Theoden Janes

An Olympian and a chef want to change the way athletes eat

Chef Elyse Kopecky, left, and four-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan ran together for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Their first book, “Run Fast, Eat Slow,” was published in August.
Chef Elyse Kopecky, left, and four-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan ran together for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Their first book, “Run Fast, Eat Slow,” was published in August.

This is how Providence Day School alumna Elyse Kopecky celebrated the announcement in August that her first book had landed on the New York Times bestseller list:

She called her co-author – Shalane Flanagan, who she’s known since they were roommates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – and invited her to her Oregon home for a meal of Wild Salmon Sweet Potato Cakes with Avocado Cream, Don’t Get Beet Hummus, Kale-Radicchio Salad With Farro tossed with Lemon Miso Dressing and “a few” IPAs. (“We’re not champagne drinkers,” Kopecky said. “Shalane and I like our beer.”)

Then, the next morning, they went for a 12-mile run on the challenging South Sister Trail.

And all of this is absolutely fitting, considering the context: Kopecky, 34, is a chef and a nutrition coach; Portland resident Flanagan, 35, is a four-time Olympian widely regarded as the top marathon runner in the U.S.; and the book they wrote is a cookbook titled “Run Fast, Eat Slow.”

Each of those dishes they feasted on as they drank their craft beers? Straight out of their new bestseller.

On Aug. 14 – five days after “Run Fast, Eat Slow” hit bookstores – Shalane Flanagan crossed the finish line of the Olympic marathon in Rio as the top American with a time of 2 hours, 25 minutes, 26 seconds, good for sixth place.

On the surface, the target audience would seem to be limited to runners, but the book’s subtitle – “Nourishing Recipes for Athletes” – hints (accurately) that it has broader applications. For their 100-plus recipes, which Kopecky crafted and Flanagan road-tested, the duo shunned calorie counting and paid no mind to carb, protein or fat content; instead, they focused on unprocessed whole foods, fresh local produce, organic meat and healthy fats like nuts and seeds, butter, avocado, canola, olive and peanut oils.

This is a significant shift from the low-fat, low-carb approach they swore by (as did many other athletes in weight-obsessed sports) while teammates at Chapel Hill in the early 2000s. At the time, Kopecky had a condition called athletic amenorrhea, which causes loss of menstrual cycle and is commonly believed to be associated with low body fat.

Then, post-college, she moved to Switzerland and was exposed to foreign eating habits in more ways than one.

“My diet changed from low-fat yogurt to whole-milk yogurt,” Kopecky said, “and from processed, fake butter to real butter, and from veggie burgers to grass-fed ground beef. All these foods that we have learned to label in our country as unhealthy actually made me stronger and happier and healthier. I was able to – as soon as I changed my diet – overcome the athletic amenorrhea and go on to have a baby.”

Her daughter, Lily, is now 2.

“Her being born is what inspired me (to write the book),” she continued. “I really wanted to help other women and athletes who are suffering from also not getting enough good fats in their diet. Fat is amazing for cooking. It makes everything taste better. ... I want to show people that healthy food doesn’t have to be bland and boring, but it can be indulgent and healthy at the same time.”

Flanagan, meanwhile, went all-in on her friend’s philosophy by using pretty much every recipe in the book to fuel her training for her fourth Summer Olympic Games.

On Aug. 14 – five days after “Run Fast, Eat Slow” hit bookstores – she crossed the finish line of the marathon in Rio as the top American with a time of 2 hours, 25 minutes, 26 seconds, good for sixth place. That marked an improvement upon a 10th-place finish in London in 2012, and capped a 2016 season during which she put up a personal-career-best road-race times in the half-marathon and 10K, both in June, both while serving as Kopecky’s culinary guinea pig.

“The only way I can explain that I was able to do that is I think I was recovering better and just feeling healthier,” Flanagan said. “I was more excited to train because I was feeling better. ... Certainly I needed a change, because I was definitely feeling a burden with my diet. I wasn’t having fun fueling myself.”

There was a side benefit for Flanagan, too: “The greatest gift – beyond other things Elyse has given me – is the skill to get in the kitchen and to learn how to cook. ... I made sure I could handle all these recipes, and if I can handle them and I don’t have any training background ... anyone can.”

Flanagan, meanwhile, has helped Kopecky find her way back into running shoes, as the pair has made the national book-tour rounds.

A lot of times, we’ll be on a run and ... they’ll be coming at us from the opposite way, and they’ll realize like a split-second too late that they just ran past Shalane. Then they’ll stop and literally scream.

Elyse Kopecky

“When you’re on the road with Shalane, it’s impossible not to run a lot of miles,” said Kopecky, who famously capped her Providence Day cross country career in 1999 with a state title for the school’s late, legendary coach Gil Murdock.

It’s also nearly impossible to avoid star-struck runners.

“A lot of times, we’ll be on a run and ... they’ll be coming at us from the opposite way, and they’ll realize like a split-second too late that they just ran past Shalane. Then they’ll stop and literally scream.”

That book tour makes its way to Kopecky’s old hometown of Charlotte on Nov. 1 (see below), and Flanagan hinted that she might try to sneak out for a run at McAlpine Creek Park – on top of the for-fun 5K that she plans to lead with Kopecky in the afternoon.

It’ll be a sight for sore running-geeks’ eyes: One of the best marathon runners in the world, who this fall has a very different reason to knock back a glass of celebratory IPA, just out for a jaunt on the greenway.

“This book is by far my biggest accomplishment,” said Flanagan, who won a bronze medal at the Beijing Games in 2008 in the 10,000 meters. “Because it’s something that was challenging and out of my comfort zone. ... It’s not like Elyse and I went to school for English.”

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes

‘Run Fast. Eat Slow.’

The cookbook retails for $24.99 at bookstores, but can be found online for $15 on the Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million websites.

Authors Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky will be in Charlotte on Nov. 1 to promote the book during an event hosted by Providence Day School. The pair will lead a free 5K run – geared toward high school students – at McAlpine Creek Park (8711 Monroe Road) at 4:30 p.m., then there’ll be a talk, Q&A and book signing at Providence Day (5800 Sardis Road) starting at 6 p.m. The latter costs $30 and includes a copy of the book, with proceeds benefitting RunningWorks. To pre-register for the run or to purchase tickets: www.runfasteatslow.com/events.

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