Nolan Shaheed
Conducted 12.16.06 and 1.4.07
by Dan Empfield

This is a portal read overwhelmingly by triathletes who, by definition, swim bike and run. It's reasonable to expect that those interviewed here intersect with all three events.

But one virtue of the typical triathlete is his ability to appreciate superb performances in one of triathlon's constituent legs. So much the better if the athlete excels as a late-blooming age-grouper. We present one here, whose most significant times were and are achieved in what we sometimes call the grandmaster category. Nolan Shaheed is 57 years old.

He has a day job, and he's a masters runner for fun. But he's not got the typical day job, and he's not the typical runner. The nature of his profession unfolds in the interview below. Slowtwitch readers with a running background will appreciate his stats as a specialist in triathlon's last event.

Nolan Shaheed holds the world record in the 800 meters for those 50 years and older. It is 1:58.65. He also holds the world record in the mile for those who've lived at least a half-century, officially at 4:27.9, and is credited with a yet faster 50+ time by USA Track & Field (4:25.04). Also in the 50+ division he holds American records indoor in the mile (4:26.75) and in the 3000 meters (8:54.73).

In the 55+ division, he holds a variety of American records, including the outdoor 800m (2:03.8) and 1500m (4:20.76), and indoor in the mile (4:42.89) and 3000m (9:30.09). Those are the records we know of.

Most men are athletic superannuates by the time they reach Shaheed's age -- too old to exhibit footspeed. The unique eyebrow-raising athletic grandmaster is generally found racing ultradistance, not middle distance. Nolan Shaheed is a throwback. He ran times in his early fifties that would win most high school league finals, and still runs times that would win most high school dual meets. How does he do it?

SLOWTWITCH: You've been a musician longer than you've been a runner.

NOLAN SHAHEED: Yes, that's true.

ST: Above and beyond what I read in your bio, what is there to know about your early years?

NS: I'm a trumpet player of course. I'm basically a studio musician, I've been one since 1975.

ST: Does that mean if I'm cutting an R&B album, or jazz, even a pop song against an orchestral backdrop, I call you and you can play any of it?

NS: Yeah, I'll play on movie soundtracks, TV commercials, a lot of albums -- a lot of albums -- but I prefer jazz, because it's the most difficult.

ST: Is that the key to Nolan Shaheed? You're inspired by challenge?

NS: Exactly.

ST: How long have you lived in Pasadena [California]?

NS: I was born and raised here.

ST: I would guess that means Muir high school. Were you on the track team?

NS: Yes, the 1966 John Muir high school track team is considered one of the best of all time. Our pole vaulter was Paul Hegler, the then high school national record holder at 16'2", Jerry Proctor who long jumpted 26', and a 100-yard sprinter named Harold Busby, who ran 9.3 or 9.4. And there were others. We were deep.

ST: Where did Nolan Shaheed figure on that team?

NS: I was on the track team, but this is where the trumpet came in. My grades had dropped and my parents wouldn't let me race. I was so disappointed. But my trumpet teacher -- this was in 1966, when I was a junior -- my teacher said the more you run, the better you play.

ST: That sounds like a conundrum, your trumpet teacher saying you ought to run, but your parents are saying you can't. How did you resolve that?

NS: I didn't run with the team. But I kept running. I ran on my own. Sure enough, my trumpet playing improved.

ST: What was notable between those high school years and your emergence as a top masters runner?

NS: I got serious about running after college and the army. I started entering 10Ks. This was in my 20s. After my third 10K I started winning. Again, my trumpet playing got better, and also my running got better. I got hooked.

ST: But I don't notice you in race results until you were in your late 40s. It doesn't pop up in music or in running.

NS: I ran as a sub-master. My name at that time was Nolan Smith. I didn't change my name to Shaheed until I was in my 40s. I performed on a lot of records: Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Count Basie, hundreds of records, maybe 50 or 60 gold or platinum records, but it was as Nolan A. Smith, Jr.

ST: How come when I go to your website, I see Nolan Shaheed the musician, but not the runner?

NS: [Laughs] I need to put something about running on there. More people know me in music than in running. There's a great camaraderie among runners, which I share, but the runners don't know about my music, and the music world doesn't know about my running. I really need to put something about running on my website.

ST: Is it odd that you live this double life, where there is such a disconnect?

NS: But no, they're very connected. Being a studio musician, you start missing a note, you're not going to get called back. You've got to be able to play country, classical, whatever is asked for, and there's always somebody willing to take your place. Likewise, I want to run well at the 800 meters, and also at 5000 meters. They're very connected. I have to practice 4 hours on the horn every day to keep my chops up. I have to run 2 hours a day to keep my running chops up.

ST: Your 50+ world record is 1:58 and change. Is that also your PR?

NS: No, not by a long shot. As a 45 year old, I ran several 1:53s, and ran a national record in 800 meters as 45 year old, and I think I had it indoors as a 40 year old, as well as the indoor 40-plus 1500 meters.

ST: As a 50 year old, how does it feel to run 1:58? Maybe that's a funny question, because you've run quite a bit faster, but it's not a funny question to most 50+ athletes, because most of them would think they'd rip every bit of connective tissue from the waist down if they tried to run sub-60-second pace.

NS: I think the reason why is that most 50-plus athletes think of that pace relative to how other 50-plus runners run. When I ran under 2-minutes as a 50-plus runner I was actually finishing in the middle of the field. I was not that happy about the race, and didn't know it was a record, and didn't think of it in those terms.

ST: About your training: What's typical in-season for you?

NS: I take a month completely off every year. That's in about July. Then I start by going long and slow. I'll run 4 miles a day, and then [the following month] 5 a day, every day, and then 6. But I take one day off each week. It progresses up from there. As of now [December], I'm running 10 miles a day. I'll finish this long, slow period when I reach 12 miles a day.

ST: That's 72 miles a week. That's big mileage, Nolan, for almost any runner.

NS: Yes, but the key is that I do it slowly. When I do it fast I don't go fast in races. I run 7-minute pace, which is relaxing and enjoyable.

ST: Do you do this on trails? On roads?

NS: As I get older I have to take care of my knees. I can't run trails much, I seem to keep turning my ankles. I typically run on the track.

ST: Then when happens after the long slow period?

I start running long intervals. Repeat miles. But then I drop the rest of my mileage. I might run 3 repeat miles, or maybe 4, depending. If it's a good year I'll start with 4, if it's not I'll start with 3. I'll run them at 5-minute pace, with 3 minutes in between. I'll eventually work up to 6 or 7 of these in a session. But on the day after I might only run 4 miles slow, depending on how I'm feeling. And on the day after that I might run 8.

ST: And this is the only speed session you'll run?

NS: Yes, but I'll start to jump in some road races. 5k and 10k.

ST: What happens after the repeat miles?

NS: I'll then go to half-miles, maybe 1000 yards. I'll see if there are any interesting indoor meets on the schedule, this is February and March.

ST: Indoor meets, that means middle distance. You'll start running these races without running race pace in your training? You don't run faster than race pace prior to racing on the track?

NS: No. It's strange, I get into an all-comers meet and I'll realize I haven't run sub-60-second pace in 5 months. But I don't seem to miss it.

ST: When I look at the master's records, I see that you tend to have them in the middle distances., 800 meters, 1500 meters, maybe 3000 meters, but I don't see you as often in 5000 or 10,000 meters. With all that mileage you do in the early season, it seems you ought to be able to get those records as well. Do you think you can get the 5000 meters?

NS: I think I can get it when I put my mind to it. Maybe this year. But I don't primarily run for that reason. I run because its fun.

ST: One final question. As you might know, Henry Rono turns 55 this February, and he well knows who you are, and what records you hold. He says he intends to get those records of yours. How do you feel about Henry Rono chasing your world records, when so many others used to chase his?

NS: Henry is a hero to me. I'm a big fan. He held three world records simultaneously, the 5000, the 10,000, and the steeplechase. I'm honored that he would take interest in my world. And, I've raced him twice before. I'd be honored to race him again. But I'd also be honored to kick his butt. [Laughs] In all seriousness, I'm a big fan and, yes, I would love to race with him.