Day 5-mile race in our time. My parents thought, “We’ll put her in this and she’ll never want to race again.” I run the race. They have a water station in the middle off the race. I take my water and I take my two cups. Everyone throws down the cup. I didn’t want to throw them down because I didn’t want to litter in my park. I didn’t know they picked them up. I carried the glasses all the way to the finish. I get done. I’m all sweaty. I loved it.

I got this big red ribbon for being second in my group, which I still have. I take it with me. That’s what I wanted to do.

I was one of those weird kids that thought it looked fun.

The woman in the park came up to my parents and told them that she would take us to road races and teach us the ropes. That was really fun. I spent the summer going to different road races.

My dad started running, quit smoking and started running because he didn’t want his little girl running by herself. That’s been good.

Q: How important was the goal of putting two ATC athletes on the 2020 Olympic team in your considering this job?

A: One of the big goals and focuses in my life is helping kids make the bridge from college to professional running. Most of our marathoners don’t make the team until they are 28-32. There’s a big gap between the ages of 22 and 28. Our 10ks are 28-32, our 5k team is a little bit younger, probably 25-30. But then our 800-1500, they are a little bit younger. So there’s this gap between when they graduate college and when they are mature enough and good enough to make the Olympic team. We lose a lot of kids in that gap because there’s not this support.

When I came out of college, my husband and I got married before my fifth year. There were only two clubs at that time. There was the Hansons Group in Michigan, which was for men. And there was the Team Minnesota, which was for women. Minnesota wanted to take me. Hanson wanted to take my husband. Obviously, we weren’t going to separate.

We moved home to Indiana. I brought a couple of the girls with me. The interesting part was when we would tell people I was training for Olympics, they would always ask me, “what’s my real job?” or “when am I going to settle down and have kids?” My husband never got that question. Never. It was OK for men to live five in a room and train. But for women, for whatever reason, that wasn’t OK for us to do. My goal has always been to help women and to give them the support to continue in the sport because there’s not a lot of support for that.

Even now, when I was college coaching and applying for college coaching jobs, I would tell the AD and the school what I wanted to do to support women after they graduated.

One school in the Ivy League told me women make a value-based decision to use their degree and not play around with running. To say the least that didn’t go over well with me. The interview didn’t go well after that.

A lot of the women when they contact me after they graduate, their parents don’t even understand.

For me, it’s been helping and support to kids post-collegiately so that they can stay in the sport.

Rich’s goal of having a man and women on the team in 2020, that’s exciting.

But I would say that when I read the job description that’s only 20-25 percent of my job. The other part of my job is getting kids excited about running, bringing them up from little kids and hopefully they stay around and get on the Atlanta Track Club elite team. Hopefully, we can take these kids and mold them. It’s getting people off the couch and running their first 5k. It’s getting women involved in running, helping them to know that it’s OK to take time to take care of themselves. Running is an easy way to do that. And it’s getting people to accomplish their next goal, whether it’s moving from a 5k to a 10k, or a 10k to a 10-miler, or a 10-miler to a marathon. Telling people there is a fun way to do it and helping learn the exercises to do that.

If you do that, if you can get the little kids interested in running, and can get their parents out there, and new people to running, it adds a bigger support system for the elite team that wants to go on.

It takes a village in a way. You get all these people into running, excited about running. The elite team then has a massive support system behind them. Right now we have 21,000 members. If we keep increasing, and they get more excited about running and bring more people in, it’s a huge support system.

It really all ties together. My hope is that they Atlanta Track Club elite team will be some of the coaches for the training program, they will be involved so that there will be middle school kids who will watch the TV, and watch NBC and go, “That was my coach!” That gets them excited.

Q: I don’t run. Sell me on lacing up some sneakers and getting out there.

A: Running is one of those things you don’t have to have a gym. It’s finding the right pair of shoes that feel good, that don’t rub in certain places or cause leg injuries. Literally lacing up your shoes and getting out there. It’s running in morning as the sun is coming up or before the sun is up. It’s a special time in the morning. Or it is stopping in the park on the way home when you get off work, it can be a stress reliever before whatever you have to do the rest of the night, whether it’s walking the dog or whatever the kids need. It’s a sense of accomplishment that is just you.

There are so many different goals you can make, whether it is making it around the block for the first time, or its dropping the pounds the doctor wants you to lose, or it’s getting off high-blood pressure medication, it’s not getting the diabetes the rest of your family has gotten, it’s keeping that weight off. There are so many things running can do for you and everybody is different.

It’s not easy. There’s the kind-of like honeymoon period when you first start a job. With running, I wouldn’t call it a honeymoon period because it’s not a honeymoon period because it’s not exactly fun, but once you get to the point that you start accomplishing the little goals, then you want to start accomplishing the bigger ones.

I tell new runners don’t think you’re going to go out and run a mile if you’ve never run one. It’s running a minute, walking a minute.

It’s having these concrete goals that you can see and you can hit and feel good about hitting those. Not everybody can win but they can work toward accomplishing the goals they’ve set.

There’s competing against yourself sometimes. It’s more fun with people, but it’s something that you can set a goal and go out and do it.

At the Atlanta Track Club you can sign up for our training programs and meet people and be able to do it that way.

Q: As an Olympic athlete, how difficult of a challenge do you face as a coach trying to get a male and female into the 2020 games?

A: It can be difficult because only three people make it. Every four years we send between 600-700 athletes for all of the sports. That’s not many people for the U.S. That’s just 700 people. It’s not easy.

If we can target the right events and the right people and get them to buy in then anything is possible. There’s some events that I think we might be better at hitting — the 800 meters, 1500 meters, the steeple – right now would be the three that I would push for the most. I definitely think the marathon is another avenue we can pursue. I would like to go after the 5k and 10k runners. They will be a little harder sell just because Atlanta is a little hot for training certain periods of the year. The 800- and 1500-meter runners don’t really mind it as much. The 5k and 10k runners prefer it a little more mild.

I think if we can set up the training for them during the year, maybe take them up north during the hottest times, I think we can find the right people.

Finding the right people in the right events, we can do that.

Q: How hands on will you be as a coach?

A: Right now, we are just going to try to do the distance events, 800 and above. Probably will even look into some 400 meters.

Eventually, toward 2020 we want to have the jumpers and the sprinters and the throwers. We want to be a full track club and not just a distance enclave.

I’m hands on, not only with the Atlanta Track Club elite but with the training programs.

We’re going to have what we call an A and B schedule.

The A schedule will be long run on Monday, work out on Wednesday and work out on Saturday. The B group will be long run on Sunday, work out on Tuesday and Friday.

For Monday, you are talking about meeting with a 5 a.m., 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. group.

Wednesday is a really long day. It will probably be 5:30, 6:30, probably an 8 o’clock, 10 o’clock groups. At night it will probably be the same thing with the different groups. Because with the competitive teams we have people with jobs and kids so finding places and times for all of them to meet me will be an interesting challenge.

We are trying to work with tracks and locations to give us access because that’s not always easy.

With the training groups, we have a half-marathon training group and a marathon training group starting Jan. 10 and the women’s 5k group starting Jan. 17, those groups will meet Saturdays and Tuesdays and it will be the same thing. There will be 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and the afternoon the same thing, we will have a 6 o’clock and 7:30 group at different locations.

On Saturday we will have five different locations and my husband and I will rotate among those.

Q: Are you going to have time for everything else? This is a lot.

A: Monday morning will be work outs. Monday afternoon will be in the office. Tuesdays, most of the day is work outs. Wednesday is all day work outs. Thursday is one of the days we don’t have a lot of practice so Thursday will be an office day. Friday mornings are workouts and Friday afternoon in the office and Saturdays are all work outs or events. Sunday is my typical day off.

Once you get things started it kind of gets going by itself. For example, they’ve already got the training programs ready to go for January, February, March and April. My husband will be an assistant coach when he gets down here in January. Between the two of us it will be divide and conquer.

Q: You said there are 200 members on the team. Do you see that number needing to grow significantly to increase the pool of candidates for the Olympics?

A: It depends on funding. Right now we’ve set it at a 200 max with the sponsorship with Mizuno and trying to make sure everybody gets what they need. We don’t want to water it down too much.

Right now, the competitive team as it is won’t change a whole lot in 2015. We will start changing some of the tier systems but for 2015 it will stay what it has always been.

We will leave spots open for the new kids, the new generation we will bring in, the ones we hope are the 2020 hopefuls.

Q: With that 200, I imagine there will be some difficult conversations as you try to bring in more athletes to increase the competitiveness.

A: Yes, hopefully bringing in anywhere from 4-8 new kids this year. Most won’t graduate until May or June so it will be six months of recruiting to see which are the best kids to bring in. In January we won’t have a full 200.

There will be some tough conversations. Right now, of the 200 they have there are people who just show up when it’s convenient. They aren’t committed or dedicated. They just think it’s fun to be a part of something.

From now it will be a little bit different. Some people may decide on their own that this is something they don’t want to do anymore.

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