As Peter Callahan waited to get the baton for his 1,600-meter anchor leg in the distance medley relay (DMR) earlier this month at the NCAA Indoor Championships, he went through a mental checklist.
“What is important for me is that I have so much faith in the other guys; I am just trying to stay loose and look up a few times to keep up on the race,” said senior star Callahan.
“You have five and a half minutes, it is stressful. I just focus on my race strategy and my plan. What is unique is that you don’t know where you are going to be when you get the baton. In an individual race, you have control over where you are. You try to prepare for all the possibilities in the relay and then you just go and race hard.”
Once Callahan got the baton on the track at the University of Arkansas, he went hard and produced a blistering kick that gave the Princeton quartet the national title.
Princeton was in third when Callahan took off on his anchor leg. He kicked into high gear in the last 300 to pull out the win, running a 4:01.11 split as the Tigers finished at 9:33.01, with Penn State placing second in 9:34.00 and Minnesota taking third at 9:34.21
For Callahan, winning the title, Princeton’s first at the national indoor meet in 11 years, was extra special because he got to share it with teammates Michael Williams (1,200 meter leg), senior Austin Hollimon (400 meters), and senior Russell Dinkins (800 meters).
“I went to the meet as an individual last year and that was great,” said Callahan, who took sixth in the mile at the 2012 NCAA indoor meet.
“This is a whole other level. You are racing for something more than yourself. You are racing for the three other guys and for the team and you are racing for the whole school. It is something the four of us will share forever as a group.”
Callahan’s chances of racing to an NCAA title this winter were nearly dashed by injury. Suffering from problems in his left ankle and foot, Callahan was sidelined the last two springs and skipped cross country this past fall to concentrate on training himself back to health.
“I took a gradual approach this fall, I didn’t worry about cross country,” said Callahan, who sprained the ankle as a sophomore and later suffered a stress fracture and tendinitis in the foot.
“I stayed consistent over the fall. From the beginning of the year, we had sat down with Coach Vig (head cross country and distance coach Jason Vigilante) and set a goal of doing well in the DMR at the NCAA meet. I had that inside my head when I was training in the fall. It gave me a focus on what I needed to be doing.”
That plan paid dividends at the Indoor Heps as Callahan won the mile and anchored the DMR to victory to get named the co-Most Outstanding Track Performer at the meet.
“I didn’t know what to expect; I had faith in my coaches and faith in my training,” said Callahan, reflecting on the Heps.
“There is pressure to put up big times early for the NCAA. My fastest time was 4:18, 20 seconds off of what I did last year. Coach Vig was very confident; he said we have a plan and we are sticking to it. It was big for me to be able to come out with wins and race well. It was a confidence builder.”
Coming to Princeton in 2009 from North Shore Country Day School in Evanston, Ill., it took a while for Callahan to develop confidence on the college level.
“For me, the biggest challenge was the training load and trying to balance academics and athletics at a different level,” said Callahan.
“Coming from a very small school where we had a strong team and then go into this bigger group with all these great runners, it can be a tough environment. All of a sudden, you are traveling to races. Every freshman is trying to prove himself.”
The transition was eased by the help of the Tiger veteran runners. “It can be competitive but it was collaborative,” said Callahan.
“The upperclassmen were very helpful, they wanted you to do well. I am running with 25 great runners everyday and learning from them. I found everybody very open and willing to help each other.”
Callahan experienced a key breakthrough in the Indoor Heps during his freshman campaign.
“When I won the individual title in the Indoor Heps at the 800; I was thinking I can do this college thing,” said Callahan. “It is still running. You put on your spikes and get out and try to run as hard as you can.”
That progress nearly got derailed, however, when Callahan sprained his left ankle before the Indoor Heps the next winter.
“I taped it up before Indoor Heps sophomore year,” recalled Callahan. “After those three races, I had to shut it down, I had tendinitis and then it turned into a stress fracture.”
Despite spend a lot of time rehabbing in the pool and on the bike over the next two years, Callahan was able to achieve a memorable milestone in his junior year as he ran two sub-4 minute miles.
“As a miler, that is the dream,“ said Callahan, who ran a 3:58.86 mile at the Sykes-Sabock Meet at Penn State on February 4, 2012 and then came back a week later to clock a 3:58.76 in the Husky Invitational in Seattle, Wash.
“That has been my goal for years. I have been spending time on the bike and in the pool all spring. I was watching everyone else do well and I was excited for them. I was gratified to be able to get out there and get the two sub-4s in a week. I had always hoped it would happen. I ran with my teammates in the races and had good competition.”
Things came together just in time for Callahan and his DMR teammates this winter as they qualified for the NCAA meet with a Princeton and Ivy record of 9:27.74 at the Alex Wilson Invitational at Notre Dame on March 1 before their NCAA triumph a week later.
“We were seeded as a ‘B’ squad at the Alex Wilson meet but that didn’t bother us,” said Callahan.
“At the NCAAs, we were seeded second. When the gun goes off, the seeds and predictions go out the window and it is all about competing. You are racing to try to beat the guy next to you, you have to show up on race day. All four of us were confident.”
Callahan is confident he can keep racing well as he heads into his final spring season at Princeton.
“You always have goals,” said Callahan, who plans to keep competing after graduation. “But for me, first and foremost, I want to stay healthy and do consistent training. If I do that, I will be able to do some good things.”