In his first race as a professional runner last month, Peter Callahan, a 2009 North Shore Country Day School graduate, shot to the front of an elite field at the start of the 3000-meter race in a Diamond League track meet in London. The field included Mo Farah, a Great Britain great and the reigning Olympic and World champion in the 5000- and 10,000-meter events.
The 30,000-plus spectators in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park came to see Farah win on July 24, not to see Callahan sprint. Callahan did not let up, pumping as hard as he could, treating each 100 meters in the distance test as a 100-meter dash. Callahan did exactly what he was told to do, what he was paid to do. The former NSCDS state champion, the former Princeton University NCAA indoor track champion, the two-time University of New Mexico All-American was in Farah’s home country to scoot and scurry as the race’s rabbit.
Peter, alas, petered out. Race rabbits do that. Typical race rabbits are 1500-meter guys. Or 800-meter specialists. To the right of Callahan’s name on the results sheet was “DNF,” short for Did Not Finish.
“I approached it as a workout,” Callahan, an Evanston native, recalls. “It was a great experience, being out there in front of a huge crowd. I was there to help showcase Mo.”
Mo Farah did not just win the 3000-meter race. He completed it in an electric 7:34.66, the world-leading time. Assists belong in the sport of track and field. Give an assist to the 6-foot-1, 155-pound Callahan, rookie pacesetter.
Callahan, 24 years old and half-Belgian, stayed in Europe after his pro debut to race in a pair of 1500 races in … Belgium. All of his cousins on his mother Bic’s side live in Belgium. Nearly all of them showed up to root for their favorite pro runner for both races. Callahan, no longer a rabbit, won both, clocking a rapid and personal-best 3:37.88 in the second 1500. The most successful Raider in NSCDS boys track and field history then flew to Portland, Oregon, to take on a throng of milers on Aug. 8. Callahan topped that field, too, in 3:58.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to explore running, professionally, for as long as I can,” says Callahan, hoping, with the help of his agent, to get sponsored soon. “Endurance runners usually peak in their late 20s. As long as I enjoy it, I will continue to do it. I’m also excited about a career in the renewable energy industry. [Callahan majored in history at Princeton and got his master’s degree in environmental science at New Mexico.]
“Running … it’s always going to be a part of my life.”
They’re still talking about what Callahan did at the Class 1A state track and field meet in 2009, his senior season at NSCDS. He successfully defended his title in the 1600, with a 4:15.3 effort in Charleston. He anchored the Raiders’ 3200 relay to a seventh-place showing in a school-record 8:04.71; two of the legs on the previous NSCDS-record holder in the event were Tim Callahan and Kit Callahan. Tim is 28, Kit 26. Their little brother has already qualified to run in the 1500 at next summer’s Olympic Trials. Their little brother also sped to a 1A state-meet-record 1:51.22 in the 800 at that state meet in ’09. The second- and third-place finishers in the event, Unity High School’s Zebo Zebe (1:52.9) and Tremont High School’s Parker Thompson (1:52.64), also ran faster times than the previous record holder had.
Peter Callahan’s 1:51.22 mark still stands.
“One of the greatest races I’d ever watched at the high school level,” Patrick McHugh, the athletic director and boys track coach at NSCDS, says. “A tremendous battle. One of Peter’s greatest traits, when he’s at the top of his game, is his ability to accelerate very, very quickly. He can go from a modest pace to an all-out pace in about two steps.
“But there’s more to Peter than his physical strengths, so much more,” he adds. “I like his fighting spirit, the way he battles all the way when he runs. He’s got outstanding character, and he feels for his opponents after races, reaches out to them. Peter is humble, and he shows tremendous appreciation for people who have helped him along his journey.”
Callahan’s post-NSCDS trek started at Princeton. Injuries marred three of his four outdoor seasons. He sped to success indoors, his top highlight coming as the anchor leg (1600, in 4:01.11) on the Tigers’ NCAA championship distance medley relay (9;33.01). He was a six-time Ivy League champion from 2010-13. He then enrolled as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico. The arrival of the newcomer excited Lobos men’s track coaches for two reasons: Callahan had that many outdoor seasons left of eligibility.
He hustled to fourth place in the 1500 at the 2014 NCAA meet, a showing he matched at his final NCAA meet in June, with a time of 3:55.22. Callahan emerged as a two-time Capital One/CoSIDA (College Sports Information Directors of America) Academic All-American, once at Princeton, once at New Mexico. He was named the Mountain West Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Co-Student-Athlete of the Year in 2015.
Some 18 years ago, a first-grader named Peter Callahan attended his first NSCDS class. Maybe he ran in the hallways, wide-open spaces for a wide-eyed tot who liked to fly. Maybe he was told to slow down, to stick to walking during school hours. Peter watched his older brothers play sports at the school in Winnetka. He eventually observed McHugh and how the man interacted with students as a coach, as an AD. The runner showed up at Raiders varsity track and field practices and listened to the varsity coach. The coach cared about the sport, the runner discovered. The runner ran hard for the coach and for the program.
School records fell. A state record fell. The runner bowed for medals. The runner appreciated the critical role the coach had played in the runner’s success.
The runner still appreciates it.
“Coach McHugh is a great coach,” Callahan says. “He’s not stuck in an old-school way. He’s constantly going to track conferences, always looking to be up on the latest in sports science. He enjoys learning about the changes in approach to running, and he enjoys passing along that information to his athletes.”
It is July 24, 2015, inside Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, several minutes after the completion of the men’s 3000-meter race at a Diamond League meet. The race champion is standing next to the rabbit, a pair of world-class athletes smiling for a camera. The champion is wearing a Great Britain singlet.
The rabbit is wearing a North Shore Country Day School singlet.