A creature of team sports – first baseball, then soccer – Duncan Callahan remembered his reaction when his older brother started nordic skiing at Glens Falls High School in northeastern New York.
“I thought he was the biggest nerd in the world,” he said.
A year later, Callahan’s brother, Bill, convinced him to try it.
In darkness, the two set out on the city’s illuminated trail system. Afterward, Bill suggested his little brother come out for the team. He still thought it was nerdy, but decided to anyway.
In a phone conversation from Gunnison, Colo., the 28-year-old Callahan credited his brother and older teammates for their leadership. He had one coach through the seasons, Bill Parks, who helped him develop as a cross-country skier and as a runner.
Following Callahan’s high school years, which included two trips to the New York State nordic skiing championships, he skied at Western State College in Gunnison, coached at the same institution and dove into ultra-distance events.
In 2003, Callahan won the inaugural Leadville 100-mile ski race. A college junior at a crossroad of interests, he said the event hooked him on endurance events. Rather than ski, he chose to run.
Since 2007, Callahan has won several ultras, including two Leadville 100-mile trail runs and the Moab 100, and set a course record at the Grand Teton 50-miler.
Now the head coach of Crested Butte Nordic, he ran his fifth consecutive race in Leadville, Colo., on Aug. 20. The defending champion of the “Race Across The Sky” at elevations of 9,200 to 12,600 feet, Callahan placed ninth.
“The hundred is so different from any other race,” he said before the 2011 Leadville challenge. “My absolute goal … is to go to the bottom of the well (and) see what’s in the heart and in the head because you’re absolutely going to need that out there. The goal of winning is secondary.”
While Callahan was not thrilled with his result, he accepted it. His legs hadn’t cooperated over the 19 hours, 11 minutes and 15 seconds he was out there, he said, and he felt uncomfortable leading early.
“I’m used to running from behind for most of the race,” he said.
But quitting? That rarely crossed his mind.
In those races, high and low points are a given, Callahan said. He tried to minimize both, riding strong moments without overdoing it and staying mentally sound through pain. Just once, earlier this year at the Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colo., he thought about dropping out.
“But 99.9 percent of the race, it never occurs to me,” he said. “I’m not going to lay claim to be any more mentally tough than anyone, but I do love getting to mile 80 and having to grind it out.”
That’s why he’s hard to beat, said Callahan’s friend Adam St.Pierre, the head coach of Boulder Nordic.
“Generally, he’s the guy that slows down the least,” said St.Pierre, who was 56th at Leadville this year in his second 100-miler.
“At some point in your mind, you’re going to say, ‘Why am I out here? It would be easier to just stop,’ ” he said. “It’s one thing to keep going, but it’s another thing to pick up the pace from there.”
Miles of self-motivation
To understand Callahan’s psyche, it’s helpful to know his background.
While elite athletes tend to tread off the beaten path, Callahan’s high school coach in cross-country running, skiing and track said he was especially unique.
“You have a sense of this is the kind of guy that was tuning out the rest of the world and was driven,” Bill Parks said. “He was actually a very fun-loving guy, but he put in a lot of miles.”
That drive and thousands of miles – mostly rollerskiing – got Callahan into trouble. Parks remembered when a teacher approached him about penalizing Callahan for his frequent tardiness.
Parks knew he was out rollerskiing before school, and so did the teacher. She had seen him on her way to work – still sweaty and far from home and a shower.
“These stories would come back to me of him rollerskiing to Saratoga and back,” Parks said. That was at least 40 miles round trip.
When he spoke about Callahan at an awards banquet, Parks pointed out that the star skier – a top Mid-Atlantic racer – had rollerskied some 2,000 to 3,000 miles, far beyond Parks’ suggestion.
“He came up to accept the award and he looked a little puzzled,” Parks said. “He said, “ ‘You know, I skied a lot more than that, coach.’ ”
One day, Callahan said he did 70 kilometers on the county bike path.
“Skiing was a slightly unhealthy obsession for me from my junior year in high school to my junior year in college,” Callahan said. “The training for it kind of dominated my thought process. My schoolwork kind of suffered and socially I was kind of a dweeb. For five years of my life, skiing was absolutely my central focus.”
After a disappointing finish at the state meet his senior year, one which neither Callahan nor Parks knew what went wrong, Callahan moved on at Western State College. There, he continued to dedicate himself to training and achieved All-American status as a sophomore at Junior Nationals.
By his junior year, Callahan’s results stagnated. His attention shifted to new races: first, the Grand Traverse 45-mile backcountry ski and then the Leadville 100-mile ski. He realized he loved distance events and had lost an interest in college racing.
“Training for me was way more important than racing,” he said. “And when you get to that point, you start to lose your passion for competition.”
He bunkered down and chose a major – history – while studying exercise physiology and coaching. His discovered his knack for coaching and by the time he graduated, he had stepped back from racing altogether.
That allowed him to meet his eventual wife, Annie, and for the first time in nearly a decade, Callahan took a season off, and it wasn’t because he was hurt.
Mostly injury-free in high school (“I didn’t get injured,” he said, “and if I did, I didn’t care”), a couple of stress fractures in his feet forced him to take time off in college.
For the most part, his body dictated his training. When he overdid it, his body slowed down. He wouldn’t get sick, he just couldn’t physically move as fast or at all, he said.
“My body just shuts down and says, “Nope, you’re not doing anything today,’ ” Callahan said. Then he would rest.
He reintroduced himself into the running world a few months after he graduated when he began coaching Western State and the Crested Butte club in 2005. Working with skiers, he decided to get back into shape.
After marrying Annie in 2007, he asked her, “What do you think about me doing the Leadville 100 running race this summer?” She agreed to support him, both in principle and out on the trail, and Callahan began a yearly regimen of running about 5,000 miles a year.
“We always joke to my friends that I almost tricked her with all this,” he said.
In 2007, he was seventh of 210 finishers at Leadville. The following year, he won it in 18:02.39, and was third in 2009. He was last year’s overall winner in 17:43.24, almost 40 minutes ahead of the second finisher.
At the Hardrock 100 this year, he was eighth in 30:57.
“For the most part, I could compete in the top ten if I ate well and kept up an active lifestyle,” Callahan said. “It’s a great lifestyle sport so (the) ‘W’ is not the end-all, be-all for me now.”
The ultra appeal
A runner since middle school, Callahan had a natural affection for the sport. He ran the mile and two mile in addition to cross country, and enjoyed lengthy workouts in preparation.
“Training for me, essentially, was a pure expression of a passionate pursuit of something,” Callahan said. “That was certainly something that catapulted me to where I got to and held me back on the results side. I trained too much, I trained too hard. I didn’t recover enough.”
Before running his fifth Leadville – which he said would be his last consecutive one – Callahan reflected on the appeal of endurance sports, especially for someone like him.
“I just think there are a lot of guys who could not move on after college in marathons, not to the next level,” he said. “Finding their way into ultras was kind of a natural out.”
He said he couldn’t compete with men or women in marathons. At 6-feet tall and 165 pounds, he said his body’s ability to burn fat helped him at long-distance events – along with the base he built nearly 15 years ago.
While ultras initially suited 35- to 45-year-olds, Callahan said he has been among a younger, progressively dominating demographic. In 2007, two of Leadville’s top 10 finishers were in their 20s. Two years later, five of the top six fell in that age category.
“I’ve heard it called the fastest growing segment in the outdoor industry,” Callahan said. “And the outdoor industry is one of the fastest growing segments in the world.”
Several other 20- to 30-something nordic coaches, including St.Pierre, have also taken up distance races. For many, ski coaching allows summer flexibility, and the training enables some freedom.
“It’s sort of weird,” St.Pierre said of his fellow coaches’ attraction to the sport.
Eric Pepper, the head nordic coach at Ski Club Vail, was one of St.Pierre’s four pacers at Leadville this year. Nick Sterling, who coached with St.Pierre in Boulder, also ran with him for part of the race, along with Middlebury skier Josh Dalley and triathlon coach Craig Howie.
Last year at Leadville, Noah Hoffman of the U.S. Ski Team paced his friend, Greg Adams. Next year, St.Pierre said six or seven Colorado ski coaches might race there.
“I think ultra running let’s us take out some of our aggression,” St.Pierre joked.
“Rocky Mountain Nordic coaches, we are staking claim,” Callahan said. “We are the fittest group of coaches in the USSA.”
St.Pierre paced Callahan in three 100-mile ultras, and Callahan returned the favor to St.Pierre at the Western States Endurance Run in Auburn, Calif., in June.
“We were both fitness dorks; that’s how we connected initially,” Callahan said. “We were the coaches getting up early and going on our runs.”
At Leadville this year, Callahan had five people to run with after mile 50. His former exercise physiology professor, Scott Drum, paced him for the first 10, and his former college coach, Jesse Crandall, made the trip from Syracuse, N.Y., to run the second leg.
At mile 76, Rich Smith, the father of one of Callahan’s skiers, took over. He handed off to Grant Ruehle, a former junior skier, and another athlete. Hannah Smith – who tweeted updates for Callahan throughout the day – ran the last five miles.
Annie Callahan met her husband at checkpoints with their newborn, Jordan Elizabeth, in tote.
While similar races required hefty support and endless preparation – both physically and mentally – Callahan didn’t see an end in sight.
Ultra running wasn’t the most lucrative sport, he said, but several sponsors made it easier to pursue. He belonged to the Vasque running team and was mostly supported in products from ProBar, First Endurance (sports nutrition), Vespa (natural amino acids) and Once Again Nut Butter.
In all, he estimated he could make $3,000-$4,000 a year running.
“It’s not a lot of money, but it is a pretty good percentage of my income, which is embarrassing to say, but it’s true,” Callahan said. “Essentially, it pays for itself. I have no expenses related to the sport.”
Now an online coach through his own website, strategicendurance.com, Callahan said he and his wife are trying to make their dreams work. A coffee shop manager on maternity leave, Annie helped organize a 5 k to fight human trafficking and planned to put on more races.
A few years ago, the two worked with professor Drum on an ultra-endurance experience camp, but they were unable to attract enough people.
“I certainly see a window right now to pursue what I’ve been pursuing, what we’ve been pursuing,” Callahan said. “But I’m not quite sure what the next move will be. Fitness and endurance will always be a gigantic part of our lives forever, that’s for sure.”
With the attention their month-old baby has received, she will likely be equally entwined in the sport.
“She’s going to be the most decked out kid,” Callahan said, laughing.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.