Talking Running with Rochester Century Coach Paul Callahan

Coach Callahan embraces Seth Massot after his last high school XC race.

Photo courtesy of Paul Callahan


See that big smile from Coach Callahan up above? I've had the privilege to see that smile often over the years since Callahan was my high school track and cross country coach. Callahan is the head coach of the cross country program at Rochester Century High School where he has led the team to four state meets, two sections championships, and four Big Nine Championships since 2008. 

I had the privilege to catch up with Paul Callahan to talk about his history with running, how he got into coaching, his coaching experience, and his future with the sport. 

How did you first get your start with running?

It was my sophomore year in high school.  I did my first run in the summer of 1996 with the XC team for summer training. 4 miles.  I started out ahead of all of the other runners.  You can imagine how it finished 

What are some memories from your running experiences that still stick with you to this day?

That very first run, I will never forget.  The coach stayed with me for the last brutal mile and told me about all the things running would do for me in the future.  Most of them had little to do with competition and more to do with just being a healthier individually physically and mentally.

My first team runoff where the coaches said I would be a varsity runner.  I had only been running for 4 months.  It felt like I had found a talent

My first actual race.....I passed out at mile 2.  Didn't even finish it.

My first race at Luther in 1996.  I finished and ran a great race.

Eating large meals and making pasta feeds with the team before races.

Qualifying for state my Junior Year

Injuring my left foot during my junior year and coming back and running my best at the state meet.

Running off-season with my coach just for casual runs around Platteville.  We really didn't need to train to be motivated, we just loved to run together.

Going through the mental struggles and pressure my senior year.  I put a lot of expectations on myself to be the best.  And I remember doing my best at the state meet when I realized that the pressure was what was bogging me down.

Celebrating our season in the Wisconsin Dells after state as a team in 1999

What was your first coaching experience?

First year coaching was at Century High School with Charlie Burnham in 2007.  Charlie and I were college running mates. So, when I moved to Rochester, he asked if I would like to volunteer after I did not get the coaching job at JM.  He left the next year, and I became the head coach of the Century XC team in 2008 and was an assistance and co-head coach for track for many years with Coach Purrington until 2016

How long have you been the head coach at Century High School? 

I've complete 12 seasons as the head coach of Cross Country and was the Co-Head Coach for Track for 4 years.

Who are some people that influenced the way you coached and got you to where you are now today? 

My High School Coach at Platteville.  Rob Serres probably is my greatest inspiration.  Rightfully so, he is now a hall of fame track coach and continues to coach to this day.  Jeff Wettach was my College coach and a great influence on me. He has since retired from Luther's coaching program.  My co-coach Brian Purrington has been a major influence on me for the past decade, and Gary Lovelace continues to help me grow and develop now as an assistant coach. 

How have you seen yourself grow as a coach and as a person over the course of your coaching career?

Great question!  Like so many coaches, when I began, I used coaching (rather a bit selfishly) to validate my skills, drive, and dedication to the sport.  Simply put, when the team would achieve, then I felt like I was a successful coach, and the team's records, achievements, and victories were also mine.  We had a great goal starting in the early years of making it to state and it was a singular drive for a long time.  Then, once the team made it to state, the goal continued to be to make it to state every year.  In the years the team did not qualify, I took that on as a failure as a coach and projected that on to the team.  Now, after years of learning, the goal now is to truly support the athletes in their goals.  That way, if the athletes are working and taking steps towards their personal and team goals and motivation, then we really can't be unsuccessful.    We've tried to switch the philosophy from the only way to be successful is to be victorious as a team, to What as athletes are you looking to take from this and how can we support as coaches?  It's been an evolution towards more of an athlete-led motivation in the past few years.

How would you describe your leadership philosophy and style? 

Probably answered a lot of this above, but something that took me a few years of experience to realize is that the team's success and failures were not a result of the coach.  However, the team's reactions to setbacks and failures were a direct reflection of the coach.  Therefore, we put a lot of energy into teaching athletes to create their own goals and motivation, and philosophies, and then we have the tools to support those goals.

What do you like most about coaching?

I love seeing where the athletes go after high school.  I love knowing that because of some of our philosophies and culture we have developed that they have help all athletes in parts of their lives post-school.  We have been very fortunate at Century to have some very high-achieving athletes in both performance and academics.  We also have had an extremely highly achieving JV group that have gone on to do so many wonderful things outside of high school XC.  To see athletes succeed regardless of their rank and place in a race by simply improving on who they want to be is something that brings a tear to my eye each time I see an athlete cross a finish line.  Whether that be an actual line that says "Finish" or check off a goal they have wanted to complete. 

What have been some of the more memorable moments of your coaching career?

It's a funny thing to go back through 12 years of memories.  Of course, there are those section memories of 2012 when the team first went to state.  Those moments watching the team hoist their trophies of victory in the conference and seeing the teams and individuals compete at the state meet at another level.  Those are all very positive memories.

But what stands out more vividly is running some random workout with those state runners the first time.  The very first run with Graham Massot where we walked up the hill because his foot was hurting him.  That was his first XC practice experience, the snow fort building competition when a freak snowstorm blew in during October, the all-city race that was covered in mud. Watching Justus Olson run his first 13 mile run in practice knowing now that he is an ultra-marathon runner.  The pre-state meals at Olive Garden, the random backwoods run with Mark Hopper, Aaron Weckworth, Jason Stevens, and Jacob Goetz.  Jared Anderson climbing a tree at Rosement shaking the tree and yelling "run within yourself" to the athletes below. The yoga sessions and the relaxation sessions.  Watching Jack O'Hara finish his final race. Reed Kohlmeyer running on his broken foot and the entire team rallying around his effort. Watching ultimate frisbee games wondering when we would deal with a  concussion. And the goodbyes of our seniors at our last relaxation sessions.  Those, along with so many more, are very dear to me and I am so grateful that they have become pieces of who I am not only as a coach, but also as a father, husband, and person.

Paul Callahan and Paul Hale at the 2011 MSHSL State XC Meet at St. Olaf

Who are some of the more memorable athletes that you have had the pleasure to coach?

On man!  Can I say Ryan Kotajarvi? Of course, I would also say Justin Kotajarvi as well.  So lucky to have had both of you and it was a great honor to have Justin as a volunteer coach for a time as well.

There have been so many over the years that have become a part of me and hopefully, a little of the good things I could teach are still there for them.

My first year (when I did not know what I was doing) Dan Testa, Matt Bower, Andrew Weckworth, Josh Wold, really were quite receptive to me as a coach. I will always be grateful to them.

Then came Mark Hopper, Jason Stevens, Aaron Weckworth and they really showed me how to have fun.

Of course, I had some very talented individuals achieve at high levels as well. Nathan Larson, the first was the first athlete who went to state with me as a coach.  Then came Paul Hale, Sam Nelson, Antonio Judson who were all such talented and fun runners to figure out.

Sam Schroeder will always stand out for his grit and determination.  Like Kyle Philpott, those two overcame a lot of injuries to achieve at high levels.

Jack O'Hara will always stand out as an individual who went the distance.  I remember my first run with him and I remember his last race as a captain.......

This last group of athletes in 2020:  Seth Hill, Jason Dong, Ryan Horton, Carter Poncelet, Silas Green, Cardon Leske, Carter Jack, Hunter Krizan really were the right individual to weather this major change in sports during a pandemic and Seth winning the section meet outright was pretty amazing.

The Larsons. Josh for his efforts of improvement on the team to get the team to state and Ben for bringing the team back to state in 2019. 

Eric Welch, who stepped up and changed the philosophies of our team and got us moving into a new way of thinking that led to the team's success in 2019

But I really can't forget the Massot brothers.  Graham and Seth Massot were something that the team and the sport needed at the right time.  They challenged me to be a better coach and were two of my greatest influences for 8 years of my career. Much of my coaching philosophy was tempered through my learning with both of them.

I know I am missing so many but I am guessing you may have enough 

Tell me about some of the teams you've coached and how you coached them. 

Each team, each year is different but no less memorable.  Of course, I always remember the teams like the 2012 team that qualified for state, and the 2014, 2015 teams that made noise at the state meet as well as the 2019 and 2020 teams that also qualified.  Getting to the state meet is a common goal, but I also remember the 2011 team that set up the state meet.  I remember the 2013 team where Sam Schroeder came back to give the team a shot at the state title as well as the 2016 team who gave their all at conference.  I remember the first team I coached as the philosophy was markedly different, but no less adventurous, than the teams now.  The teams that stand out most in my mind are the ones that come to me with their plans and goals.  That makes it so much easier to accomplish as a coach.

What do you think you and your team might have to do to take the next step towards competing for state titles?

Great question.  We should ask the team what they would like to do!  If this is something that the team would like to go for, then we as coaches, have the tools.  We have the summer logs, summer, and winter training recommendations, weight training, fitness routines, strength building, and even a diet schedule to fuel the body.  We have training methods from some of the best coaches in the state.  But in the end, it always comes down to what do the leaders of the team want to do, how receptive the rest of the team is to the ideals, and how willing they are to put in the prescribed work from us as coaches that determine the eventual success of the season.

What are some future goals you'd like for your team to accomplish? 

To continue to become more comfortable with being honest with us as coaches and to continue to improve communication with want they want to achieve and how they want to go about it.  Then, we as coaches can continue to cater to the diverse needs of all of our runner's goals.  The more intrinsically motivated the athletes are, the more time we as coaches can spend time catering to individual needs. So, leadership from the captains and similar goals from all of the experienced runners is key to success at the next level for us.


Check out other articles related to Rochester Century below: