Breakfast with Champions

Most masters runners have race buddies — those friends we see a few hours several times a year, whom we only know in running shorts or sweats, whose jobs we can’t describe and whose homes we’ve never visited.

Last spring, following a 3,000m race at Cerritos College in Southern California, I had breakfast at Peris Restaurant with four race buddies, all age-group American record-holders: Ken Ernst, Brian Pilcher, Nolan Shaheed and Rich Burns.

“You know what I hate?” I say, as we study the menus. “I hate when I eat a light lunch at work, and everybody says, ‘But you’re so thin, you can eat anything!’ No, I can’t. I’m thin because I diet and because I run 90 miles a week!”

“I eat like 2,000, 2,500 calories a day,” says Brian. “My wife says I’m like a high school girl because I’m always watching what I eat.”

“I definitely have a sweet tooth,” says Ken. “I’ll eat M&Ms, ice cream.”

“My wife bought us each a half gallon of vanilla ice cream,” says Rich. “Hers will last three or four days. Mine was gone in two meals.”

“I eat chicken or fish, any white meat,” says Nolan, who eats once daily and has tea for breakfast. “I eat vegetables, fruit and grains. And beans and oatmeal. I love oatmeal!”

While the rest of us order, Nolan asks Ken–who recently set the M50–54 5,000m record–what he ran in high school. Ken says 9:02 for 2 miles, which is the fastest high school PR at the table. Turns out, Nolan never ran the distance.

“Back then, there weren’t too many black guys running the 2-mile,” says Nolan. “Coaches didn’t think black guys could do anything past a quarter, maybe an 880 now and then.”

“Who’d like to see Jeremy Wariner move up to the 800?” says Ken.

“He was the top 400 meter runner in the world!” I say. “Why should he move up? Nobody asks that about other 400 runners.”

“Because he’s white,” says Nolan, suggesting it’s racial profiling.

I tell the story of doing mile repeats with James Sanford, then the world’s top sprinter, when we ran for USC in 1980. Sanford thought sprinters’ workouts were too easy, so he joined us distance guys for the day. Sanford told us the fastest guy he’d ever seen was a tall, red-haired, white kid who quit running in high school. Nolan says he remembers the kid, but it’s soon obvious we’re talking about different people. Anyway, Sanford ran 5 minutes for the first rep, then collapsed to the Exposition Park grass, exhausted.

“I do all my running on the track,” says Nolan, while the rest of us stuff our faces. “When I was injured, I couldn’t run faster than 7-minute pace. And then I raced, and I ran just as well. I found out I don’t have to run faster than 7-minute pace.”

“On morning runs, I go about 9-minute pace,” I say. “Afternoons, about 7:30 pace. When I go fast, I go fast. But I don’t go fast on distance runs.”

“On a good day, I run 8:30 pace,” says Rich. “Otherwise, maybe 8:45 to 9:00 pace.”

Read the rest of the story.


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