March 25, 2023 5 min read 12 Comments
Nolan at the front of the pack. He is not only leading, but inspiring. Photo courtesy Rob Jerome.
“I don't know what you're doing because you should be dead by now. But you're not dead, so just continue doing whatever you're doing because it's keeping you alive.” ___a doctor to Nolan Shaheed.
By Ray Glier
What Nolan Shaheed is doing is running.
Shaheed, 73, has blood clots in his lungs and cancer on the back of his tongue. You can see the damaged lymph nodes as bumps on the left side of his neck. Nolan spent three months in Mexico for alternative treatment. That’s helping keep him alive and causing him to not deteriorate quickly.
But it's the running, too, and the absolute refusal to lay down. It's the cooperative effort of body and mind.
On March 11, a little before 1 p.m. ET, Shaheed was at the USA Track & Field Masters Indoors Championships in Louisville winning the 1,500 in M70-74 with a thrilling come-from-behind victory. It was a win for the So Cal Track Club, but mostly a win for himself....and others who persevere.
It was one of the most thrilling races I have ever watched, and made more thrilling by Nolan’s back story of illness. He ran 5:32.62 to edge Spider Rossiter, who went 5:34.08.
The next day, Shaheed won the 800 in 2:40.34 beating second-place Richard Hower, who went 2:43.54.
“I decided I'm not gonna sit down and wait for cancer to come and get me and take me out,” Nolan said. “I'm going to do everything that I had always been doing. I'm not going to change my lifestyle.
“So I said I'm gonna keep on running. I'm gonna keep on playing the trumpet. I'm gonna keep on teaching and I'm gonna keep on coaching. I'm going to just do my life the way that it should be done.”
Shaheed has some legendary status in Masters track. Since he turned 60 years old in 2010, Nolan has been ranked No. 1 in the U.S. at the end of a season, indoors and outdoors, 44 times in the 800, 1500, or mile, according to mastersrankings.com.
The site www.mastersrankings.com has these details: Nolan has set 12 World Masters Athletics meet records and 34 U.S. records. He has been a champion in 60 USATF events and Athlete of The Year five times.
Shaheed, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., still holds world records in the 800 and 1500 for M60.
A year ago, he said, he didn’t feel so dominant. Shaheed didn’t just lose a race, he finished third. He thought he had Covid because he was dizzy and struggled for full air. His heart rate was elevated.
“I'm not used to finishing third,” said a mild-mannered man with a fiercely competitive streak.
A nurse told him to go to an ER, which is where Nolan was told he had blood clots in his lungs. Then came the cancer news.
Rather than thinking “Everything is going to hell in a hand basket”, Nolan turned ninja and cyborg rolled into one.
“I’m not doing this,” he said, which meant he wasn't wallowing then surrendering.
“Most times when a doctor says you've got blood clots in your lungs, people stop doing everything. I had the blood clots for a while, but I kept on running. I wasn’t stopping.”
To get a full measure of Shaheed just know he is a world-class trumpet player…and he has had blood clots in his lungs.
In the Louisville 1500 meters, a race for a national championship, Rossiter was out fast and built a significant lead. There was a moment where Shaheed lost eye contact with Rossiter, and Nolan thought he might not catch him.
Shaheed told Spider after the race, “I didn’t think I was going to get you because you were out and you’re Spider Rossiter. Anybody else, I would have said, ‘I’ve got a chance’. But it was you and I just said ‘I’m not going to win this’.”
But Nolan saw Rossiter on a straightaway on lap 3 and something had changed. Instead of the rhythm in his hips running, Nolan said Spider’s hip movement was more uneven.
“I got a chance,” he said to himself.
The stadium crowd turned toward the track as Shaheed made his charge. The public address announcer didn’t help Nolan's cause by bellowing, “And Nolan Shaheed…"
“I was trying to sneak up on Spider and I said ‘Don’t tell him where I am’,” Shaheed said about the race call from PA.
They came out of the last turn and Nolan ran down Spider with 50 meters to go.
“Are you making up this thing about being sick,” Spider said with a laugh when they met up after the race, “because that was ridiculous. I was laughing the last 50 meters because, well, it was just…when I call my brother in England and tell him I got beat by Nolan he’ll say ‘Yeah, so'.”
What else is new? To his credit, Rossiter ran with a sore leg he was still nursing after the race. Spider was positively gracious after the race. “I’m so proud of you,” he told Shaheed.
Shaheed felt fortunate to win. “I should have run 30 seconds faster,” he said. “I’m way off.”
Yet, he runs. He says he runs for his mother and father. To hear him tell it, Nolan comes from royalty.
“My mom was a very strong woman and my dad was the greatest man I've ever known,” Nolan said. “The best parents. I just lucked up.”
His father, Nolan Smith, was born in 1919, the same year as Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Nolan, Sr., and Jack grew up on the same street (Pepper) in Pasadena and, for a short time, went to an all-Black college in Austin, Texas. Jackie moved home and attended junior college and UCLA before his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Nolan, Jr., was also born on Pepper Street. He received a Chemistry degree and became a history teacher. Go figure. He developed a discipline around food, eating once a day, or every other day.Then he became a star in Masters track.
He’s still a star in Masters track, no matter the diagnosis. As the saying goes, "What the mind believes the body embraces."
“Is it (cancer) going to overtake me? No,” Nolan said. “If it does, I’m going to give it a hell of a fight.”
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