Maggie Callahan

Arizona athletics

Maggie Callahan has one goal this Saturday night at the TMC Meet Me Downtown 5K Race/Walk.

To win.

Well, a second goal: A course record, which would break her own, which she set in 2013 at 17 minutes 23 seconds.

Wait, a third goal: To keep this thing going.

The 2011 Pac-12 3,000-meter steeplechase champion is hoping to take home the $500 first-place prize at the event, part of a prize pool of over $4,000.

At some point, the 26-year-old Callahan will put her degree in family studies and psychology to use. She’ll probably attend grad school somewhere. She’ll get a job, a family, settle down.

Now, she runs. For herself, to see how fast she can go. Now, she bartends, for herself, to pay rent. Now, she trains, so that one day, if she gets good enough, maybe she won’t have to pay rent.

She recently finished third in the Bolder Boulder 10K, one of the biggest races of its kind in the country. She’s close.

Will she make it? The Star talked to Callahan:

Who or what gave you the motivation to pursue this kind of lofty goal?

A: “I would say my coaches at Arizona, James Li and Fred Harvey. I always felt — and they always encouraged me — that I could always run better. I didn’t feel I ran as fast as I was capable of in college. I improved my entire college career, and the last (Pac-10 meet), I won it, which was awesome, but I never felt like I ran as fast as I could. I want to feel like I get to that point before moving on to real life.”

So you’re gunning for the Olympic trials for 2016, but is there a deadline? If you still felt like you were improving and had a shot, 2020?

A: “If I still feel like I can get there, yes, I would go for it in 2020. Running is unique because it’s not a glory sport. Saying you made the NFL or the Arena League, that’s cool to say. Saying you’re a pro runner, it’s like, ‘Someone pays you to run?’ There’s not a lot of stardom. The nature of the sport is much more individual, so it’s totally me trying to prove something to myself and I’m not going to move on from this journey until I feel like I’m ready.”

There’s a vibe that it hasn’t always been this way for you, that you haven’t always been a star or the best, that you’ve had become accustomed to setting goals for yourself that might not seem attainable to everyone else …

A: “I have always set higher goals for myself than maybe seemed very reasonable to the people around me. I came to Arizona without the same kind of time that a lot of recruits had already run. It was a very good environment, good coaches, great atmosphere, and I got better every year, which made me push harder to see how good I could get. Coming out of high school in Alaska, our track season was very short so I never knew how good I could be.”

Coming from Alaska, I’d imagine it falls under two categories: You’re dying to get back and settle there, or you never want to go back again. Many people your age, they feel that pull to go back home, settle near their friends. Does maybe not making that life make it easier to commit to the professional runner’s life?

A: “I have no plans to move back, and you’re right, people either are dying to go back or are not going to, ever. I loved growing up there, it made me appreciate a lot of things moving to the lower 48 but I have two older brothers who’ve lived their whole lives there. I don’t think of going back to Fairbanks as a fallback plan, and I think that has helped me be willing to move to Boulder to keep training, to be a bartender, to keep training. I eventually want to go back to school, but I know I’m putting it off. … A lot of other friends have a career, a 9-5 and I can’t take weekend trips with them. I can’t go to happy hour at 5 p.m.”

Is that something you feel you need to do this, that support?

A: “I absolutely depend on having the support system. There are so many days when I have a bad workout, a bad race, a string of bad races, and I go, ‘What am I doing? Am I wasting my time?’ But I do have other people around me, who see these goals just as important as I see them … I’ve been in Boulder for two years — so many times, why did I move here, you’re not going to the Olympics, you’re not going to get a full-time sponsor, you’re too smart to be a bartender, but it always gets talked out or smoothed over and I feel rational again.”

Can one race bring you out of that funk? Can one race make it worth it again?

A: “One great race can totally change my mind and make me feel like I’m unstoppable. One great workout can make me feel that good. You’ll have these breakthrough workouts; two years ago never thought I could run this fast. That’s the kind of thing that keeps me training. A year ago, never thought I’d run what I’m running now, so I don’t want to put a limit on it.”

So many college athletes, it’s like if they’re not a first-round pick, their career is over at 22. That’s just not true with running  …

A: “For longer distances, marathon runners, women peak at early 30s. It does get a lot harder to get a sponsor, and not a lot of elite runners can live off sponsorships. It’s pretty common to get a gear deal or bonuses for time, but it’s not very easy to get a salary. Still, as I get older, smarter, more miles under my belt, I get better. And it’s not about the money. Talk to anyone who does this, and if offered the chance to go to the Olympics or make really good money, it’s the Olympics. Maybe it’s because you really can’t get rich off track and field that it has become the ultimate goal.”

Contact reporter Jon Gold at jgold@tucson.com or 573-4146. On Twitter: @TheCoolSub